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Accounting Education
ISSN: 0963-9284 (Print) 1468-4489 (Online) Journal homepage:
Students’ perceptions of their first accounting
class: implications for instructors
Jean Ingersoll Abbott & Barry R. Palatnik
To cite this article: Jean Ingersoll Abbott & Barry R. Palatnik (2017): Students’ perceptions
of their first accounting class: implications for instructors, Accounting Education, DOI:
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Published online: 05 Oct 2017.
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Date: 25 October 2017, At: 07:05
Students’ perceptions of their first accounting class:
implications for instructors
Jean Ingersoll Abbott and Barry R. Palatnik
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Stockton University, Galloway, NJ, USA
The purpose of this action research study is to learn directly from
undergraduate students, through focus groups, about their
experiences in their first accounting class, especially about the
students’ knowledge and practice of critical thinking and about
which classroom experiences engaged their attention and
enhanced learning. The findings show that students want to
understand how the first accounting course connects to the
business world and to their other classes. Participants were unsure
about when and how they practiced critical thinking; for
improved learning outcomes, instructors need to keep critical
thinking front and center. Students also need instruction in how
to study accounting and how to utilize effectively the resources
provided in their textbooks and as supplemental tools (e.g.
integrated accounting software). Accounting professors must
adapt their teaching methods to help students to meet
professional demands, such as critical thinking skills and ability to
handle a complex global business environment.
Received 2 September 2016
Revised 30 July 2017
Accepted 7 August 2017
Accounting education;
accounting faculty; critical
thinking; first-year
accounting students;
perceptions of accounting
The role of accounting professionals is pivotal for businesses, government, and the general
economic well-being of society. Recognizing the importance of its role, the accounting
profession has addressed the need for better educational preparation of its members
(Black, 2012; Pathways Commission, 2012). Academic and popular literature is replete
with research documenting the need to develop critical thinking skills in accounting students, as well as business students in general, and employers continue to make known the
need for more critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills in accounting
and business graduates (Jackling & De Lange, 2009; Kavanagh & Drennan, 2008).
Accounting academics must adapt their approach accordingly, facilitating their students’
learning in order to meet these demands and prepare students to handle the complex
global business environment (Bonner, 2012).
The purpose of this action research study is to learn directly from undergraduate students, through focus groups, about their experiences in their first accounting class (in this
case, a Financial Accounting class) relative to
their knowledge and practice of critical thinking, and
CONTACT Barry R. Palatnik
[email protected]
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
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classroom experiences that engaged their attention and enhanced their learning.
The impetus for this action research study was our desire to improve learning outcomes
in our own Financial Accounting classes. Faculty can operationalize action research by
systematically changing teaching methods and then reflecting immediately upon the
results (Paisey & Paisey, 2005). The importance of the first accounting class cannot be
overemphasized. It will serve as the basis of students’ foundation in accounting and, for
many students, their introduction to the general business curriculum (Spiceland, Spiceland, & Schaeffer, 2015). The Pathways Commission on Accounting Higher Education,
in its 2012 report on accounting education, highlighted the significance of the first
accounting class.
In fall 2015, we performed an assessment of learning, part of our university’s regular,
on-going assessment and continuous improvement program, in our Financial Accounting
classes. The assessment instrument was a 25-question multiple-choice test administered in
the last few weeks of the semester. Its results provided a quantitative expression of what
students had learned and highlighted areas that needed improvement. To complement
what we learned from the test results and to better understand what we could do to
improve learning outcomes in Financial Accounting, we decided to embark on a qualitative study to obtain our undergraduate students’ perspectives on their experiences in their
recently completed Financial Accounting class. Qualitative research design is the preferred
research method for creating a dialectic process between emerging questions and the
research participants (Creswell, 2009). This qualitative study was conducted during the
spring 2016 semester in a specific university context and the findings may not be generalizable; however, the research design can be easily replicated at universities across the
United States and abroad.
This paper contributes to the existing research on accounting pedagogy by modeling an
action research design that can be used to improve accounting education. Paisey and
Paisey (2005) recommend the use of action research in accounting education and note
that action research, through its focus on a specific relevant issue, helps a teacher or a
program methodically to examine and improve their own practice. In this way, action
research can be expected to help programs to fulfill accreditation standards requiring continuous improvement in learning outcomes and innovation. A qualitative research
approach was used to provide an in-depth understanding of how undergraduate students
experience their first accounting course. Gay, Mills, and Airasian (2009) state that ‘[t]he
central focus of qualitative research is to provide an understanding of a social setting or
activity as viewed from the perspective of the research participants’ (p. 14). However,
there has been little research on how students experience their first accounting classes;
this paper begins to fill that gap in the literature.
Literature review
Recent efforts to advance accounting education
Research shows that employers want accounting graduates to understand the interdisciplinary nature of business and to be able to research business and accounting issues,
problem-solve, make decisions, practice teamwork and leadership, communicate
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effectively, behave ethically, and have strong interpersonal skills, professional demeanor,
and real-world experience (Camp & Schnader, 2010; Jackling & De Lange, 2009; Kavanagh
& Drennan, 2008). Expecting students to develop all these disparate skills concurrently is a
tall order, but much of what employers expect can be summed up as ‘the ability to think
critically in a broad range of situations’. Accounting instructors face the challenge of
meeting employer expectations while maintaining student engagement; faculty
members who fail to adequately foster critical thinking do not give their students the
skill set needed to deal with the complexities of real-life business problems (Page &
Mukherjee, 2007; Snyder & Snyder, 2008).
As early as 1989, the eight largest CPA firms existing at that time entered into a partnership with the American Accounting Association (AAA), the largest professional organization of accounting academics, to create the Accounting Education Change Commission
(AECC). The AECC’s objectives were to provide leadership to change accounting education in order to make it responsive to the needs of those entering a variety of career
paths and also to address the needs of principal stakeholders (e.g. business, government,
and the public) in terms of the training and expertise of the accounting professionals
(Doney & Lephardt, 1993; Williams, 1993).
Williams (1993) discussed the fact that accounting courses have traditionally been
taught in silos, without much effort to make any connection between and among
courses and their content. For example, managerial accounting courses generally failed
to connect key concepts found in financial accounting to the detailed information required
by managers in decision-making roles. Williams also discussed the ‘one right answer’ syndrome that endorses a narrow focus on just getting the answer and limits critical thinking
about and exploration of the broader implications of a problem or question (para. 7).
Despite the early efforts of the AECC, there remains a need for change and improvement in accounting education (Black, 2012; Bonner, 2012; Madsen, 2015). In 2008, the
US Department of Treasury Advisory Committee on the Auditing Profession advocated
the creation of a commission to address auditing and accounting education. This led to
the formation of the Pathways Commission, a joint effort between the AAA and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the largest professional organization of accountants. The Pathways Commission report titled ‘The Pathways Commission
on Accounting Higher Education: Charting a National Strategy for the Next Generation of
Accountants’ (henceforth, the Pathways Report), issued in 2012, was the result of 18
months of study by a team of accounting educators and practitioners, and provides recommendations for the advancement and improvement of accounting education (Pathways Commission, 2012). The Pathways Report addresses curriculum and advocates
developing ‘curriculum models’ and ‘engaging learning resources’ (Pathways Commission,
2012, p. 12). Additionally, the Pathways Report identifies the impatience that today’s students have with traditional teaching methods and the students’ familiarity with technology
(Pathways Commission, 2012).
Also providing pedagogical guidance is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools
of Business (AACSB). The AACSB recognizes the need for business education to align
with the dynamic business world and thus its accreditation standards support the practice
of continuous improvement. For example, AACSB Standard A1 requires a clear focus on
continuous improvement within the entire academic program. AACSB Standard A5 has
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two critical areas, teaching and learning, both of which must be measurable and align with
the academic program’s mission (AACSB, 2016).
The activities of the AECC, the Pathways Commission, and AACSB have prompted
moves by higher education institutes and accounting faculty to reevaluate the accounting
curriculum. The overall trend has been an increased emphasis on understanding business
transactions, not just debits and credits (Chiang, Nouri, & Samanta, 2014). Authors and
textbook publishers have also started to focus on first-year accounting courses, especially
on digital content for them. For example, adaptive learning technology adjusts automatically to how well and what students are learning, and major educational publishers such as
McGraw-Hill Education, Pearson Education, and John Wiley & Sons have invested in
adaptive learning technology for accounting students (Riddell, 2013).
Faculty has also investigated ways to advance accounting education. For example,
Dowling, Godfrey, and Gyles (2003) compared two different teaching models to determine which provided more optimal learning outcomes: a flexible hybrid delivery model
and the traditional face-to-face classroom lecture model. The results showed higher
student performance with the flexible hybrid delivery model. The results suggested
that students seemed to take ownership in their own learning under a combination of
technology-driven activities and faculty-led discussions. Other studies have found
deep leaning when students experienced interesting and challenging exercises. They
also found that teamwork, strong student–faculty relationships, and faculty instruction
added to this deeper learning. The results that showed students who experienced deeper
learning in their initial accounting class continued to be successful in future accounting
classes (McBride, Hannon, & Burns, 2005; Mladenovic, 2000; Turner & Baskerville,
The importance of the first accounting course
The Pathways Report recognizes the important and multifaceted role that accounting
courses play in the college curriculum, paying particular attention to the importance of
the first (introductory) accounting courses for students aspiring to accounting careers
and those who will be the users of accounting information (Pathways Commission, 2012).
Accounting courses are the gateway to a business or accounting career. Accounting curricula
and pedagogies can inspire students along their educational pathway to the accounting profession or to becoming informed accounting-information consumers. How and what students learn in our accounting programs and the manner in which they are taught have a
profound impact on the kinds of talents, skills, and knowledge new professionals bring to
the practice and study of accounting. (Pathways Commission, 2012, p. 67)
In most accounting programs, and often in the general business curriculum, the introductory financial accounting course is the overall entry point (Spiceland et al., 2015). The Financial Accounting course is also frequently where students are first introduced to the business
environment. In addition to accounting majors and non-accounting business students, introductory financial accounting courses may be required for students in non-business majors
such as computer science and health science (this is the case at our university). For students
who have never been exposed to business, this initial exposure is particularly significant, since
they will be completely unfamiliar with most concepts and terminology. Mladenovic (2000)
discussed the need to change the negative perceptions students have of financial accounting,
and found that even if faculty improve teaching methodologies, without proper alignment
with assessment, student course outcomes do not improve.
Critical thinking and accounting education
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Wang and Wang (2011) found that
[o]ne of the most important aspects of effective business education is to help business students to develop higher order thinking skills. Students must develop thinking skills in all
higher order thinking aspects in order to meet challenges of the fast changing world. (Conclusion section, para. 1)
The importance of the ability to think critically is universally acknowledged, and for
accountants it is a much-needed, fundamental skill. ‘Strategic/Critical Thinking’ is the
first of the ‘Broad Business Perspective Competencies’ in the AICPA’s Core Competency
Framework (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, n.d.a).
Employers generally say they want critical thinking skills; however, they, and society in
general, very often have difficulty in clearly expressing what critical thinking skills are
(Wolcott, Baril, Cunningham, Forham, & St. Pierre, 2002). Young and Warren (2011)
acknowledged that there is no general consensus on how to assess critical thinking
skills in an introductory financial accounting course, but stressed that accountants need
critical thinking skills to be successful in practice. In order to develop a curriculum that
includes training and practice in critical thinking, critical thinking must be clearly
defined. The AICPA’s definition of critical thinking, as set forth in the Core Competency
Framework, is as follows: ‘Critical thinking encompasses the ability to link data, knowledge, and insight together from various disciplines to provide information for decisionmaking’ (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, n.d.b, para. 2). This
AICPA definition of critical thinking is adopted in the present research.
Doney and Lephardt (1993) pointed out that developing critical thinking skills goes
beyond what can be done in accounting classes alone and must also be the responsibility
of employers. In contrast, Wolcott et al. (2002) seem to take the position that the educators
are responsible for developing critical thinkers. Regardless, there seems to be consensus at
least that critical thinking encompasses many different skills. For example, Huff (2014)
created The Goal Project to investigate four skills (intellectual, interpersonal communication, personal capacity, and attitude) that professional accountants need in industry
based on a report by the AECC and on the core values of the Institute of Management
Accountants. These four skills were practiced by students who worked on assigned
team projects that attempted to replicate how practicing accountants would attempt to
solve real-world business problems. Upon conclusion of The Goal Project, the students
were given questionnaires to test the effectiveness of this project. The results showed
that using team-based learning helped students to improve all four investigated skills,
and that the most significant aspect was the exposure to real-world problems.
Recommendations to improve the first accounting course
The accounting literature is full of recommendations regarding how to teach a Financial
Accounting class and incorporate critical thinking practice into it (Wang & Wang, 2011;
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Young & Warren, 2011). Tsui (2007) notes that accounting faculty beliefs, assessment
practices, and institutional culture all influence students, and finds that ‘[t]hrough explicit
emphasis on multidisciplinary perspectives and interdisciplinary connections, an implicit
message [can be] conveyed about the value of thinking outside of the box’ (p. 209). Students start to develop critical thinking skills by learning how to acquire knowledge and
apply it to a problem. Further, Snyder and Snyder (2008) suggest that critical thinking
itself is a learned skill or set of skills that must be practiced by students. Students may
resist learning these skills, but once learned, these skills assist them in solving realworld business problems and help them further their careers. Wolcott et al. (2002)
noted that critical thinking skills develop slowly in students.
Kimmel’s (1995) study found a need to allow students to verbalize their solutions and
have the teacher and classmates asking probing questions to clarify their responses.
Kimmel also found that accounting faculty should balance the use of conceptual problems
that focus on critical thinking with rule-based problems that require memorization.
Snyder and Snyder (2008) supported the proposition that getting students to start thinking
critically requires that the teacher ask the right, probing questions, such as What do you
think? and Why do you think that? Shim and Walczak (2012) found that faculty who asked
challenging questions provided frequent explanations of abstract concepts, and gave wellorganized presentations helped increase self-reported critical thinking in first-year students. Spiceland et al. (2015) recommend that the curriculum in the first accounting
class focus on ensuring adequate depth of knowledge of core accounting topics. This
focus on depth of knowledge means a corresponding reduction in the scope of topics. Spiceland et al. also suggest emphasizing the ‘why’ and ‘how’ in introductory courses, rather
than structured procedures such as preparing financial statements. These practical recommendations can allow for more focus on critical thinking. More in-depth coverage
of a topic allows for a deeper understanding and the opportunity to explore the implications of a topic and ask the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.
Besides a focus on adding more depth to accounting topics, Spiceland et al. (2015)
suggested a course design that connects accounting topics to real-world business examples.
This course design reflects the Pathways Commission’s (2012) recommendation regarding
exposing students to real-world business complexities. McBride et al. (2005) suggested that
‘[t]he use of business games and of computer based simulation seeks to develop students’
limited business experience and nurture their understanding and judgement through participation in simulated real-world dynamics [and] competitive exercises’ (p. 30).
Jaijairam (2012) suggests that students develop a learning methodology by participating in
hands-on learning activities, with the ultimate goals of developing self-confident, critically
thinking accounting students. Kumar and Lightner (2007) explain that traditional faculty lectures do not prepare students for on-the-job learning, which is interactive (while faculty lectures require little interaction). Other suggestions that have been made to support classroom
learning in accounting are to utilize job shadowing, guest lecturers, and interviews with CPAs
(Jaijairam, 2012). Such activities, again, not only foster critical thinking skills but also make
the connection with real-world business complexities. While implementing activities to
support critical thinking, faculty must be cognizant to find ways to measure student competencies. Wolcott et al. (2002) suggested exams, skills preformation such as case studies,
internships, juried activities, score on professional exams, and student reflections, employer
feedback, and focus groups similar to the ones conducted in this study.
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Theoretical framework
The framework for this study is based on a Social Constructivist paradigm, under which
the researcher attempts to understand the meaning of experiences by gathering evidence
from those who participated in them (Creswell, 2009). Lincoln and Guba (2013) summarized the Social Constructivist paradigm by explaining that throughout history, philosophers developed four fundamental questions: ‘What is there that can be known?,’ ‘What
is the nature of the relationship between the knower and the knowable?,’ ‘How does
one go about acquiring knowledge?,’ and ‘Of all the knowledge available to me, which
is the most valuable, which is the most truthful, which is the most beautiful, which is
the most life-enhancing?’ (p. 37). Under the Social Constructivist paradigm, the researcher
builds a systematic structure for delving into the participant’s reality. This paradigm generally provides sufficient detail and insight into the participant’s experiences (Hoepfl,
1997). Importantly, inquiry into these questions should be considered a work in process
and results are only relevant when that is the case (Lincoln & Guba, 2013).
Accounting professors have been given the charge to improve accounting instruction. It
makes sense to call upon accounting students to gain their perspective on the issue. This
research focuses on the experiences and perceptions of students in their first accounting
class. Outcomes from each Financial Accounting class are regularly documented in a
variety of ways, including individual student assessment (grades), course and programwide assessments, and student evaluations of teaching. Although given the opportunity,
students at our university seldom provide written explanation or comments to clarify
the survey questions that they answer in student evaluations of teaching.
Generally, there has been little research into students’ subjective experience in their first
accounting course. To fill this gap, a qualitative research approach was used to provide an
in-depth understanding of this experience. Mertens (1998) noted that qualitative research
methods are most frequently used with the Social Constructivist paradigm.
The dialectic action research spiral model recommended by Gay et al. (2009) was followed. The model illustrates the relationship among and between four actions: (1) identify
an area of focus, (2) collect data, (3) analyze and interpret the data, and (4) develop an
action plan (Gay et al., 2009, p. 491) (Figure 1).
Research design
Action research
Action research addresses a specific issue relevant to the given school(s), students, and/or
teachers under study. Action research is used in an educational environment to systematically gather information about an issue and identify avenues for improvement. It is performed by teachers, which increases its relevance to their practice; in it, the teacher(s)
identifies a problem, gathers information, analyzes and reflects on the information, and
develops an action plan that they then implement (Gay et al., 2009). Paisey and Paisey
(2005) specifically recommend the use of action research to improve accounting education. In this sense, action research can be expected to fulfill accreditation standards
requiring continuous improvement in learning outcomes and innovation.
The motivation for this study is to improve engagement and learning outcomes in our
own Financial Accounting course. This is why action research, a cost-effective approach to
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Figure 1. Dialectic action research spiral Mills (2003, pp.18–19).
addressing issues in a timely manner while supporting continuous improvement, was
undertaken. We are able to put the resulting action plan into effect immediately in our
own classrooms, where we have pedagogical freedom.
Qualitative research
A qualitative research approach was used to provide an in-depth understanding of how
undergraduate students experience their first accounting course. Burns (2014) stated
that qualitative research ‘just makes sense’ and added, ‘To us, qualitative research
design draws out rich understandings of our empirical observations, explains and helps
to conceptualize the ways of the world as they unfold through time’ (p. 6). Gay et al.
(2009) stated that ‘[t]he central focus of qualitative research is to provide an understanding
of a social setting or activity as viewed from the perspective of the research participants’
(p. 14).
Focus groups conducted with students who had recently completed a financial accounting class were the primary data-collection method. This method allowed the researchers to
collect rich data, invite different perspectives, and generate conversation among participants (Millward, 2000). The content of the conversations that occurred during the
focus group sessions constitutes the data of interest in this study. Our university’s institutional review board approved this study.
The participants were recruited from among students enrolled in the second class in the
accounting sequence (‘Managerial Accounting’) in a mid-sized public university in the
United States, in the spring 2016 semester. All participants had completed the first
accounting class (Financial Accounting). Participation in the study was voluntary, and
there was no inducement to participate.
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Two Managerial Accounting class instructors allowed a focus group to be held
during one of their regularly scheduled class periods. The focus group moderator
informed the students that participation was voluntary and that their instructor
would not be informed about their participation decision. The Managerial Accounting
class’s instructor was not present during or after data collection on the day of the
focus group and was not informed which students did or did not participate in the
focus group.
Data gathering
Data were collected from two focus groups. The protocol used by the moderator to
manage the focus group sessions is shown in Appendix 1. A total of 10 people participated
in the focus group of 31 March 2016, and 21 in the focus group of 14 April 2016. The
difference in the number of participants between the sessions is explained by the differing
size of the two Managerial Accounting classes: the class involved in the 31 March 2016
focus group had 35 students, while the other class had 105.
A ‘Background Information Form’ (Appendix 2) was used to help gather data for this
study. This form collected basic information regarding age, gender, major, college credits
earned, and the number of accounting classes taken. Participants completed the form at
the beginning of their focus group session.
Focus group protocol
The moderator was a tenured associate professor at the university, experienced in conducting focus groups. The moderator was not a member of the accounting faculty. A
senior accounting student assisted the moderator in the administration and recording
the focus group discussions. In order to avoid influencing or appearing to influence the
participants (especially since both researchers are members of the accounting faculty at
the university and have taught or might in the future teach the participants), the researchers were not present for the focus group sessions
Before beginning the focus group session, each participant was given an opportunity to
review and ask questions regarding the informed consent forms, which were completed by
participants and collected prior to the focus group starting.
The ‘Focus Group Topic Guide’ (Appendix 3) displays the topics that the moderator
and the focus group members addressed. The existing body of research regarding the
first accounting class, along with the researchers’ experience teaching it, grounded the
topics. For example, critical thinking is frequently mentioned as an important component
of accounting work, and so when this topic was addressed, students were provided with
the AICPA’s definition of critical thinking to stimulate discussion. In another example,
participants were asked if they thought of themselves as informed consumers of financial
information after completing the course, as one of the objectives of the first accounting
class according to the Pathways Report should be to produce ‘informed accounting-information consumers’. Additionally, topic questions were designed to draw out students’
thoughts on engaging pedagogy, for example questions about the use of interactive
games and real-world examples.
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Data analysis
Each focus group was audiotaped, and the audiotapes were transcribed. The data provided
on the Background Information Forms (Appendix 2) were summarized. The first step in
the data analysis was to listen to each focus group audiotape and take extensive notes. This
was a particularly important step in this study as we were not present during the focus
group sessions.
As suggested by Creswell (1998), transcripts were first simply read through, to obtain
an overall sense of the data; each transcript was reread as many times as needed. Then, the
responses of the two focus groups were combined and sorted by question. As the transcripts were read and reread, notes were written, lists were made, and comments were
highlighted. Themes were identified and considered for overlap, consolidation, or expansion. Once the theme categories were tentatively established, the data were sorted into its
proper theme or category. This was a reiterative process. Some data fit into more than one
theme or category. The themes that emerged were considered in relationship to each other
and to those found in other relevant research. Findings were corroborated with the use of
qualitative analysis software.
As Sullivan (2011) explains, ‘Validity in research refers to how accurately a study answers
the study question or [to] the strength of the study conclusions’ (para. 2). This being so, we
chose to develop customized questions grounded in the research literature and relevant to
our university and students rather than search for preexisting questions. We used subject
matter experts (other accounting faculty) to assure applicability of our questions.
Creswell’s (1998) recommendations for qualitative research quality verification include
clarification of researcher bias and member checks, having participants review the findings
and discussion. In this case, clarification of researcher bias is appropriate, and it is
addressed in the limitations section below. Member checks were not possible, as the participants were anonymous and not known to the researchers; however, the moderator did
read and comment on a draft of the findings.
Ethical considerations
In order to ensure the confidentiality and anonymity of the participants, an assigned
number rather than a name was used to identify each participant during the focus
group session and on the Background Information Form. Names were required on the
informed consent form, but the names and the assigned numbers were not associated.
Every effort has and will be made to keep all information collected confidential.
Researcher bias is a possible limitation of the qualitative method adopted here. However,
the researchers took great care to disassociate themselves from the data-collection process
in order to avoid influencing the participants. Further, in analyzing the data, every effort
was made to be objective and detached. In addition, some of the participants have been or
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are presently enrolled in classes taught by the researchers; this could be a limitation if the
participants did not believe that their identity would remain anonymous or had pre-conceived ideas about the responses expected. Moreover, some of the participants have been
or are enrolled in classes taught by the moderator, which could similarly be a limitation if
the participant had pre-conceived ideas about the responses expected.
The participants in this study were volunteers and were not compensated for participating. The fact these individuals chose to participate in this study may be an indication that
their experiences or their interest in the research topic are in some way not representative.
Findings in qualitative research are not intended to be generalizable to a wider population. Rather, the studies are designed to seek ‘illumination, understanding, and extrapolation to similar situations’ (Golafshani, 2003, p. 600).
Participant demographics
In all, 31 students (21 females and 10 males) participated in the focus groups. Their ages
ranged from 19 to 41 years old; however, most (90.3%) of the participants were under the
age of 25, generally what is traditionally considered ‘college-aged’. The participants were
mostly sophomores or juniors (80.6%). For almost all participants, Managerial Accounting
was the second accounting class they had taken, after Financial Accounting. One participant was also enrolled in an intermediate-level accounting course. There were 6 accounting majors among the participants, 13 non-accounting business majors, 8 hospitality and
tourism management majors, 3 students from non-business disciplines, and 1 participant
who did not provide his or her major.
Three major themes emerged from the data:
students’ experience and perceptions of Financial Accounting class and its value,
students’ perception regarding critical thinking, and
activities that engaged students’ attention and enhanced their learning.
Students’ experience and perceptions of financial accounting class and its value
The most frequent description of Financial Accounting class, given by eleven participants,
was ‘difficult’, ‘challenging’, or ‘confusing’. The next most frequent description, given by
nine participants, was ‘boring’ (including similar comments of ‘not engaging’ and
‘tedious’). Interestingly, the next most frequently used descriptor, given by four participants, was ‘easy’. Two participants described the course as ‘fast-paced’.
As participants discussed why they found accounting difficult or challenging, a frequent
observation, made seven times, was that accounting knowledge builds on itself and that
gaps in comprehension in the beginning of the course cause trouble as the course
moves along. As one participant stated, ‘if you didn’t really grasp it in the beginning, it
just continued to build, and then you don’t get it’. Another participant reported not
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understanding accounting from the beginning and that this lack of understanding was
compounded later on: ‘it just kind of snowballed’.
Five participants reported that they felt unprepared for the course and found the
amount of material they were expected to learn and retain substantial. Regarding the
volume of material covered, the participants discussed the need for memory-assisting
‘resources’ to help them to meet expectations in course assessments. As the participants
had a number of different Financial Accounting instructors, and as some may have
taken the course at another institution, they had all experienced different policies and procedures regarding the use of such resources. The participants’ consensus was that
resources such as reference sheets, use of the Internet for reference, and use of answer
checking with integrated accounting software should be allowed.
Seven participants reported that their most positive experiences in Financial Accounting class were thanks to the instructor and the class structure. Specifically mentioned as
positive elements in class structure were a project involving a real company, group
quizzes, help cards for exams, take-home quizzes and tests, and the ability to use the
check answer feature in the textbook’s integrated accounting software. Four participants
mentioned that they found it rewarding when they successfully completed a problem;
as one participant said, ‘when you get down a really long problem and everything
works out and builds out and you know you did it the right way, [it’s] rewarding’. Learning
about business was another positive experience reported by three participants.
The most frequent negative experience reported by participants was that they disliked
or had no interest in accounting. Seven participants stated that they had ‘gotten nothing’
or ‘retained nothing’ from the course. Participants who were not accounting majors frequently expressed a lack of appreciation of the relevance of accounting to their education
or career; six stated that they had no interest in accounting or hated it. For instance, one
said, ‘I’m a business management major. I’m not going to use managerial accounting or
accounting at all really for my job’. Another said ‘I’m not an accounting major, so I
don’t think I would actually use it with other courses’.
For three participants, the instructor and the class structure provided a negative experience. The instructor’s overuse of PowerPoint slides and reiteration of the same problems
covered in the book were a concern. Participants mentioned that they felt initially ‘unprepared’ for what would be covered in a Financial Accounting class; they did not know what
to expect. One participant said, ‘I didn’t know it was kind of a separate subject that talks
about broader ideas like how firms … make a product and the cost and all that’, indicating
a lack of an initial understanding about the purpose of a Financial Accounting course. The
diversity of problems that a student must master was discussed and the fact that the problems are not identical and that there are many variations.
The use of the textbook’s integrated accounting software for study, homework, quizzes,
and testing was a subject that permeated the discussion. The attitude of the participants
toward the software was mixed: some participants liked using it and found its study features helpful, while others disliked it. The fact that the participants had had different
instructors led to a discussion on how the instructors could set and adjust different software features such as the number of times a problem could be attempted. Participants also
discussed using Internet resources, googling, and using Chegg, an online homework solution finder, to solve problems.
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Students’ perceptions regarding critical thinking
During the discussion on critical thinking, three participants made the point that accounting is important for managing a business. For example, one participant reported, ‘It just
gave me a more general idea of how businesses are run’. The Financial Accounting
class taken by many of the participants had included a standardized assignment that referenced the Starbucks Corporation’s current financial statements, and these students had
clearly made the connection that accounting provides information for decision-makers.
Four participants stated that the use of integrated accounting software provided with textbooks did not help them with critical thinking. One said, ‘I usually just plug numbers in or I’ll
go on Google Answers and try to find similar problems where I [can] plug in the numbers’.
Participants’ suggestions regarding changes to Financial Accounting class to improve
critical thinking skills included incorporating more real-world applications and more
effectively making the connection between the business world and course content. In
the words of one, ‘it helps when you actually can relate it to something’. They also
suggested breaking problems down into smaller components and including more group
activities. Further, they discussed the difference between what an accounting major
needs to know about accounting and what a non-accounting major needs. Participants
expressed the belief that non-accounting majors did not need to delve deeply into the
mechanics of financial statement preparation. One participant went so far as to start a discussion about the need for an in-depth class for accounting majors separate from the class
for non-accounting majors. For example, one participant reported,
There used to be a hospitality managerial accounting … and financial accounting course [at
the university, specifically geared toward majors in] hospitality. And my friends took that.
And they said that they actually enjoyed the class because they learned something and it
was pertinent to what they were doing in the real world.
With few exceptions, the participants did not think of themselves as informed consumers of financial information after completing Financial Accounting. Three said they had
‘very minimal’ or ‘basic’ knowledge. Three said they could recall enough to get through
Managerial Accounting, or that they could recall material if they ‘looked it up’.
Activities that engage attention and enhance learning
Participants reported that lectures did not engage them, nor did the use of PowerPoint
slides. Participants offered the following recommendations for engaging activities:
add content not found in the textbook,
use handouts for problems that can be demonstrated and completed in class,
incorporate and encourage group work,
provide real-world examples, and
show videos that connect to the material.
Discussion and recommendations
The participants in this action research study provided thoughtful observations and valuable suggestions about the Financial Accounting classes that we teach. Much of what the
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focus group participants reported coincided with observations and recommendations
made in the existing body of accounting pedagogical literature. However, the participants
did add new insights, such as their perception on the lack of connections between the pedagogical content of Financial Accounting and other business courses. In general, the data
collected from the focus groups allows us to understand specifically what students do and
do not find helpful. For example, while participants were clear that they did not like the
overuse of lectures or PowerPoint presentations, they did like demonstration of novel problems by the instructor.
This paper contributes to the existing research on accounting pedagogy by modeling an
action research design that can be used to improve accounting education. The existing
body of pedagogical literature is extensive, and individual instructors must select and
prioritize the techniques and methods that they wish to use in their own classrooms.
The findings from this research help us to weigh the importance of the specific concerns
of our students, sort through the options and best practices, and prioritize changes that we
can make accordingly. We have identified three areas where we believe that we can achieve
the maximum impact with pedagogical changes or enhancements.
Perceived value of the financial accounting course
Discussion. Participants who were not accounting majors did not perceive much relationship between Financial Accounting and their ultimate career goals. Participants repeatedly
called for more ‘real-world’ material and spoke positively about any such material that
they had encountered. For example, many participants had positive comments about an
assignment involving Starbucks Corporation where they used the Internet or library
resources to locate documents such as the company’s annual Form 10-K report and
used them to answer financial and accounting questions. This finding is in accord with
accounting pedagogical literature that recommends a focus on actual companies (Pathways Commission, 2012; Spiceland et al., 2015). Employers, too, have noted the importance of real-world experience (Jackling & De Lange, 2009); in fact, the revised
Uniform CPA Examination, which will go into effect on 1 April 2017, will expand the
use of test questions that require reference to simulated documents (such as contracts
and invoices) based on those actually used in business (American Institute of Certified
Public Accountants, n.d.c).
Textbooks used in Financial Accounting try to provide a similar angle by including frequent vignettes regarding actual companies, but these did not seem to address the desire of
focus group participants for the ‘real world’. Participants expressed a desire for instructors
to bring in material that supplements the textbook in this regard.
A number of participants did not make any connection between Financial Accounting
and other business courses. Williams (1993) noted that accounting courses tended to be
taught in silos, with little connection from one accounting course to the next. The focus
group results reflect that this silo issue may also apply in relation to Financial Accounting
vis-à-vis other business courses.
Several participants stated that they had learned about the business world in Financial
Accounting class, but generally the participants did not indicate that their Financial
Accounting course had prepared them to be ‘informed consumers’ of financial information. On the basis of review of responses to this question, we think in retrospect that
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the question may have been vaguely worded and participants may not have had a consistent understanding of the meaning of ‘informed consumer’. Nonetheless, this finding must
be considered a concern. The Pathways Report states that one main objective for the first
accounting course should be to develop informed consumers of financial information, and
as instructors we want students to retain sufficient financial accounting knowledge not just
to negotiate subsequent courses but also to connect those who manage, market, and
finance organizations to the value that accounting knowledge can bring.
Action needed. In order to help students, become ‘informed accounting-information
consumers’, be better prepared for subsequent courses, and ultimately succeed in their
careers, as well as to improve course outcomes, we must strive to
connect Financial Accounting to the ‘real world’, meaning actual companies and events
in business, by supplementing what is in the textbook, including with primary source
material such as annual reports; and
connect Financial Accounting to other business courses and the work of managers,
marketers, and financiers.
Some ways to do this may be to use familiar or famous companies as examples, incorporate current news events that pertain to textbook content, and demonstrate how topics
can be relevant to students who are not accounting majors.
Introducing and studying accounting
Discussion. There are many stereotypes and pre-conceived notions of accounting and
accountants that students bring with them to their first accounting class. The focus
group discussions revealed that the breadth of business topics covered in Financial
Accounting surprised participants. This finding aligns with the Pathways Report
finding that people misunderstand what accounting is all about. As part of its implementation work, the Pathways Commission created a visual representation (‘Pathways Image’;
Pathways Commission, n.d.) of what a person should understand about accounting. The
Pathways Vision Model ‘This is Accounting!’ is shown in Appendix 4. Instructors must
strive to intentionally familiarize Financial Accounting students with the purpose and
structure of the course, with reference to such schemata.
A related lesson is that students do not necessarily know how to study accounting.
Many view accounting as similar to a mathematics course; but while there are some similarities, math is not an ideal study model for accounting. The quantitative aspects of
accounting are only part of what students must learn. In Financial Accounting, students
must also become knowledgeable about the wide variety of business transaction. Focus
group participants noted that in a mathematics course the instructor would demonstrate
a type of problem, after which students who had followed carefully would be expected to
be able to do that type of problem, whereas in accounting, the instructor cannot demonstrate every type of problem because each one is slightly different. This is a lot to process,
and so participants recommend that memory-assisting study references and resources be
made available to them for all coursework, including testing. Instructors will vary regarding the amount of assistance that they are willing to make available during testing. One
approach that might be used is to give beginning accounting students access to a basic
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chart of accounts and to debit/credit rules at all times, even during testing. Just as a music
student will, after practice, begin to play without reference to their sheet music, accounting
students will refer to the chart of accounts and debit/credit rules less and less as they practice. Access to a chart of accounts and debit/credit rules eliminates the need for rote memorization and allows the student to think though the recording of each transaction.
Participants had mixed opinions on the textbook’s integrated accounting software,
which was used by their Financial Accounting instructors for homework and in
many cases for quizzes and tests. Reliability was an important factor; even an
occasional software malfunction was a source of great frustration. Additionally,
several participants talked about ‘filling in the boxes’ when discussing preparing homework with this software. This comment indicates that students were more focused on
completing the assignment within the software constraints than they were on understanding the concepts.
The expectation that students will be familiar and competent with the technology they
will encounter in their classes (Pathways Commission, 2012) may lead instructors to
assume that little or no instruction is needed in the use of textbook’s integrated accounting
software. However, the present findings show that this is clearly not the case. For example,
the device a student uses in their work can contribute to difficulties – many accounting
problems are lengthy, and small screens are not the ideal. In practice, accountants generally do their work with multiple full-size monitors; students need to be made aware of this.
Instructors, for their part, need to model the effective use of the textbook’s integrated
accounting software. Participants specifically endorsed the use of the ‘check answer’ function in this software and their preference for receiving immediate feedback. Instructors
have the ability to customize many of the settings in the textbook’s integrated accounting
software, and should take care to coordinate these settings with the purpose of the assignment. For example, when homework assignments are intended as practice, the software
can be set to provide ample support; when the assignment is a test, the software may be
set to provide less or no support.
Regarding critical thinking, the participants were unsure about when, and how, and
even if, they practice it. Even given the definition of critical thinking provided to them
by the moderator, there were limited responses on this question. In order to foster an
appreciation of critical thinking in their students, instructors need to alert students
when a task involves critical thinking. For example, in step one of the accounting cycle,
students need to sort through business activity and select relevant transactions. This
means that they must apply their knowledge of the pertinent accounting system to their
understanding of the business transaction in order to identify transactions that qualify
for recording. That is critical thinking.
Action needed. In order to assist students to effectively study and learn financial
accounting while practicing and developing critical thinking skills, we need to
adequately and intentionally introduce students to the topic of financial accounting, to
their textbook resources, and to the most effective way to use the textbook’s integrated
accounting software;
provide beginning accounting students with resources and references that will help
them to possess the confidence to tackle a wide variety of accounting topics and problems; and
keep the concept of critical thinking front and center by informing students when critical thinking activities are being conducted in class or practiced in homework.
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Opportunities to engage students
Discussion. Activities such as class discussions, small group work, and class presentations
can be used to develop critical thinking skills. Each of these activities offers an opportunity
for students to show off their skill sets. Most importantly, the student is empowered
through ownership (Tsui, 2007). The focus group participants clearly agreed with this
Classroom activities that engage Financial Accounting students and create opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills include games and similar activities, which
can enhance the delivery of subject content. Bowers (2011) explained how using games
can increase a student’s ability to make decisions and solve problems. In his study,
nursing students used a board game to simulate an emergency room environment. The
game was well received by the students and helped increase their confidence in
The Social Constructivist paradigm offers an interactive process where the study participants can offer their experiences (Hoepfl, 1997; Lincoln & Guba, 2013). The present
study’s participants mentioned a few engaging activities that they had encountered in
their Financial Accounting classes. Group work, along with the Starbucks Corporation
assignment, was the most frequently mentioned. For example, the participants suggested
their accounting professor use fewer PowerPoint slides and more instructor-led problemsolving. The participants made positive comments regarding the use of supplemental
material that provided a different perspective on a topic and was not a reiteration of textbook material.
Action needed. There is a plethora of advice on how to engage college students (Bowers,
2011; Camp & Schnader, 2010; Kumar & Lightner, 2007). The instructor must select
activities that work well for him or her given the particular environment in which his
or her class is taught, the characteristics of the students, the instructor’s own preferences,
and the course objectives. The information gathered from the focus groups has led us to
plan to:
include at least one engaging activity in each Financial Accounting class,
minimize the use of PowerPoint slides,
maximize the opportunity for group work, and
include at least one demonstration of problem-solving in each class.
Next steps
Our next step will be to implement the actions that have been identified as potentially beneficial above in an actual Financial Accounting class. Student feedback can be solicited
throughout the semester, informally through discussion and more formally at the end
of the semester through student course evaluations. Teaching evaluations, overall
student grades, and our own observations will be compared to those from prior Financial
Accounting classes to determine what impact these actions may have had.
We also plan to share the findings of this study with our colleagues. As is frequently
done, focus group findings can be used to develop a survey that can be more widely disseminated among students to track the qualitative aspects of (in this case) their Financial
Accounting class experience.
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The purpose of this action research study was to learn directly from undergraduate students, through focus groups, about their experiences in their first accounting class. The
participants in this action research study provided thoughtful observations and valuable
insights. Even though this study was conducted at a specific university and the findings
are not intended to be generalizable, the research design can be easily replicated at universities across the United States and abroad. Understanding the perceptions of accounting
students is critical to the continuous improvement of learning outcomes.
Given the extensive body of accounting pedagogy literature and the various recommendations of the AAA, the AICPA, the AACSB, and the Pathways Commission, it is difficult
for individual accounting instructors to sort through it all in order to select and prioritize
the techniques and methods that would be most effective in their own classrooms. The
findings from this action research study help us to identify the practices and techniques
that best meet the needs of our own students.
Students want to see the connection of Financial Accounting to the ‘real world’,
meaning actual companies and events in business. Instructors can supplement what is
in the textbook, with primary source material such as annual reports; and connect Financial Accounting to other business courses and the work of managers, marketers, and
Ensuring that students have the ability to engage in critical thinking remains one of the
most challenging aspects of business education. This challenge must be met at a time when
students are impatient and easily distracted by their electronic devices, and at a time when
accounting and auditing pronouncements continue to proliferate, regulation grows, and
business transactions take on new complexities. Findings from this study indicate that
the student participants, generally, did not identify critical thinking as something they
learned in Financial Accounting class. Accounting instructors must keep the concept of
critical thinking front and center by informing students when critical thinking activities
are conducted in class or performed in homework. Keeping students actively engaged
in the classroom while reinforcing their critical thinking skills may require some innovative thinking, but the rewards for students and professors alike are boundless.
We thank Dr. Diane Holtzman, who moderated the focus group sessions, and Jorge Garcia, a recent
graduate, who assisted with the focus groups. We would like to thank Editage (
for English language editing.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
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Appendix 1. Focus Group Protocol
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Hello, my name is ________. Assisting me today is __________. In front of you is a brief Background Information Form that we ask that you complete. On the form is a number that corresponds
to the number on the table (tent card) at your seat. Please check to make sure the numbers on your
form and your tent card are the same.
In order to maintain everyone’s anonymity I will refer to you using your number, and please
refer to others using their number.
Also in front of you is a Consent Form. Please read that form and sign it if you agree to participate in the focus group.
Place the completed Background Information Form and signed Consent Form in the envelope
that is provided. _________will collect the envelopes.
We will be using an audio recorder today.
We are here to talk about your first accounting class, Financial Accounting. You may have taken
additional accounting classes, but for our discussion today please focus on your Financial Accounting class.
Ground rules:
We would like everyone to participate. I may call on you if I haven’t heard from you in a while.
Every person’s experiences and opinions are important. There are no right or wrong answers.
We want to hear from everyone.
We want to maintain anonymity and confidentiality, so please don’t use names. When talking
about your Financial Accounting class, don’t use the professor’s name.
Feel free to get up and get more food.
Appendix 2. Background Information Form
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Background Information Form . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . First Accounting Class: Critical Thinking and Engagement. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Major (either declared or intended) ______________________________________________
Number of credits completed as of the beginning of this semester______________________
Accounting courses taken in addition to Financial Accounting_________________________
Appendix 3. Focus Group Topic Guide
First, give me three words that describe your Financial Accounting class.
An important skill that we hear a lot about today is critical thinking. One definition of critical
thinking is ‘Critical thinking encompasses the ability to link data, knowledge, and insight together
from various disciplines to provide information for decision-making’. How did your Financial
Accounting class improve your critical thinking abilities? (NOTE: The critical thinking definition
will remain on display on the overhead while this question is being discussed.)
What would you suggest be done in Financial Accounting class to improve your critical thinking
What was your most positive experience in Financial Accounting?
What was your most negative experience in Financial Accounting?
Describe activities that engage you (keep your attention) in the classroom.
How did your Financial Accounting instructor use activities or games to enhance learning?
How did your Financial Accounting instructor use ‘real-world’ examples or illustrations?
After taking Financial Accounting, did you think of yourself as an ‘informed consumer’ of financial information?
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