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An “Accounting Escape Room” and 4 Other Engaging Activities

Christopher McCullick, CPA, has gamified accounting exercises and quizzes to inspire student engagement, mastery of key concepts, and hands-on fun.


Christopher McCullick, CPA

Associate Professor of Accounting, William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri

DBA candidate (ABD), CPA, MAcc, and BS in Accounting

When accounting professor Christopher McCullick, CPA, first tried an escape room a few years ago, he loved the blend of critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork required to succeed. In fact, he loved it so much that he’s now forgotten whether or not his team actually escaped—what is important in his memory is that it was one of the most engaging activities he’d ever participated in. “I walked out thinking, ‘I wish I could do this somehow with my classroom!’” he says.

That same night, after Googling “escape rooms for accounting classes,” he came up empty-handed—and determined to create his own accounting escape room from scratch. In the next few weeks, McCullick visited several escape rooms, chatting with owners to gain insights and ideas. “I told them it was for educational purposes, so they were really helpful,” he says. “One of the best pieces of advice I got was to make sure my escape room had a theme. I also wanted it to meet specific learning objectives, like being able to analyze financial statements. So, the accounting theme I thought would be most compelling was fraud.”

After a few weeks of planning, McCullick and another professor took a budget of just $300 and only two days’ time to transform an unoccupied faculty office at William Jewell College into the “accounting escape room” of his dreams. “We were very adamant that this wasn’t just a fun activity but one that served actual educational outcomes,” he adds.

Below, McCullick shares more details on this activity, as well as four other active-learning exercises that he uses to put the fun (and accounting) into his Fundamentals of Financial Accounting class.

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“There are often times during the semester when I will stop and reflect to determine if an iteration in teaching methods is necessary. While I won’t be so foolish as to state that I have become, in the infancy of my career, a ‘great’ teacher, it is what I aspire to become. I seek to truly inspire—as much as an accountant can inspire.”

— Christopher McCullick, CPA

Course: ACC 111 Fundamentals of Financial Accounting

Description: Measuring, processing, analyzing and interpreting elements of the four basic financial statements. Recommended prerequisites: CTI 105, MAT 107 or MAT 109. Accounting majors are encouraged to take ACC 111 during the spring semester of their first year.



“The Sneaky CEO” Accounting Escape Room

In McCullick’s escape room, students had to parse through redacted material in a corrupt CEO’s financial statements, using accounting formulas and concepts to figure out the codes to open the door, windows, and other locked items in the room.

“We came up with some pretty cool ideas, like using blacklight features and a directional lock, which is like a combination lock with arrows instead of numbers,” he recalls. “We were fortunate to have a window in the room that faced an overlook for the campus, so I posted arrows all over campus, and students had to use binoculars along with financial information to figure out the combination for the directional lock,” he says. “I also created a false bottom in one of the drawers, so that took a bit of woodcutting. Overall, the students really loved it.”

As in entertainment-based escape rooms, McCullick observed students through a video camera feed via an iPad, which he also streamed on a TV in the main lobby of the building. “You’d have all kinds of people standing out in the lobby just watching them, and it became a really engaging experience,” he says.

As mentioned, McCullick advises that interested educators come up with a theme and learning objectives, which make it easier to plan the clues and keep students’ interest. Visiting commercial escape rooms, too, is incredibly helpful, as is talking to their owners.

To learn more about this approach, check out his video or his detailed article: “Using an Interactive Team-Based Activity to ‘Escape’ Traditional Teaching Methods in an Introductory Financial Accounting Course.

The “Obsolete Inventory” Audit

To clarify two common auditing challenges—conceptualizing inventory and moving beyond just analyzing spreadsheets—studied by junior and seniors in his auditing course, McCullick obtained permission from the college bookstore for his students to conduct an inventory count on preselected inventory and examine related data to identify risks and catch errors that he had inserted. “In the classroom, we’ll discuss internal controls, what risks to look for, key assertions, etc. and then this activity allows them to combine this theory with actual practical application,” he says.

Once at the bookstore, students are divided into three groups of five or six students each. One group then has 12 minutes to complete preselected inventory test counts, while the other two groups work on simulation worksheets that McCullick has created: These worksheets prompt students to consider inventory risks that exist in the bookstore, inquire about internal controls present, and perform analytic procedures based upon information provided. (This rotates until all groups have a turn doing test counts.)

To spice up the exercise, McCullick plays the role of the bookstore manager, whom the students must interview. Taking on this role allows him to demonstrate how difficult it can be to get information out of a client. (To inject a bit of humor and encourage students to consider the potential for inventory obsolescence, he even includes within the exercise a T-shirt that he created using the school’s logo but swapping in a rooster for the school’s cardinal mascot.)

“As the bookstore manager, I’ll tell them that we ordered this merchandise and are now unable to return it. From that, they infer that it is ‘obsolete’ inventory,” he says. “Or I might give an evasive answer and prompt them to follow up and ask more. It’s these types of skills that lend themselves to hands-on learning.”

Although McCullick has not yet written an article about it, he has made available a video that discusses the auditing exercise.

The “Monopoly Mogul” Board Game

To teach students about accounting for business transactions, McCullick has them play Monopoly, but with a slight twist. Building from the plethora of online resources that discuss using a similar exercise, McCullick has students work in teams of two (with two or three teams per Monopoly board and, typically, three boards in play during class). He informs them that they now own a business that has two ways of making money: One is by charging rent to customers for properties they own, and the second is by “inspecting” properties as they move around the board (i.e., the $200 they receive for passing Go).

Students apply the accounting cycle by analyzing, recording, and summarizing each move, using Microsoft Excel to ultimately create and analyze their own set of financial statements. At the end, the students use an analytics platform called Tableau to create a data visualization of their results.

“[This] gives students exposure to both Excel and Tableau, and it simulates business transactions,” says McCullick. “I want them to understand that, in the real world, they (via the business) create the transaction. It doesn’t get made for them. [Playing Monopoly] puts them in the position of being the creator of the transaction—not just the person who documents a transaction that’s been described to them in a textbook.”

The “Wheel of Fortune” Quiz

Taking a cue from television, McCullick created a Wheel of Fortune–style quiz game using a website called Wheel Decide. This site allows the user to create a customized digital carnival-style wheel—in this case, one that randomly selects which student will answer an accounting quiz question. The catch here? The student’s response counts for the whole class, and everyone gets the same grade.

McCullick distributes the questions and tells students they can work together to figure out the answers. “I am very adamant that I want everyone to be at the same learning level, and that everyone has to know and be able to explain the answer,” he says. Then the professor sets a timer for 10 to 12 minutes, and students begin discussing the problems. When time is up, he pulls up Wheel Decide—which is preloaded with the class roster and projected on a screen at the front of the room—to select the first “contestant.” McCullick notes, “It’s always fun to see the excitement on their faces when they first see the wheel and realize what’s about to happen.”

This is no multiple-choice question, he adds. McCullick expects the chosen student to demonstrate a full and nuanced understanding of the concept and why it is important to the course and the specific calculation. If they cannot answer, McCullick lets them “phone a friend” (i.e., call on a classmate). His goal is not to make anyone feel bad but to encourage everyone to take responsibility for mastering the course material. “Once they know that they need to know a lot more detail, they start to work together to make that happen,” he says.

The “Take the Podium” Video Quiz

During the semester, McCullick gives students five unannounced quizzes. Among them is a video-response quiz that puts students in the role of teacher, summarizing a particular concept.

Here is how it works: After McCullick lectures about a certain concept, he gives students 10 minutes to work in groups of two or three to create a short video using the Educreations app. They are not allowed to refer to anything but the notes they have taken (i.e., no textbooks or Googling). Each student is required to speak and illustrate in their team’s video. After grading them, McCullick selects some of the best ones to share with the class as a study resource.

The video response quiz helps McCullick quickly see which students understand the material from that day and who is completely lost. “And for the ones who are lost, it is really easy to follow up,” he says.

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