At the semester’s start, a business professor models his lesson after a movie trailer, building excitement for an often dry subject: tax accounting.
Assistant Professor of Accounting, Central Washington University
LLM in Taxation, MBA in International Business, BA in German
What do Donald Duck, day care, and cable television have to do with tax accounting? It takes only one class with Professor Fabio Ambrosio of Central Washington University to find out.
On the first day of his Tax Accounting course, Ambrosio throws everything but the kitchen sink into his animated lesson plan. Packed into his slide presentation are a little-known Disney video, a cell phone poll, and a game about tax brackets. But it is not just the pedagogical tools that are wide and varied; it is also the content.
“A lot of students don’t really concern themselves with things that actually impact their lives every day,” Ambrosio explains. “I want [their first day in my class] to be a life lesson about how there is a secret world of tax [that is] all around them and they don’t even know it.”
What unfolds within minutes of students entering the room is the course equivalent of a film trailer—an aerial shot of all that students have to look forward to in the semester ahead. The class is treated to a sweeping vista of content, zooming in on the most exciting landmarks that will be visited along the way. And anyone who felt intimidated by the words “tax accounting” is suddenly reaching for the popcorn.
Challenge: New semester, apprehensive students
Many educators have experienced this: students, coming down from the freedom of a break, trudging into class on the first day of the semester and expecting the usual syllabus walk-through, overview of required texts, and review of course expectations. For course subjects that excite most students, this approach may play well. But, says Ambrosio, couple new-semester fog with a dry course title loaded with often-negative preconceived notions, and it only adds to the challenge of post-break student engagement.
Ambrosio reflects, “When my students hear ‘tax,’ they think about some nerdy guy sitting in front of them, [plugging numbers into] a form. They think boring. But the numbers and forms—those are just the compliance aspects. There’s so much more to it. [Students are] used to looking at the trees, but I want them to see the forest.”
Innovation: Drama from day one
When a studio releases a film trailer, it aims to do a few things: immediately captivate an audience, provide a broad sense of what viewers can expect, pique curiosity with a few exciting scenes, and create a buzz around what is to come. Ambrosio’s opening lesson is designed not only to accomplish all of this but also to dispel misconceptions about the field of taxation. His audience will even walk away with some tangible learnings at the end of the class. Most important, the approach is responsive to what his students will ultimately need in order to apply their knowledge after completing the course.
“One thing I’ve learned about learning is that depth is far more precious than breadth,” Ambrosio says. “But here’s the problem: My accounting students will eventually take the CPA exam. The CPA exam, as well as all other standardized tests—they’re all about breadth. They want you to know a little bit of everything. For example, I don’t really care to teach [students] about risk limitations, but it’s on the CPA exam, so I have to. I have to give them a glimpse of tax policy. So I share what they can expect in the rest of the course.”
Although the need to cover a lot of ground on day one may have been born from a challenge, Ambrosio has turned it into a benefit: He takes the breadth of material required of the course and features its most tantalizing scenes, using them as tools for engagement.
Course: ACCT 340 Tax Accounting
Frequency: Two 130-minute class meetings per week
Class size: About 35
In his words: “When you think of tax, there are always questions around what kind of discipline it belongs to—economics, finance, law, accounting. What I want to show [students] in [this] class is that it’s all of the four. So we talk about the accounting aspects, but I don’t want them to lose sight of the big picture: that tax is a tool of public policy.”
ACCT 340 Tax AccountingSee materials
Lesson: Movie trailer–style course overview
The framework for Ambrosio’s lesson may seem driven by a presentation of videos, slides, and the like, but it is the curation and delivery of fascinating tax facts that truly grabs students’ attention. While the PowerPoint slides provide a valuable framework for the trajectory of the content, there is more to the efficacy than a visual aid.
“I definitely don’t just move through the slides,” Ambrosio explains. “I walk the classroom up and down. I crack jokes. I make connections. Really, the slides are just there as a reference. The slides need me. I don’t need the slides.”
Here is more on Ambrosio’s strategies for building student engagement from the get-go:
Hook them with the unexpected
After a brief review of the learning objectives for the day, the lesson begins with a hook: a surprising Disney clip.
Most students associate Disney with heartwarming family films. But Ambrosio shares with them The Spirit of ’43, a 1943 propaganda short cartoon. In it, Donald Duck, who is eager to do his part to support the war effort, learns the importance of paying his taxes.
“I like to see what students’ reactions are,” Ambrosio explains. “Just this quarter, one student said she was disturbed because in the video you see planes and ships being shot [at]. But it shows that tax is a political subject, and whether it’s hot or cold really depends on what else is happening. When a war happens, even cartoons could be airing pro-tax propaganda. In the 1940s, paying taxes was the patriotic thing to do.”
Feature the most relatable scenes
Ambrosio’s hooks are not relegated to his opening; he keeps reeling them in throughout the lecture. In fact, as he equips students with the information they need to understand tax accounting, he colors it with context that helps students see the significance of it all and makes the material more interesting and salient.
For example, he describes the way seemingly innocuous laws around tax shape our lives. “I give them the example of the Child and Dependent Care Credit, in which basically if you pay someone to take care of your child while you go to work, the government will subsidize the cost as long as the child is 13 years or younger. But implied in this is the idea that once the child gets to 14, he or she can stay home alone. Who decided that 14-year-olds can stay home alone?”
Encourage audience participation
While movie theaters ask audiences to put away their phones, Ambrosio encourages their use. After he provides students with an overview of where the government gets its revenue, he uses a PowerPoint plug-in called Poll Everywhere to embed a live poll in his slide presentation to check for understanding. Students send a text (or use their computer or tablet) to answer a given question, and the results automatically populate in the presentation.
Ambrosio does not use the tool for assessment, but rather to guide his instruction. “I don’t care to know who answered wrong or right,” he explains. “It’s just a way for me to see if the class is coming along. If 75% or 80% of them answer correctly, great. If not, I go back a couple of slides.”
Use controversy to solicit emotions and opinions
Rather than serve as passive receivers of information, students in the class are active participants. But how do you engage a class with objective content they do not yet know? Ambrosio’s solution is simple: analogies.
During the lesson, Ambrosio provides a “moment of reflection” in which he asks students a simple question: “Would you share your cable username and password with a friend who asked you for it?” After students share their experiences and opinions, Ambrosio reveals a connection to parliamentary hearings in England, where executives of Starbucks, Amazon, and Google are questioned about operating in a country where they do not pay any tax but use social services.
In this way, Ambrosio engages students conceptually within a familiar context, even before they understand the nuances of tax accounting.
Help audiences see the big picture
At the end of the lesson, students are given a challenge: immediately apply their newfound knowledge in an activity designed to reflect upon all of the social factors that play into tax accounting.
Ambrosio breaks the class into groups of four or five to play an interactive online tax game, in which he instructs them to reduce the deficit by 20%. Each group collaborates on adjusting the tax code, reviewing which citizens and businesses are most affected by each change and what the advantages and disadvantages are. Once they have a plan, groups share their proposals with the class and explain their rationale.
Showing students how much they have learned in just one class meeting—and how much it matters—is not quite a cliff-hanger, but it does leave Ambrosio’s students interested in seeing how everything plays out.
Ambrosio says that the closing activity in the class is not an assessment, but rather a challenge to understand and appreciate the complexity of tax accounting and tax law. “Students get an immediate sense for how difficult a problem this is,” Ambrosio reflects.
Students leave class on the first day with two things: answers and questions. To be certain, they gain a foundation for tax accounting—including who pays what, and where the money goes. However, they also leave with a sense that the social factors that surround tax policy are not cut and dried.
“By the end of the day, I think a lot of them are kind of wowed or they find it interesting. My hope is that my students can start having smart conversations about tax. When a student pays a different price at a Starbucks in Oregon versus a Starbucks in Washington, or when a student hears about contributions to Social Security, I want them to think about why.”