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Ditch the Scantrons to Boost Intellectual Creativity

By promoting imagination (not memorization) to put managerial accounting principles to use, this professor boosts students’ future marketability.

Educator

Meir Pfeffer, CPA/MBA

Adjunct Professor of Accounting, Silberman College of Business, Fairleigh Dickinson University

CPA, MBA in Accounting, BA in Accounting and Business Administration

“Getting creative with accounting” may sound like something that will get you in trouble with the law, but this is exactly the principle on which Meir Pfeffer, CPA/MBA, bases his course in managerial accounting. Pfeffer, who is an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, says his teaching style has been influenced by what he did not get from the professors he had when he was an undergraduate taking his first accounting class 40 years ago.

“I was learning debits and credits, and none of it made any sense,” he says. “I was frustrated. [I wondered,] ‘How does business really work and how does accounting factor into that?’ I couldn’t see how what I was learning related to what I was supposed to do when I got to my first job. That always bothered me.”

Pfeffer designed this Best Lesson—Creative Presentation on Accounting Principles—to clarify the connections between accounting theory and its real-world applications, all of which adds up to a more valuable learning experience for his students.

“The lesson causes the students to think outside the box,” says Pfeffer. “And for accounting students, that can be transformative.”

Challenge: Rote teaching methods, preconceived notions

Pfeffer remembers what it was like to be an undergraduate, questioning the real-world implications and application of his classes in accounting principles. So he was already aware that the students taking his courses today may have similar concerns about how accounting principles are put into action in a business setting. He also felt that the educational system often does not require or inspire students to think creatively, which is an essential component of being a problem solver in the workforce. Tricky multiple choice and true/false testing—while easier to administer and quicker to grade—only exacerbated the issue by giving students answers to choose from, rather than pushing them to seek their own solutions.

Pfeffer asserts that these types of tests require a significant amount of rote memorization. And, he says, students who merely memorize accounting principles today may forget them tomorrow. That fear motivates this professor to make his lesson memorable and the work his students do more meaningful.

“I tell students at the start of the course that I want to prep them for the CPA review course, give them skills for future classes, and provide tools they can run with in the real world,” he says. “And to succeed in the real world, the things you learn in school need to be memorable and, wherever possible, enjoyable.”

Further, Pfeffer says that many students walk into his class with preconceived notions of what accounting is and/or what academia should do for them. They are under the impression that accounting classes only involve taking in information and returning the one correct answer, he asserts. Academia, then, can become a means to an end (getting the grade and the degree), rather than a road toward gaining the knowledge, confidence, and strategies to think creatively.

Innovation: Taking a colorful approach to a black-and-white topic

The most innovative thing about Pfeffer’s approach? He shows students that creativity can go hand in hand with solid accounting principles. Using imagination to solve problems with accounting will help lock in concepts far more than filling in bubbles on a Scantron form, he adds. For that reason, Pfeffer has reduced the value placed on traditional exams when presenting his lesson called Creative Presentation on Accounting Principles, which culminates in a written paper.

In this lesson, students must deeply understand a business or product that they either research or create from scratch (and yes, they can choose anything they want). Then they write a paper on the accounting implications related to the manufacturing, ordering, and profitability for that business or product. Most important, he requires them to think for themselves throughout the process.

“When I present the lesson, students come to me ask, ‘Do you want this? Do you want that?’” Pfeffer says. “I say to them that if I answer them, then I’ll be doing the assignment for them. I tell them the assignment is for them to decide, and to use their imaginations and creativity. I want their aha! moment to be their idea and creativity, not about the professor’s idea or the book’s accounting standards or something they can copy off the Internet.”

Context

Course: ACCT6617 Cost: Measurement, Planning, and Control
Frequency: One meeting per week for 12–15 weeks (also available 2 times per week in an accelerated summer session)
Class size: 24
Course description: The basic elements of cost and cost control. Cost accounting systems such as process costing, job order costing, standard and direct costing, the planning, budgeting, and control functions.
In his words: “My two main goals for this course are to prepare students for the CPA review course, which is a standard preparation course students typically take in order to prepare for the CPA exam, and to help them eventually get and succeed in a job they will appreciate.”

See examples of Professor Pfeffer’s teaching materials

See materials

Lesson: Creative Presentation on Accounting Principles

In this lesson, the framework is simple: Students select a manufactured product or business—or develop one from scratch. Later, they will present a 4-page presentation (1,200 words minimum) on how the accounting concepts learned in class can be used in the manufacturing process, ordering, and profitability of that product. Though this sounds like a straightforward—dare we say conventional—assignment, Pfeffer says that it is the underlying imagination-focused philosophy that makes it different. Here, he shares some tips for helping unlock students’ creative potential:

Start with a few parameters

Peffer explains that students cannot be asked to think creatively about things that they do not understand at a basic level. This is why he starts the semester by explaining the generally accepted accounting principles, industry standards, and ethical guidelines that must be followed—no matter what.

“I don’t tell students about the creativity aspect of the writing assignment until they are more than halfway through the semester,” he says. “By that time, they understand what they’re doing technically, so the creative aspect doesn’t throw them like it would at the beginning of the semester.”

Lower the stress level

Pfeffer says he understands and empathizes with what students are up against outside his classroom, including other schoolwork, jobs, and extracurricular and relationship commitments. For that reason, he is a big proponent of making his classes as stress free as possible without compromising any degree of academic standards.

Pfeffer believes that students who are less stressed are more likely to be fully engaged and to remember the course material long after the course ends. For these reasons, he makes it abundantly clear that he wants all students to succeed and does not want to put them under undue pressure. He makes earning a respectable grade less stressful using the following methods:

  1. By giving points for merely attending and focusing on the lesson, he wants to give the message that it is important and meaningful to him that students attend class.
  2. Students have a user-friendly outline to help them prepare for class, and a separate summary for reviewing the class discussion.
  3. Homework is very straightforward: If students follow the guide Pfeffer gives them, they can complete and understand the homework without struggling.

If students follow steps 1–3 above, Pfeffer says, they will be very well prepared for the exams, term paper, future accounting and business classes, and the world of managerial accounting.

Take a personal interest

“It doesn’t matter how many students I have in a class or in a semester; I know them by name and know their backgrounds,” says Pfeffer. “Among other nontraditional methods, I hand out name cards with their first name and first letter of their last name on the first day of class. They put the cards on the front of their desks at each class, and I ask them not to switch seats during the semester.” He believes that being on a first-name basis can make it easier for students to open up and be creative, which requires a mutual respect and trust.

Guide them to do their own work

Pfeffer leads students in a direction that will help open their minds, but he does not give them any specifics that will keep them from making decisions on their own. If students ask Pfeffer what business or product they should create, he questions them to help them identify an area that sparks their interest. If they are still stuck, he encourages them to think of an existing product or a company they like, then use that as a starting point.

Focus on passion and principles, not great prose

Yes, the lesson is a writing assignment, but Pfeffer thinks it is more important to focus on the student’s engagement with the topic rather than the writing itself. “I am not a writing teacher,” he adds. “I don’t look for brilliant prose. I look to see that they understand what they’re writing, that they make good sense, and that they care about what they’re expressing.”

Pfeffer reads their papers with this question in mind: When they write about this product or business, do they tie it all back to accounting? That is what will help them in their future jobs, he says.

Defense

Pfeffer knows that not all professors will cotton to the idea of getting creative in accounting class. However, he says that he knows there is value in it for one simple reason: He remembers walking into his first job after graduation and wishing his teachers had been less traditionally old-school and had done more to encourage his creativity. That way, he would have been more prepared for real challenges in the real world.

Outcomes

Pfeffer says he is often impressed with the products and businesses his students create—and how they then explore accounting considerations within each. Ideas have included a fueling company named Hit the Road, a line of canned soups, and Heshy’s Hemisha Kugels (based on a family recipe).

At the end of the semester, when some accounting educators might be inclined to remember students by their personality or final grade, Pfeffer remembers his students by project. “Sometimes I see the students semesters later and call them by the name of the business or product they’ve created,” he says. “They love it.”

Student feedback

Pfeffer says that students’ reactions to his lesson have been overwhelmingly positive. They like the way he grades because he focuses on effort and makes sure students know that if they put in effort and exercise their imaginations, he will work with them to make sure they reach their goal.

One student wrote in a post-class evaluation:

“I want to say thank you to Professor Pfeffer for taking the time out to prepare for each class. You gave over the information with such clarity and you made it very enjoyable to be part of your class.”

“Of course, there are a few students who tell me they’d rather be graded solely on exams,” Pfeffer says. “It’s what they are used to. But I explain to them that it’s counterproductive to their creativity. I’ve never had any real complaints after I’ve explained the purpose of the lesson.”

Pfeffer says his favorite feedback is from students he taught many years ago. He says he has students who return 10 years later to tell him how much they learned from his creative lesson. That means the most to him, because they prove his point. These are the students who have been out in the real world, have worked for a few years, and have seen firsthand how being creative really does help make the numbers add up.

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