When Accounting Students Don’t Make the Grade

Faculty members share ways they assist students in academic trouble.

by Samiha Khanna

February 14, 2017

Simply put, accounting isn’t always something that comes naturally, said Brandon Newcomb, a 23-year-old accounting major at Drexel University.

“It’s not something you can just pick up and run with and wing it and get a good grade,” he said. “If you’re not understanding it, you just have to apply the time and you will pick it up.”

“No one is going to help you with something if you can’t help yourself,” added Drexel accounting major Christopher Mager. “We’re in college. The ball is in your court, and you have to take control.”

Unfortunately, as most instructors know, not all college students have such a refreshing sense of accountability. Every semester, some students are going to struggle—and faculty must walk the line between assisting these students and allowing them to take responsibility for their own academic success.

Accounting faculty share some strategies they use to support students while maintaining high expectations.

Make yourself available to students who have questions. When you provide your contact information at the beginning of the semester, list two or three ways for students to get in touch with you—office hours, email, and, if you are comfortable with it, even a cellphone number where you can receive texts.

You can also try making your office hours more accessible. Shelby Collins, CPA, an instructor of accounting at the State University of New York at Buffalo, moved her office so it’d be right next to the classroom she teaches in, and changed her office hours so they’re right after class. “You want to let students know you care and that you’d like to see them at office hours, but for the most part they need to own that,” she said. “They do need to walk their own feet into my office if they need help.”

Make policies transparent. Collins said that, rather than considering how to help students who have fallen behind, one approach is to “think about what we can do to prevent students from struggling in the first place.”

“You want to make sure your assignments and grading expectations are predictable, so they know what’s going to happen every day in class, they know what to expect on an exam,” she said.

That doesn’t mean faculty should take it easy on them, she said. “Just make sure they know what it takes to succeed. You want to make it a game they can win.”

Adopt teaching styles that make it easier to identify struggling students. At the University of South Dakota, associate professor Jason C. Porter, Ph.D., says using a flipped classroom helps him pinpoint the students who need more help. He requires students to watch a lecture prior to coming to class, and then has the students complete activities during class.

“During class, I’m moving around room answering questions. That helps me zone in on the students who need help,” said Porter, who has taught accounting at the college level more than 10 years. He also uses live polling, available on many campuses through Poll Everywhere, to monitor whether students are listening actively and grasping the lesson.

Collins, who began her career at KPMG, recommends using active learning techniques. “Don’t just stand there and lecture—give students an opportunity to practice the skills right away,” she said. “Then they’re able to ask their questions right away. Involving them in their learning process is important.”

Use technology to identify students who need help and let students track their progress. Campus-wide online learning systems can help students take responsibility for their learning, as they allow students to keep track of their courses, contact professors, or receive and submit homework assignments, and monitor their grades.

Another advantage to these systems, said Stacy Kline, CPA, a clinical professor of accounting at the LeBow College of Business at Drexel, is that they let faculty see students’ “progress on a real-time basis and helps us target the students who are not performing well. It will give us an indicator that Joe Student isn’t doing well and will suggest emailing him to connect. It’s easy to manage.”

Ask students to let you know if a personal problem is affecting their work. Porter said he’s saddened to remember a student who was earning A’s at the beginning of one semester but whose grades soon turned to F’s.

“On the last day of class, she told me that her grandmother had died at the beginning of the semester and she had been devastated,” Porter said. “But on the last day of the semester, there was nothing I could do to help her—it was over. I make sure to tell students if there is a problem, come see me right away.”

Collins said it’s important to be firm but also compassionate toward students facing difficulties in their personal lives. “You have to treat students like humans,” she said. “You want to keep your policies flexible.”

Leverage peer-to-peer teaching. At Drexel, Kline serves as the director of student engagement, a new role for the accounting department through which she has introduced or oversees several programs to help students. Through one such initiative, Beta Alpha Psi members offer free tutoring to their peers. This model has a number of benefits, Kline said. Students receive help while the tutors also earn community service hours, which are required for membership in the honor organization, and all students get practice in the art of peer-to-peer networking.

“I would encourage anyone on campus to organize a tutoring center or office where students could volunteer on a weekly basis,” Kline said. ”It’s a great way for student to build their résumé and provide community service. Many universities will even pay some students to work as a tutor.”

The school is also piloting new programs including “wraparound” courses that bring older students into accounting courses to support students as peer coaches. In these introductory-level classes, students who attend large lecture sections can take workshops led by their peer coaches where they improve their study skills, work on additional practice problems and concepts, and take practice quizzes.

“This model is a win-win for all students,” Kline said. “The peer leaders develop their presentation and leadership skills with faculty guidance, and introductory accounting students get support to assist with study skills and learning.”

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article, contact Courtney Vien, associate editor at the AICPA.

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