In accounting courses, if students fall behind, it is tough to catch up. Checking comprehension daily—with a reward of early dismissal—can help.
Assistant Professor of Accounting, Loyola Marymount University–Los Angeles
PhD in Accounting, CPA, MS in Taxation, BA in Accounting and Philosophy
By Alina Din
In a word-association game with students, the words “financial accounting” may not trigger responses like “easy” or “undemanding.” This course, for many, is really hard. What is easy is falling hopelessly behind if students fail to stay up to date on even one day’s work.
James Plečnik, PhD, makes that next to impossible with his creative approach to teaching. In explaining his pedagogy, Plečnik says, “When I was preparing my first class in August of 2015, I started with a very conventional approach.” After spending a few days a week preparing a “whole bunch of slides and a whole lot of lecturing,” he had an epiphany. “I felt like it was not the kind of class I would want to be in,” he says.
As Plečnik reflected on the courses that he had enjoyed as a student, he realized that it was always “those where the professor spurred the discussion in the classroom environment.”
Today, Plečnik, a professor at Loyola Marymount University–Los Angeles, seeks to foster a classroom environment that is discussion heavy and collaboration centered. He does not pit students against each other, but he allows them to engage as much as possible.
Challenge: Time-intensive and complex course requirements
While Plečnik is plenty passionate about accounting, he understands that not all students share his excitement about the subject—at least not initially. Instead, they often have what he calls “accounting-based apathy.”
For one thing, students are not excited about the sheer time requirement. “[Financial Accounting] is a technical class, which means you have to study and practice a lot,” he says. “But everyone is quite busy with four or five other classes. It’s not like every student is going to be saying, ‘Oh I can’t wait to start practicing my Accounting 2110 today!’” He adds with a smile: “They should—but they probably don’t.”
Beyond that, the material for this course is complex and technical. Students who fall behind have a hard time catching up. “Saying it’s a struggle is an understatement,” Plečnik explains. “You just wouldn’t be able to address the next chapter because it would be so thoroughly built on the prior chapter. That’s why practice and constantly identifying weaknesses are so important to me.”
Innovation: Modified daily quizzes
To keep students on track, Plečnik has developed a unique approach: a daily quiz. After he completes the day’s lesson, he checks for comprehension with a quiz on the day’s topics. The quiz is modeled after “essays” in liberal arts courses, in which students must show what they know more deeply and completely than in a traditional multiple-choice and true-false math-style test.
Plečnik says he has derived this approach from the methods traditionally used to teach English and philosophy classes. “[In those courses,] you’ll be talking about Voltaire, and you’ll have a very nonthreatening, high-communication [experience],” says Plečnik. “I’m mimicking that high level of discussion, but in the business environment, which is [typically] so lecture-driven.”
This quiz-a-day approach forces students to practice their accounting problems every single day they see him, and it helps lessen any intimidation they may feel toward the lesson because they have somebody there guiding them. Furthermore, by knowing they can secure a few extra points if they pass the quiz, the students have an added incentive to pay attention and understand the material given in class.
During the quiz, Plečnik encourages students to freely ask questions of him—and each other.
“It’s very technical. There is a right and wrong answer, and because of that, though it is not math, it ends up feeling like it; you’ve got to memorize something and then do it and be able to do it in a slightly different situation than you study it. You’ve got to adapt a little bit, and that adapting phase is quite difficult for a lot of students.”— James Plečnik, PhD, CPA
Course: ACCT 2110 Financial Accounting
Frequency: Two 85-minute class meetings per week for 15 weeks
Class size: 22
Course description: This is the first course in a two-accounting-course sequence that is required for all business majors. This course introduces the student to 1) the role of accounting in business and society, 2) the basic concepts and techniques of financial accounting and 3) the use of financial statements for decision-making purposes. Topics covered include analyzing and recording business transactions; preparation of accounting records for business organizations; accounting valuations of financial resources; and the preparation, interpretation, and analysis of financial statements.
ACCT 2110 Financial AccountingSee materials
Lesson: A modified quiz experience
Plečnik packs a lot into each class: He leads with a short lecture, applies the lecture material to an example problem, then quizzes students on a similar problem. He maximizes class time to accomplish all this by cutting out anything that students can do on their own, such as looking up definitions of accounting terminology. “I would argue there’s almost no benefit to listing off words and definitions [during class],” he says. “I think [students] can Google that or look at the textbook and my summaries [to] get all those definitions down without [my] having to fill up the lecture with all that stuff.”
Here, he shares how he has created a modified quiz experience that makes the most of the time he and his students spend together in the classroom:
Keep it low-stress
Plečnik recognizes that quizzes can be stressful for some students; he strives to mitigate that from the start of the semester. One way he does that is simply by his choice of language—he calls the assessment a “modified quiz experience.”
Further, from the first day of class, he explains that he will help students get the correct answer on a quiz question if they are stuck. While he does not “feed” them the answer, he will try to nudge them toward it until they arrive at it on their own.
Check your own work
Of course, Plečnik solves each quiz question himself—after all, he needs to know the answer in order to do the grading. But he also looks over the steps to the solution right before handing it out. This way, as he walks around the room, he can quickly glance at the answer to see where the student stands. “I’ve already prepared solutions for the problem, I’ll have looked at it, [and] it’ll be on the top of my mind when I am going into that class,” he says. “The moment I see something right or wrong, I’ll know. And I’ll hopefully be able to give very good feedback.”
Plečnik believes that it should not take longer than 30 seconds for someone who is reasonably familiar with the content to see whether the student is on track to getting the right answer. “It gives me something to talk about in the next class if a lot of people [made the same mistake],” he adds.
Provide added incentive
Plečnik says that he uses the quiz as an incentive to pay attention in class. How? By letting students leave early if they finish the quiz correctly.
He helps ensure that students can accomplish this by solving an example problem on the board right before quiz time. This, he says, encourages students to pay more attention at the end of class. “They think, “Hey, I might even get out early because the quiz is going to be exactly about what he’s talking about,’” he says.
Do not let them guess
When a quiz is multiple choice or true/false, explains Plečnik, a student could guess at the answer. That would not help determine whether she truly understood how to solve the problem. Or they might look at multiple-choice answers and try to “solve toward” one of them. Plečnik recommends that each quiz include just one or two questions that are subsectioned into multiple steps. This way, he can follow the students’ line of reasoning and directly pinpoint areas of struggle or confusion. “I find that long, multistep problems help them to think a lot more than multiple short problems,” he says.
Time it right
“If [the quiz takes] way too long, you’re gonna demoralize the heck out of them. If you pick something way too short, you’ve just wasted a lot of the class’s time. Eventually you get the hang of it.”— James Plečnik, PhD, CPA
“If [the quiz takes] way too long, you’re gonna demoralize the heck out of them,” says Plečnik. “If you pick something way too short, you’ve just wasted a lot of the class’s time.” He tends to make his problems err on the side of “longer and harder” because he wants his students to “have to adapt what they learn, rather than just regurgitate a few little things.”
Still, he notes that timing can be a challenge, but if a particular quiz winds up too long or too short, it is not the end of the world. “This requires a good ability play off the crowd in the moment,” he says. If students are finishing a quiz too quickly, you can add some extra problems. Generally, Plečnik says, it is best to create an alternate scenario by changing a name or a number (which can change a problem dramatically in accounting). A lot of students may do extra problems just to see if they can. If you realize most of the class may not finish in time, you can give hints or tell them to finish it next class. “Eventually you get the hang of it,” he asserts.
Stay on your feet
Plečnik recommends strolling around the classroom while the students take their quiz. He happened upon this strategy by accident but decided to stick with it because he found it so effective. Originally, he planned to stay in his seat as his students took the quiz, and they would walk up to him to hand in the quiz as they finished. But on the first day, a student raised his hand to ask a question, and Plečnik walked over to help him out. Then another student raised his hand, then another, and another, until Plečnik found he was “pacing the classroom at a pretty brisk speed.” It is a practice he has engaged in ever since.
Plečnik says this has worked out a lot better than his planned version. “There’s a lot of activity at quiz time, and students get really animated,” he says. “They ask a lot of questions and it gets very exuberant.”
Do not collect the quiz
Though other educators may keep quizzes and tests close to the vest, Plečnik allows his students take their end-of-class quizzes home. This way, they can take out their quizzes at the beginning of the next class and Plečnik can immediately launch into explaining and discussing the answers. Furthermore, by keeping their quizzes, students are able to study off their own work in preparing for major tests and the final exam.
Having integrated the elements of liberal arts teaching into his own accounting classes, Plečnik says his students seem to find the material less intimidating. In fact, you might say that his methods have produced results that have been profitable for all involved.
Plečnik says the response to his classes are generally very positive. “My students are generally surprised that this is an accounting class; in the course evaluations, they say they like the quizzes and how I administer them,” he says. “They also find that quiz time is adequate; they get a lot more animated because they’re all working and asking questions of each other and me.”