Think accounting is a dry and boring subject? So did Professor Debbie Porter’s students—until the toy cars and plastic building bricks arrived.
Associate Professor of Accounting, Tidewater Community College, Norfolk, VA
MS in Accounting, BS in Business Administration/Accounting
Students are always surprised on the first day of Professor Debbie Porter’s accounting class. As they walk in, the song “Taking Care of Business” plays, and they immediately know they are not in a typical classroom. And when Porter breaks out some of their favorite childhood toys, they understand she is not a typical instructor. Before long, students are sold on sticking with the course through Drop/Add—and may even begin to see Porter’s passion for the subject. “[In accounting,] everything makes sense,” she says. “It balances. I love how it is always the same.”
Porter started exploring these additions to her teaching tool kit shortly after she became an instructor at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Virginia. There, she realized that accounting did not come so easily to many students, and she wanted to find ways to make it not only concrete and accessible but a little fun.
At first glance, her creative accounting methods may seem unusual for college: After all, along with a unique take on office hours, her favored tools are hands-on manipulatives, such as Legos, building blocks, and buzzers, that make animal noises. But the approach works, as proven by students’ improved tests scores. Below, she shares tips for those interested in making them work in their classroom as well.
“Students think accounting is just math. Hopefully, by the end of the course, they understand that it is a lot more than that. They may not like the individual details, but they understand why it’s important in their everyday lives.”— Debbie Porter, MS
Course description: Introduces accounting principles with respect to financial reporting. Demonstrates how decision makers use accounting information for reporting purposes. Focuses on the preparation of accounting information and its use in the operation of organizations, as well as methods of analysis and interpretation of accounting information.
See resources shared by Debbie Porter, MSSee materials
Make accounting more “real” with demos—and lunch
Accounting can be abstract, which helps explain why Porter has found a benefit in teaching certain concepts with physical objects. Her results? Students’ exam scores have improved, and they have a better understanding of the actions behind the numbers and what those figures represent. “If they can touch items that represent what they are doing, they can actually understand why there is a flow and how the flow works,” Porter says.
Here, Porter shares how she makes her lessons—and herself—more accessible to her students.
Use toys to represent objects in a transaction
To teach transaction analysis and the idea that at least two accounts are impacted by every single transaction, Porter brings out toy cars, blocks, and paper mockups of bills and stock certificates. Then her students start making purchases in class.
Here is how it works: Porter first gives students play money, and then they split into groups of three or four. Each group represents part of a classroom market; the groups are also given lists of transactions they must make within this market.
This is where the toys come in. To purchase a vehicle, for example, a student must give Porter the correct amount in play money, and pick up a (toy) car. When buying real estate, they receive a toddler’s block shaped like a house. A purchase of stock gets them a paper “certificate.”
After conducting each transaction on their list, students record each of the transactions on a spreadsheet. When the buying and selling are finished, they prepare a financial statement.
The whole activity takes 30 to 45 minutes. Porter says it helps students understand both the process and record keeping. “It gives them a visual, and that’s what I’m all about,” she says. “It’s trying to give them concrete things that they can wrap their heads around.”
Calculate costs with Lego “sales”
Porter also teaches her class to calculate the cost of goods sold through first-in-first-out (FIFO), last-in-first-out (LIFO), and weighted average. To explain the concepts, she brings out Legos in different colors and has students do an activity in which they “buy” and “sell” them.
The different colors of the blocks represent different layers—based on the dates they were put in inventory. The color separations give students a visual representation of how the costs flow from inventory to expense.
Students follow the process to understand the cost flow by looking at the different colors in the Lego layers, and then learn how to calculate it.
Porter’s students love this activity. “They say it really helps them understand the concept, because they can visually understand the process,” she says.
Ease quiz anxiety with animal-noise buzzers
Porter has transformed her quizzes into quiz shows, where she gives students buzzers that make animal sounds. She stands at the front of the class to ask questions, and when students know an answer, they press the buzzer for a chance to respond. The resultant moo or baa often brings on laughs. “This relaxes them a little bit,” says Porter.
Use “Lunch and Learn Labs” to provide extra help
Porter also takes a different approach to office hours. She hosts lunch hours in her classroom, which she calls Lunch and Learn Labs (LL&Ls). These are open to all accounting students, not just her own.
During the L&LLs, students can do homework and ask questions while they eat. If there is a concept they do not understand, Porter will reteach it on the fly. If there are many students struggling with the same topic, Porter conducts a mini-class (which is flexible, geared toward who attends and what their needs are).
“Students don’t like coming to office hours,” Porter says. “They don’t like being one-on-one with the professor.” But they are not intimidated in her classroom—and definitely not when having lunch with friends.