Here’s how accounting professor Dr. Steve Crawford uses quirky activities to keep his students engaged.
Assistant Professor of Accounting, University of Houston
PhD, MBA, MAcc, BS in Accounting
Steve Crawford, PhD, always loved numbers—which may make him sound dead serious, but students find him to be a live wire. As an assistant professor of accounting at the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business, his goal is to ensure that students love to “make things add up” just as much as he does, and he has some unique ways of doing so.
Crawford starts by appealing to students on a personal level. “I try to connect with them so they know I’m accessible, and I invite them to my office,” he says. He also memorizes each of their names, using a trick called a Memory Palace (see below), and he invites them to be on a first-name basis with him, too. “I encourage them to call me Steve, so they feel comfortable stopping me and asking questions,” Crawford says.
He is a believer in using classroom activities to help students remember the concepts. For instance, he relies on Excel spreadsheets in most class sessions, asking students to use real-world financial statement data to apply the principles they learned that day. He also uses Kahoot! to provide the students with interactive reviews of the class material.
Here, Crawford shares details about some of his more madcap classroom activities—such as dissecting a teddy bear and sorting laundry—that he uses to turn number-crunching into doubling over with laughter. “Some tactics sound wacky, but every year I get students who come back and say, ‘This is one of the best classes I’ve taken,’” Crawford says. “They never forget the laundry exercise!”
Accounting has a reputation for being boring
“Debits and credits are boring stuff,” Crawford says, noting that studying them is not usually very active or interactive. To spice things up and generate more interest, he felt it important to help students learn through practice instead of through lecturing.
Infuse accounting lessons with creative activities
Crawford’s classroom activities are often based on everyday chores, but they make accounting feel less like a chore to learn: Students might sort laundry one day and dissect a teddy bear on another. Crawford says the lessons may sound “wacky,” but the approach works: Students remember the laughter and the accompanying lesson.
“I’m always trying to think up creative ways to teach the material so students will understand the concepts and remember them.”— Steve Crawford, MBA
Course description: This course is designed to develop skills in financial statement analysis with special emphasis on understanding, organizing, and summarizing financial data for decision making purposes related to valuation.
See resources shared by Steve Crawford, MBASee materials
Assign teddy bear surgery
On the first day of class, Crawford makes financial reports come alive—so to speak—with a teddy bear. First, he informs students that this three-foot teddy represents a financial analyst report. The bear has been sliced open and inside are tucked different cardboard signs that look like body parts. These are labeled with titles that indicate a section of a financial analyst report. For example, a bone might say “industry.”
Crawford then asks a student to come to the front of the class to perform surgery. The student reaches into the bear and pulls out a component. Crawford shows it to the class, tapes it to the board, and begins a class discussion based on the topic.
He tapes all the signs on the board in the manner shown below. “The most important part is the heart—which is the recommendation to buy or sell—and is painted red,” Crawford says. “Just as the heart is the body’s most essential part, this recommendation is the most important part of the document.”
Have students do their laundry
Crawford spray-paints T-shirts with various “balance sheet” items and asks students to sort them into groups, just as they would sort laundry. This is a tangible way to give them a sense of what it means to interpret and sort various items on financial statements. “A dark shirt might say ‘long-term investment,’ and on the back, it might say ‘divided revenue,’” Crawford says. Students categorize each financial statement item as an operating or nonoperating item.
Teach them the Memory Palace trick
Crawford also models and shares interesting approaches to learning. For example, he uses memory tricks to remember each student’s name, and he particularly favors a technique called Memory Palace. The strategy was adopted from Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, and it works by linking unfamiliar things (such as names) with a familiar setting. Here’s an example:
Crawford chooses a place he knows well, such as his childhood home. He mentally walks himself through the entire house, from front door to kitchen to stairwell, and so on. Then he takes his class roster and mentally “places” each name in a location of his home. He then makes a simple drawing of the house image associated with each student on an individual note card, which also holds that student’s name and photo. He reviews this Memory Palace regularly, moving sequentially throughout the familiar space until the names and faces become familiar, too.
Crawford also teaches his students this mental game for their own memorization practices—along with all the other activities he introduces in his classes. “I hope that by using these crazy exercises,” he says, “students will remember what they learn so they can apply it in their careers.”