Prepping Future CPAs: AICPA Awards Innovative Teaching

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By Deanna C. White

Firm leaders who want to know how the latest generation of CPAs are prepared to enhance their business and meet the demands of a "dynamic marketplace" need to look no further than the college accounting classroom, where accounting professors are constantly innovating their curricula to ensure students are prepared to meet the challenges of a profession that is constantly in flux.

On October 7, the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) awarded that commitment to innovation in teaching when it named educators from three American colleges and universities the recipients of the 2013 AICPA accounting curriculum awards.

The annual awards are bestowed on college or university educators who demonstrate innovative teaching practices in one of three distinct educational levels: in the first sequence of accounting, in junior- and senior-level accounting courses, and at the graduate level.

"It is critical that the education university accounting students receive prepares them to enter a profession which serves the needs of individuals, small businesses, and large companies in a dynamic marketplace", said Jeannie Patton, AICPA vice president, Academics, Professional Pathways, and Inclusion. "These award-winning entries showcase the kind of teaching needed to instill students with the competencies they need to serve the public interest, both domestically and globally."

Markus Ahrens, professor of accounting at St. Louis Community College in St. Louis, Missouri, was awarded the 2013 Bea Sanders/AICPA Innovation in Teaching Award for innovative teaching practices in the first sequence of accounting. Ahrens was recognized for his work implementing greater teamwork and student collaboration within the classroom, resulting in increased attendance, improvement in student grades, and higher overall student success rates.

Ahrens said his classroom is designed to enhance effort, because, while "independent student learning is a vital part of higher education, collaboration is a skill set that is an accounting industry requirement."

Ahrens said he is able to create this sense of collaboration among students by using several techniques to bridge the grades between individual student work and team efforts, including using a balance of individual and collaborative grades on some assignments, in-class group exercises, and a Cloud-based group annual report project.

Marion E. McHugh, assistant professor in the Business and Accounting Department at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and Paul Polinski, lecturer of accountancy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, were honored with the 2013 George Krull/Grant Thornton Teaching Innovation Award in recognition of their innovative teaching of junior- and senior-level accounting courses. 

McHugh and Polinski's curriculum centered on a project that provided students an opportunity to engage in critical thinking about the appropriate separation of duties in the purchases and disbursements transaction cycles.

Specifically, McHugh said students were asked to serve as consultants to a company that was preparing to implement a new accounting application, but had not yet conducted an analysis of how the new technology may affect its organizational structure, business processes, and information flows. Students were asked to redesign the company's controls, process flows, and employees' job duties to accommodate the applications functionality. 

"The project provided students with a relatively rich, semi-structured setting where they can develop an understanding of key control concepts in a natural way, as they identify the risks they help to mitigate", McHugh said. "We believe students develop an improved appreciation of these concepts relative to traditional textbook assignments."

Jennifer Butler Ellis, Mark E. Riley, and Rebecca Toppe Shortridge from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb were awarded the 2013 Mark Chain/FSA Teaching Innovation Award for innovative graduate-level accounting teaching practices. Their Master of Accounting Science program incorporated a workshop to ensure graduates had not only technical accounting knowledge, but also leadership and communications skills.

Recognizing that "strong communication skills are essential to a successful professional career", Butler Ellis said the workshop asked graduate students to provide feedback to "colleagues", allowing students to practice exchanging potentially sensitive information in a professional manner.

Students were evaluated on their ability to deliver specific examples of positive and negative teamwork; encouraged to avoid powerless or hollow phrases, such as "kind of" or "maybe"; and practiced listening to constructive feedback. Evaluators also provided comments on students' reactions based on body language and verbal responses. 

"This process provided students with a unique opportunity to develop important communication and leadership skills and to become more comfortable with the feedback process", Butler Ellis said. 

Both Butler Ellis and McHugh said future CPAs will require an incredibly diverse skill set to succeed in a global economy, and they believe accounting educators have a responsibility to not only provide accounting students with the fundamentals, but to continually adapt their curricula to help students meet those ever-evolving demands.

"Forces such as technological evolution, globalization, regulation, and competition drive an ever-increasing amount of complexity in the economy. To serve the public and their clients effectively in the twenty-first century, accounting professionals must be able to integrate information from disparate sources into a coherent whole, to critically evaluate firm responses to both internal and external stimuli, and to communicate their findings using the appropriate medium and from the proper perspective", McHugh said. "Accounting educators have a fundamental duty to develop curricula that go beyond knowledge of accounting methods and standards, and to provide students with opportunities to develop these more general skills that can be applied to many accounting contexts." 

The winners' curricula, along with those of past winners, are included as part of the Accounting Professors' Curriculum Resource, AICPA's curriculum tool. The Curriculum Resource offers accounting curricula specifically designed to encourage faculty and engage accounting students while furthering their knowledge of the profession. Access to the tool is limited to AICPA members. 

More information about the AICPA educator awards, including a list of honorable mention recipients and submission criteria, can be found online.

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