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COMMENTARY A day of active-learning: an accounting educators'


symposium
Ralph W. Adler; Markus J. Milne

Online publication date: 05 October 2010

To cite this Article Adler, Ralph W. and Milne, Markus J.(1997) 'COMMENTARY A day of active-learning: an accounting
educators' symposium', Accounting Education, 6: 3, 273 — 280
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Accounting Education 6 (3), 273–280 (1997)

COMMENTARY
A day of active-learning: an accounting
educators’ symposium
R AL PH W. A DL ER and M AR K US J. M I LN E
University of Otago, New Zealand

Received: December 1996


Revised: February 1997
Accepted: March 1997

In July 1996 a group of just under 30 business, primarily accounting, educators gathered
in Christchurch, New Zealand to take part in a one-day educators’ symposium. The theme
of the symposium was active student learning in undergraduate business education, and its
purpose was to explore the use (including the design, implementation, and assessment) of
such student-empowering learning methods as case studies, simulations, role plays,
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seminar presentations, and peer appraisal and assessment.


Active student learning involves learning tasks which embody generic skills and attitude
development, as well as the acquisition of a knowledge base, and in which the learners
take some control and responsibility for their own learning. The generic skills and attitude
development come about because the learning tasks require the learners to be actively
involved in decisions about what they will learn and how they will learn. How much
control and responsibility learners acquire depends upon who makes the decisions about
such instructional functions as goals and objectives of learning; the content to be learned;
methods and materials; pacing; responsibility for providing meaning, diagnosis of
performance problems; motivation; and evaluation of achievement (Heron, 1989; Candy,
1991). Active-learning tasks, as we use the term, are likely to involve explicit and genuine
attempts on the part of the instructor to delegate some control and responsibility to the
learners.1 In this sense, then, active student learning tasks say as much about the attitudes
of the educator as they do about the student activity taking place.
Unlike many other business educators’ conferences we have attended, one of the
guiding principles of the symposium was that presenters were required to model, as
opposed to describe, the active student learning practices they used. In the event, the
symposium quickly took on the appearance of a classroom environment. The live
demonstrations of particular practices, in conjunction with participants assuming the role
of empowered active ‘students’, probably made the greatest contribution to the day’s
success. While greater details of the practices modelled at the symposium are available

* Address for correspondence: Mr M.J. Milne, Department of Accountancy, University of Otago, Dunedin, New
Zealand.
1
Case study material by itself, for example, does little to deŽ ne the nature of the learning task. If used in a
situation where the instructor entirely dominates the problem deŽ nition, analysis, solution set and recommenda-
tion phases, as for example in a lecture demonstration of how to do a case study, then the learning situation is
relatively inactive. If, on the hand, the learners are given the case study material and informed they have a class
session in which to present and discuss the material with their peers, then the situation is considerably more
active.

0963–9284 © 1997 Chapman & Hall


274 Adler and Milne

from the presenters themselves (see Appendix for contact details), the following
commentary offers an overview of the symposium, the motivations for it, and several
reasons for its success.

Three major themes emerged from the symposium. First, the enthusiastic response of the
participants seemed in large measure to be associated with the modelling and active
participation of all involved. Second, an invited perspective from an educationalist
highlighted an important issue: the need for educators to concern themselves with student
learning rather than their own grasp of the knowledge base and teaching effectiveness.
Third, in outlining their new admission guidelines, the New Zealand Institute of Chartered
Accountants clearly indicated support for active student learning to play a greater role in
the education of future accountants. The idea for the symposium originated from some
earlier survey work we had undertaken on active student learning and assessment practices
used in accredited accounting degrees in New Zealand tertiary institutions (see Adler and
Milne, 1997). While we were surprised at the general dearth of active student learning
practices (over 60% of courses made no use of any such practices), we were encouraged
by the small minority of accounting educators who were using and assessing case study,
group, and student presentation work. Therefore, one aim of the symposium was to bring
together such educators to exchange ideas on how such practices had developed, how they
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were used, and how pitfalls might be avoided. We had been experimenting with such
techniques for several years and were interested in what others were doing in their
classrooms. Another aim of the symposium was for educators to share their knowledge and
experience of active student-learning techniques with those educators who were interested
in experimenting with such practices.
The idea that the symposium be consistent with its theme, and have participants act out
their practices using the other participants, arose out of discussions with our local Higher
Education Development Centre director, Dr Graham Webb. From the Internet responses to
our calls for interest, it quickly became apparent that this feature was particularly
appealing to a number of educators. In hindsight, having now read more of the education
literature, particularly Gibbs (1992) and Ramsden (1992), we now realise why. Not only is
student learning likely to be enhanced through action-oriented learning tasks but,
according to Ramsden (1992), so too is staff (educator) learning and development. The
active-based symposium format was not the only way of facilitating an active exchange of
ideas, but nonetheless it did provide a refreshing alternative to the lecture-style
presentation formats normally found at such gatherings.
The day’s programme started with an educationalist’s perspectives on active-based
learning. Dr Margaret Harrison from the Educational Research and Advisory Unit at the
University of Canterbury, NZ, offered various insights into the use of active-based learning
approaches. In particular, she made it clear that teacher perceptions tend to drive teacher
behaviour, and that what teachers choose to focus on tends to develop through three stages.
First, teachers tend to concern themselves with their knowledge base (e.g., do I know
enough to teach this?). Second, teachers focus on their skills base (e.g., how can I teach
this more effectively? How can I improve my lecturing technique? What methods can I use
to teach this?). Finally, teachers concern themselves with student learning (e.g., what’s
going on inside the students’ heads? What can I do to help the students in their learning?)
Not all teachers, she suggests, evolve to this Ž nal stage where teachers change their focus
from themselves to the learners under their supervision. Yet it is when teachers reach this
A day of active-learning 275

Ž nal stage in their development that they are likely, according to Ramsden (1992), to
pursue strategies that ‘make learning possible’ rather than strategies that focus on ‘telling
or transmitting’.
According to Dr Harrison, and in this she follows Ramsden (1988, 1992) and others,
learning comes about from an active working upon, and interaction between, the old way
of thinking and the new. All learning is based on existing knowledge, and by ‘working
things out for themselves or generating meaning from their own experiences, students
develop linkages with that existing knowledge base.’ Moreover, Dr Harrison makes the
point that ‘the more a student does with material, and the more sensory modes they use,
the more likely their knowledge will be modiŽ ed in terms of new ideas, and the more
linkages there are with other ideas so that knowledge is easily accessed in a number of
contexts and applied appropriately . . . ’ Learning, then, is facilitated by arranging
situations where learners (students and staff) confront the differences between their present
way of thinking and the new way, and where learners can come to realize the personal
value of the new way. A further point made by Dr Harrison was that, in facilitating
learning situations, teachers needed to both challenge and support the learner. The learner
needs to be given the chance to develop over time. With too much autonomy, too soon,
students may wallow in ignorance, misconception and chaos. But, too much teacher-
control, for too long, denies students the beneŽ ts of working things out for themselves. As
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she puts it, the teacher’s role is to provide a set of steps for the students to climb, not a cliff
to scale.
A second perspective offered to the symposium was that of the New Zealand Society of
Accountants (now Institute of Chartered Accountants of New Zealand). The Admissions
Director, Harry Maltby, outlined the Institute’s new Admission Guidelines and the role
that active-based learning methods were expected to play in developing accountants for the
future. In particular, he stressed that in addition to technical knowledge, the development
of a wider knowledge base and the development of intellectual, interpersonal and
communication skills were now expected. He made it clear that such active-learning
methods as case studies, simulations, and group work were now Ž rmly advocated for the
Professional Accounting School’s education component and were recognized as important
for the development of intellectual, interpersonal and communication skills. Although the
Institute has stopped short of prescribing active-learning methods for Institute-accredited
degree programmes, they would be encouraged through the Institute’s process of
accrediting tertiary institutions.2
Mr Maltby also discussed the Institute’s view on student assessment. A perception often
held by educators, which may be valid as far as other accounting bodies go, is that the
Institute has rigid rules about assessment methods, favours examination-based methods,
and disdains such practices as group assessment. He stated that, for the New Zealand
Institute, nothing could be further from the truth. In advocating the development of wider
competencies, and the use of more varied learning approaches, assessment methods

2
A similar position also seems to have recently been adopted by the Australian professional accounting bodies
– the Australian Society of CertiŽ ed Practising Accountants and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in
Australia. Ann Johns (1996) reports in their revised guidelines for joint accreditation of university degrees that
the emphasis is now on an outcomes approach and it is not the intention of the profession to narrowly prescrib e
a standard course but rather encourage a diversity of approaches. Encouragingly, she also reports that the revised
accreditation guidelines seek to address the need for ‘. . . problem-solving skills, understanding a broad range of
concepts and values, and communication and interpersonal skills . . .’ (p.21) .
276 Adler and Milne

appropriate to such learning approaches are recognized and seen as acceptable to the
Institute. He stated that the Institute does not have any prescriptive rules about terminal
examination assessment. Indeed, an example of this attitude is our own course at Otago
which has a Ž nal examination worth 25% and group work which counts for 30% of the
course.
Following the opening educational and professional perspectives, the remainder of the
day’s programme was devoted to seven practical sessions involving accounting, Ž nance,
and business studies educators from Australia and New Zealand (see Appendix). The
variety of practices illustrated was re ected in the subject matters addressed, in the
activities the students undertook, in the extent to which the practices formed part or all of
the course of study, and in the level of study at which the practices were applied. Several
of the practices illustrated, for instance, were one-off events while others were more
enduring and lasted a whole course. Kate Brown’s role play, for example, is used as a one-
off scene-setting activity in the opening class of her stage three case-based Ž nancial
decision-making course. The role play, she suggests, serves several purposes: the exposure
of students to a multitude of different stakeholders involved with Ž nancial decisions;
making it clear that Ž nancial decisions often carry a host of non-Ž nancial considerations,
including ethical issues; signalling that Ž nancial decisions require judgement in the face of
incomplete information and uncertainty; and serving as an ice-breaker to encourage
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student interaction in a risk-free and fun environment.


Margaret Lightbody’s paper rabbit factory simulation exercise is also a one-off class
activity used to familiarize stage two students with manufacturing processes and the
underlying cost accounting concepts of product costing, valuing work in process and
wastage, and determining equivalent units. She suggests the production line simulation can
also be used to raise production line management issues such as stafŽ ng departments,
quality control, budgeting, standard costing, and pay and performance. Furthermore, as she
made clear, not only does the simulation provide students with a concrete experience
which enables them to grasp the concepts being introduced during the session, it also can
be referred to in subsequent sessions when introducing other new concepts.
Another of the educational activities introduced to the symposium was a play about the
futures market by Rodney Coombridge and Richard Francis. They state that, although they
had both been futures dealers and taught investment management for many years, the
students always had difŽ culty in understanding the futures markets. In search of a better
way to facilitate such an understanding, they developed a four act play on the development
of a futures market for wool. As Richard Francis says, ‘It seems to work.’ The play
evolves from a single buyer and seller in scene one through to a market in scene four. The
characters and venues include farmers, carpet company buyers, bartenders, woolsheds, and
bars which are intended to make the play light-hearted and easily accessible to the local
(New Zealand) students’ experiences.
One of the more enduring activities introduced at the symposium was the interactive and
interdisciplinary studies course undertaken at the Auckland Institute of Technology.
Although only a potted version of the activities were facilitated at the symposium, the
course itself is based on a company business plan which the students complete in small
groups. The activity is not only used to facilitate student interaction, but it also serves to
introduce and integrate several business study disciplines including marketing, manage-
ment, accounting and Ž nance, and business law. The students investigate legal structures,
marketing and sales activities, production technologies, human resource management,
A day of active-learning 277

raising capital, taxation, as well as budgeting and other accounting issues in the process of
constructing their business plans.
As far as most, if not all, of the participants were concerned the day’s events were a
stunning success. The feedback from the participants suggested several reasons for this. As
one participant put it, ‘the hands-on type experiences made the programme “active” in
itself and this, coupled with the size of the group and the engaging and enthusiastic nature
of the presenters – who were all able to demonstrate a real spirit of adventure in teaching
– really made the day  y.’ Another suggested, ‘the interactive nature of the symposium
was very valuable for participants as well as presenters. As a participant, it allowed me to
see and experience what others were doing in their curricula and “how” they were
implementing techniques and resources. It gave me ideas I could use in the classroom and
use immediately.’ Another aspect which was seen to help the day was the lack of any
attempt on the part of the presenters to “sell” their approaches as the way to educate, and
the fact that the presenters actively encouraged comment and suggestions. The symposium
was a truly refreshing experience for many, and, as one put it, ‘probably the most valuable
professional development programme that I have attended in the past ten years – my lateral
thinking has been in overdrive since attending.’
Of course the comments above are impressions of the day, but the symposium has also
met with some limited success in changing at least two of the educators’ practices. One of
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the non-presenting participants has informed us that he was so inspired by the tale of the
paper rabbits that he has subsequently developed a ‘bean counting’ activity for his auditing
course (and his Teaching Note is included in this issue). The second has subsequently
revised his undergraduate stage 1 paper to include the paper rabbits simulation.
Before summarizing this narrative, it is worth considering the role that academic
activities (including conferences, journals, and activities like the symposium) can play in
the encouragement and development of innovation in accounting education. Ways forward,
we would suggest, seem to require the creation of environments where educators can
honestly and conŽ dently exchange ideas on their own teaching practices, and where they
will not feel intimidated in so doing. Two factors can have a bearing on the successful
creation of such environments: the format of the event and its size, and the criteria by
which such practices and ideas are judged. We believe that the current format of so many
conferences do little to help develop innovative teaching practices. Not only do the sheer
size and the consequent impersonal nature of such gatherings tend to sti e meaningful
exchange, so too do the lecture-style formats. Too often the hierarchical mode of expert
(who does all the telling) and non-expert (who does all the listening) dominates the
proceedings at academic conferences. This constructed imbalance of power is likely to
impede meaningful and constructive exchange – particularly amongst the younger and/or
less conŽ dent faculty.
The development and encouragement of changes in attitude initially requires a risk-free
environment where everybody can have a say and where all ideas can be valued regardless
of their apparent initial potential for success. The modes of exchange are more likely to be
co-operative than hierarchical. One possibility is the type of classroom-oriented symposia
we recently held, where numbers are limited, and where intimate exchanges can be
fostered. Small workshop-type gatherings can also help if they clearly indicate that the
activities are likely to be embryonic and developmental. Other possibilities include in-
house developments such as teaching seminars where educators are actively encouraged to
discuss their teaching practices and seek input from others about course (re)designs.
278 Adler and Milne

Similarly, team teaching can also help, where individuals with a history of experiential
teaching can help foster changes in attitudes in other educators through on-the-job changes
to course design, etc. Short-term faculty visits to other institutions can also be used to
facilitate exchanges on teaching practices. For example, the visitors might be invited to sit
in on a class to experience particular practices and to offer constructive comments for
improvement. We believe that such continuous low-key events are more likely to
encourage educators to experiment and to re ect on their teaching activities than are
formal conferences and academic journals.
A further important issue is how educators come to judge the success or failure of their
own and others’ learning approaches, innovations, experiments and changes. In our
experience two states of play seem to be prevalent, both of which are to an extent
unsatisfactory, but for different reasons. First, many educators do not monitor the effects
of their approaches, or they tend to collect feedback in institutionalized and standardized
formats. Such feedback tends to say much about the teacher’s performance, but little about
the process of student learning in that particular teaching context. Such feedback also tends
to come at the end rather than in the middle of a course. Moreover, if it results in a reaction
at all, it tends to result in a reactive response in which educators seek to correct what was
wrong. We would suggest that few educators regularly collect relevant feedback on their
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students’ approaches to learning with the proactive intention of seeking continuous


improvements to their teaching context. Relevant feedback is any information from
current, past, or future students, other educators, employers and other relevant parties
which allows an educator to develop an understanding of the relationship between the
teaching environment and student learning and to draw conclusions about its effectiveness.
What is most important is that educators have good reasons for what they and their
students do in the classrooms in terms of learning. How they might justify these reasons,
what feedback they might choose to collect, and how they might choose to collect it is
really for them to judge.
Second, conferences and journals, quite understandably presuppose that educators have
sufŽ cient interest and motivation in the Ž rst place to attend or read about the developments
of others. Some educators do possess that interest, but more could. The logically prior
issue, which we touched on earlier, is how do we encourage and motivate this interest?
The issue is not really about advertising superior products (in journals and at conferences)
to willing buyers. It is much more about developing individuals with the conŽ dence to
seek changes to their own way of doing things. A further point to consider is that, while
journals and conferences clearly have an important role to play in the dissemination of
interesting experiments to others, the manner in which they judge experiments worthy of
dissemination may be overly narrow and potentially harmful to the development of
innovation. Innovation and experimentation by their very nature imply both success and
failure. Educators need to be made to feel safe about their experiments. Everybody makes
mistakes and learning from them is part of the process of improvement. We would suggest
that fear of failure is potentially a major impediment to change. Consequently, there is a
danger that if all we ever see are the success stories, and the educational journals do seem
extremely biased towards positive-outcome experiments, then that fear of failure may be
exacerbated for many. Moreover, the opportunity to share the learning experience that
comes from failure is also lost. For educators seeking change, knowing what doesn’t work
may be as important as knowing what does.
A day of active-learning 279

An insistence on the part of journals and conferences that educators must provide
quantiŽ ed and replicable evidence to substantiate their educational endeavours could also
limit innovation by denying other educators access to a wider range of experiences. Good
narrative descriptions of instructors’ and students’ experiences of particular approaches
may be every bit as valuable for the encouragement of innovation as student responses to
some Likert-type scales. Some journals and conferences are more effective at providing
this than others. Nonetheless, we would encourage reviewers to keep an open mind about
what constitutes good reasons for the creation of particular learning contexts and methods
of evaluating effectiveness. In recent years many educationalists (e.g. Ramsden, Gibbs,
etc) have moved away from telling and showing others how best to teach. The staff
development literature is now more about the encouragement of educators to self-develop,
to research their own teaching, and to develop their own ways of judging the effectiveness
of their own approaches. It would be a great pity, therefore, if the role that has been
vacated by the educationalists were to become Ž lled by a group of apparently successful
accounting educators telling and showing others how best to teach.
The symposium was a success not only because it clearly illustrated that educators in
accounting and business courses can offer students alternative and active approaches to
learning, but also because it offered educators an active alternative to learning about these
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practices. The interactive nature of the symposium created an engaging and fun
environment in which participants could work things out for themselves, develop linkages
with their existing knowledge and generate meaning from their own experiences.
Ultimately, changes in classroom practices require changes in the attitudes and behaviour
of the educators in those classrooms. The more varied the opportunities that can be
provided for educators, to experience alternative practices and to develop the conŽ dence to
make a start on their own, the better.

Acknowledgements
For their assistance with the preparation of this commentary on the symposium we would
like to thank Kate Brown, Ursula Lucas, and all those participants from the symposium
who provided valuable feedback on the day’s activities. For sponsoring the event, we
would also like to thank the Institute of Chartered Accountants of New Zealand, and in
particular, Harry Maltby. Finally, our thanks to all those participating educators who acted
out their teaching practices and made the day a success.

Appendix
Margaret Harrison, Active-based learning approaches: an educator’s view . (no paper, Educational
Research and Advisory Unit, University of Canterbury, PO Box 8004, Christchurch, New
Zealand, E-mail: m.harrison@erau.canterbury.ac.nz).
Harry Maltby, An accounting profession’s perspectives on active-based learning . (no paper, Institute
of Chartered Accountants of New Zealand, PO Box 11 342, Wellington, New Zealand. E-mail:
harry_maltby@icanz.co.nz).
Kate Brown, A role play for Ž nancial decision making. (Department of Finance and Quantitative
Analysis, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand. E-mail:
kbrown@commerce.otago.ac.nz).
280 Adler and Milne

Despina WhiteŽ eld and Tony WhiteŽ eld, A multi-sensory demonstration of costing techniques.
(Department of Accountancy and Law, Victoria University of Technology, PO Box 14428,
Melbourne, Australia and Carey Baptist Grammer School, Melbourne, Australia. E-mail:
whide@cougar.vut.edu.au).
Margaret Lightbody, A tale of paper rabbits: a factory simulation exercise. (Faculty of commerce,
Flinders University of South Australia, PO Box 2100, Adelaide, South Australia. E-mail:
lightbod@afml.law. inders.edu.au).
Patricia Evans and Barry Hutton, An interactive use of video to illustrate accounting. (Department
of Accountancy, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, PO Box 2476V, Melbourne,
Australia. E-Mail: pate@metro.bf.rmit.edu.au).
Ralph Adler and Markus Milne, A student-led seminar in management control. (Department of
Accountancy, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand. E-mail:
radler@commerce.otago.ac.nz).
Philippa Gerbic, Garry Muriwai and Sue Yong, Interactive and interdisciplinary business studies for
stage one students: a problem-based approach . (Faculty of Commerce, Auckland Institute of
Technology, Private Bag 92006, Auckland, New Zealand. E-mail: pgerbic@chaln1.ait.ac.nz).
Rodney Coombridge and Richard Francis, Money for nothing: an instructive play on the futures
market. (Business Studies Department, The Waikato Polytechnic, Private Bag 3036, Hamilton,
New Zealand. E-mail: bsrtf@twp.ac.nz).
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