Bring Movie Magic to Your Accounting Classroom

The principles of filmmaking can help you reach students raised on visual media.

July 19, 2016

For many years, I have been playing films in my courses. I’ve experienced firsthand the palpable impact that they can have on my students. That’s one reason I became a filmmaker who creates documentaries on fraud and other accounting topics.

In 2012, I was accepted into Diverse Voices in Docs (DVID), a documentary-producing fellowship. During the fellowship, I began my in-process documentary All the Queen’s Horses, which tells the story of the largest municipal fraud in U.S. history.

Along the way, I found that filmmaking and teaching have a lot in common: Both involve presenting material to an audience in a manner that’s hopefully both entertaining and informative. While working on All the Queen’s Horses, I learned many filmmaking techniques that I found I could incorporate into my classes to improve engagement. Here are a few things filmmaking has taught me about teaching accounting:

1. Change the shot every 10 seconds.

When my film team works in the editing suite, we often talk about the length of time a viewer should watch the same image on screen without there being a change. It’s been said that the average attention span of the human brain in 2015 is 8.25 seconds. That statistic caused me to think about my students’ attention span and how static I was in the classroom. After videotaping myself teaching several times, I noticed that I tended to stay glued behind a computer, lectern, or table. Now that I’m more cognizant that my students might be zoning out after listening to about 10 seconds of my voice, I make sure that I move around the classroom much more frequently.

After I stopped staying in one place, I noticed that students spoke up more, made more eye contact, and tended to engage in classroom discussion rather than just staring back at me. By moving around the classroom frequently, and sometimes even sitting in desks or chairs next to students, I “changed the shot” they were viewing, so to speak, which improved engagement.

2. Never use text as images. Only use images.

Imagery is far more powerful than text. Showing an image of an embezzler walking out of the courthouse creates a much more enduring effect than describing the image in words. After learning more about filmmaking, I stopped using text-heavy PowerPoint slides in my accounting courses. Now, my slides mainly consist of powerful images that connect to theoretical concepts. I’ll use an image of a Beyoncé concert, for example, to start a discussion about the production costs associated with her Formation World Tour.

Images cause students to think and verbalize their thoughts in a way that text-heavy presentation slides could never do. Also, when they see an image that they can immediately relate to, that sparks discussion in and of itself.

3. Teaching is about storytelling.

We all love a good story, and numbers tell stories. I now start and end my class with a story, and the students love it. I often use stories from my All the Queen’s Horses interviews or other fraud interviews I’ve conducted with white-collar felons. Using stories that I have a personal connection to increases engagement.

Last fall, I used clips of All the Queen’s Horses to spark a 10-campus Ethics Town Hall tour. More than 1,500 students came out to hear more about the film and learn about accounting and auditing through the story the movie tells.

4. A course description is your movie trailer.

We watch a movie trailer to decide if we want to invest the time and the money to see a film. Students do the same thing when they read course descriptions.

I don’t want students to only get their information about my class from, so I am now more deliberate about how I market the learning experience. Instead of recycling course descriptions from past years, I take more time to describe the learning experience the student will have if they pick my course. I use words such as “interactive,” “class field trips,” “movie screenings,” “role playing,” and even “baking” (I use the Cookie Project in my managerial accounting class) to describe the learning experience as opposed to simply describing the topic of study. Now, students say to me, “I was excited about this course after I read about it.”

5. Emotionally appeal to your audience.

Films explore societal issues while appealing strongly to the emotions, and college courses can do the same thing. I want to appeal to my students. I want them to want to be CPAs and be active members in the accounting profession. I do so by bringing my experiences interviewing white-collar offenders into the classroom to teach the importance of concepts such as the audit function in fraud discovery, professional skepticism, and whistleblowing. Students are then able to see the important role accountants play in the business community, and this increases emotional engagement with the profession. 

Although I am an educator at heart, filmmaking has forever changed my teaching methodology. Forcing myself to learn a discipline far removed from accounting education has actually helped me become a better educator.

Now it’s lights, camera, action!

DVID is operated by Kartemquin Films, a Chicago-based not-for-profit documentary collective that has been deepening worldwide audiences’ understanding of society for five decades, and Community Film Workshop, a South Side Chicago filmmaker training center that has supported the development of digital media artists in underserved and under-represented communities for 45 years.

Kelly Richmond Pope, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., is an associate professor of accounting at DePaul University in Chicago.

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