Twenty-four minutes

Last week it was “same thing, different students.” The deja vu I experience each term after the first accounting exam. I took my own advice and provided students an exam wrapper to get a clearer sense of how much they studied and the strategies they used.

The literature is clear that students don’t study as much as we’d like. The complaints about student motivation, ability and effort have a long history.

  • “As a teacher handles more and more freshman and sophomore classes in college, he becomes aware of the deficiencies of our mass education: students lack of interest, poor reading ability, poor writing ability, lack of basic knowledge, and lack of good study habits” (Karner, 1965, p. 38).
  • Marwardt & Sikkink (1970) note “the majority of students in the sample spent far less time in preparation than the assumed two period standard frequently listed by colleges and universities as desirable” p309.

I knew this before I asked. Yet, it’s still a bit unsettling to discover how little time students spent preparing for the first exam. Half the class studied 2 hours or less.

The vast majority used mostly passive tactics, despite my repeated advice to rework problems. About 80% of the class reported “reworking problems” represented no more than 20% of their study time. Put differently, the “typical” student studied no more than two hours and of those 120 minutes, only 24 were spent reworking problems.

As educators, we know reading, reviewing, and “looking over” the textbook or notes are weak, passive learning strategies.  I can tell them that passive strategies aren’t very effective, but telling isn’t as powerful as seeing that for themselves.  I tried a new (for me) strategy last night.

I think I found a winner. One of the topics we’re learning in accounting follows a framework. Altering the variables in the framework leads to different accounting treatment. It’s a perfect context for students to develop their own problem and solve it. In order to develop the problem, you need to understand the variables. Of course, even if the variables are identified correctly, there’s still the issue of recording the transactions (proper treatment of the events).

Here’s what we did. I provided a blank template immediately after we reviewed homework on buyer and seller purchases and sales of merchandise inventory. The template asks students to identify the sales value of the merchandise, cost, credit terms, shipping terms, shipping cost, the amount of any sales returns, and the date the sales transaction is settled. Below the template data are BUYER and SELLER columns. After assigning values to the variables, students must record the activity from both perspectives (buyer and seller). I like this format because it drives home the point that these transactions are two sides of the same coin; one business’s sale is another entity’s purchase.

I assumed (BIG mistake) students would easily fill in values for the variables and then record the transactions, using the homework problems that remained on the screen as inspiration for the template. I estimated it would take about 15 minutes. It was more like 30 minutes as I navigated around the room answering questions.

The time we invested in this activity paid off in two important ways. First, it uncovered misunderstandings. There were some very basic concepts that were cleared up. Second, it very quickly revealed student understanding/confusion to the student. Recording merchandising transactions can be a mechanical process when the information has been provided. Many students follow the textbook examples to complete the homework. Thus, it’s easy to trick themselves into believing they understand the concepts better than they actually do. Having to create a problem requires different thinking, and more understanding.  Some of the “best” performers in the class struggled to complete the activity.

Students who developed and accurately solved a practice problem earned a bonus point. These problems (there are twelve of them and no two are the same) are now available for the entire class to use as practice for the test. Thus, the class created their own practice problems, learning from creating and solving processes. Students whose work had errors  received written feedback from me about their mistakes. Thus, everyone learned from the activity.  It showed students how to “make up their own problem” as a learning strategy, something we often tell students to do, but rarely show them how.

If you teach accounting and are interested in the template/handout, please tweet (@1313lolita) or comment below. I’m happy to share. I’m also interested in learning from my readers… How do you encourage your students to use active study strategies? Please share!


Karner, E.F. 1965. Our Dilemma of Mass Education. Improving College and University Teaching, 13(1): 38.

Marwardt, F. & Sikkink, D.E. 1970. Student Preparation Time. Improving College and University Teaching, 18(4): 308-309.


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on February 24, 2016, in Learning, Students. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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