Get Students Hooked on Accounting

Holding students’ interest during introductory classes.

August 9, 2016

Like many students pursuing business in college, Kelley Latshaw of Stow, Ohio, knew she would have to take an introductory accounting class. She braced herself: In her previous career as a freelance musician, she had no exposure to accounting and had never even filed taxes by herself.

“I expected it to be boring and tedious, but I enrolled anyway because only a few courses at the university had openings,” Latshaw said.

She was surprised. The class was exciting, the professor was enthusiastic, and the material had real-life applications she never expected.

“My other business classes didn’t excite me like accounting. About six weeks into the semester, I talked to an adviser about how to start my degree,” said Latshaw, who earned her master’s degree in accounting in May and will soon take the CPA exam.

A student’s first impression of accounting can make or break his or her decision to pursue a degree or career in accounting. But, often, students get the wrong impression. The material they need to master is detailed and challenging, and classes can be large. Historically, these introductory courses have many students drop out, fail, or withdraw after a few weeks.

That’s one reason professors who teach introductory courses have to continue to evolve, said Wendy Tietz, Ph.D., CPA, CGMA, the Kent State University professor who captured Latshaw’s interest. Faculty should consider new ways to use technology and social media, and find simulations and real-world examples that help students see the relevance of these skills, she says.

“You have to connect everything you can in the introductory accounting course with real life. And not just any real-life stories,” Tietz said. “They should be stories about how accounting relates to the products and services familiar to college students, ones that they might routinely enjoy and value.”

Tietz and other faculty members share the following suggestions for igniting students’ interest in accounting:

Make accounting tangible. “Many students do not have a lot of experience with business and it is hard to make the leap from what they know to the abstract concepts” found in accounting, Tietz said.

Therefore, at every turn, Tietz has her eyes peeled for everyday examples of accounting in action that she can share with her students. Her Instagram account (@drtietz), which she encourages students to follow, is filled with examples of how, for instance, the store where she bought some chips would profit by the transaction. She’s also broken down the capital and operating expenditures of the custom Domino’s Pizza delivery car that carries up to 80 pizzas in its warming ovens. (College students have a universal love of pizza delivery.)

Ming Lu, CPA, an associate professor in accounting at Santa Monica College, suggests using millennials’ entrepreneurial nature to pique their interest in accounting. “Some students want to start their own companies,” he said. “Show them how managerial accounting helps students make better decisions in regard to controlling company costs.” He also recommends demonstrating how learning financial accounting can help students create and understand financial statements, which will help them become “wiser investors,” he said.

Make discriminating use of technology. In-class technological tools can promote active listening, especially in large classes. Christopher McKittrick, CPA, CGMA, a lecturer in the department of accounting at N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C., teaches classes in managerial and financial accounting to students who mostly are non-accounting majors.

“You have to use some technology when you have 300 students sitting in a large auditorium for 75 minutes,” McKittrick said. “We use a polling app, and they’ve got to be paying attention, because there could be a question coming up.”

While many universities subscribe to campuswide programs for classroom polling such as Poll Everywhere, there are also free apps educators recommend for keeping students engaged. Many require little infrastructure. Students can simply download the apps to their mobile devices to participate.

Use role-playing to connect accounting to careers. In one of McKittrick’s introductory classes, he holds a mock meeting of department heads at a gaming company, where they discuss such concepts as fixed and variable costs, contribution margins, and the break-even point.

Students don’t know ahead of time whether they’ll be chosen for the demonstration, so they must prepare to represent production, sales, or other areas of the company—and they’d better have answers for the CEO.

“They have to think on their feet,” McKittrick said. “The idea is to get the concept across that accounting is the language of business. It doesn’t matter what their major is or what their future career may be—it usually all comes back to the numbers.” An engineer, he points out, “might be responsible for project costs,” whereas IT professionals “have got to be able to control expenses and analyze the return on expenditures.”

Highlight the role of accounting in real jobs. Lu emphasizes the flexibility of the accounting major to his students who are deciding whether to major in business or accounting. “I always tell students, if you are an accounting major, you can always get a job doing business work,” he noted. “However, if you are a business major, it may be difficult for you to get a job doing accounting work.”

Sara Marentek, an undergraduate student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, recently changed her major to accounting because faculty showed her how versatile it was. “My professors showed us real-life examples of how retailers use accounting, how banks use it, or any type of business does,” she said.

Hearing about the promising job market for accountants was also a factor in her decision, Marentek said. As a professor told her, “in all his years of teaching, he has never had a student who came back and said they couldn’t find a job,” she said. “They’re always hiring accountants.”

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this story, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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