Helping Student Apply What They Learn

I recently set out to make introductory managerial accounting a more effective learning experience for students. The course is typically taken in a student’s first or second year. The range of experiences students bring to the course can be quite diverse. Some may have never been employed, still live at home, and have parents who work in white-collar jobs. Others may have worked and lived on their own, and have family who may own or run a store or work in factories. This diversity means that some students have no mental picture of how goods are manufactured, while others understand the process required to get a product to the customer.

Familiarizing students with basic terms such as “fixed” and “variable costs,” or “product” and “period costs,” can be challenging. The textbook my institution uses is well organized. It starts with the basics and eventually progresses to the complex process of making business decisions. However, my students work on learning the material chapter by chapter. When they must analyze in-depth questions, they have difficulty knowing which tools to use and why, even though these tools have already been covered in the text. To help with this problem, this year I recommended that students prepare a reference sheet containing the concepts, how to use them, and what information they revealed. Not a single student took my advice.

I needed a way to help students take the concepts out of the chapters so that they could be applied to subsequent material so I adapted an approach I learned at a leadership conference. Here’s how it works:

With each concept introduced, the students get an index card. I write the basic concept on the board and how it behaves or what it is, and then I provide an example. For instance, for break-even analysis, the students write down the formulas, how to calculate the individual components of the formula, how to achieve the sales dollars given the units and vice versa, and what “break even” means. Students keep these cards; they may refer to them when I offer illustrations from the chapter and use them for study outside of class.

Students end up with eight to 10 cards by the end of the course. The cards divorce the ideas from the individual chapters and thereby enable students to apply the concepts to more complex business decisions. For example, when deciding if the company should discontinue a seemingly unprofitable segment, students can look at the cards from the early chapters in which basic concepts like fixed costs are defined and explained, and use this knowledge to decide which costs should be considered in making this particular decision.

Moving beyond ‘chapter learning’
I’m enjoying teaching the course more because during the later half of the course, the students’ knowledge is much stronger. They analyze the choices involved in a particular business decision faster and they start to ask questions about issues beyond the basic course content. This tells me they comprehend the decision and are beginning to see it in a larger context.

Are my students’ grades higher? Do I have fewer students failing the course? The first time I tried the approach, grades in the course pretty much stayed the same. However, fewer students failed the course. Normally that percentage ran between 10 and 12. When I used the index cards, only two of the 55 students enrolled in the course failed. The second time, my class average grade rose to an incredible 82 percent and no one failed the course.

Am I doing too much to help them learn? Was the last class just more intelligent than previous ones? I’ll have to do further research to answer that question definitively, but for the time being I’m going to carry on. Any technique that helps students apply concepts beyond the chapter in which they’re presented seems like an approach worth continuing.

Karen Lightstone, PhD is an assistant professor at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Excerpted from Student Success Is in the Cards … Or Is It?, August -September, 2008, The Teaching Professor.