Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Student facilitators: Maximising the outcomes from tutorial casework, literature analysis and problem solving

Rob Sims and Peter Demediuk
Department of Accountancy and Law
Victoria University of Technology
This paper initially examines briefly the rationale for using a case study approach and some of the key ingredients for its successful use as a teaching tool. Case studies have been a central feature of the teaching programme in Advanced Management Accounting (AMA), a third year undergraduate accounting unit at VUT, for a number of years. However, in response to mounting demands for graduates to have better communication and analytical skills, as well as some perceived problems in using the case approach at VUT, staff have recently been experimenting with the use of student facilitators. This approach and how it evolved is explained and some of the benefits, problems and pitfalls with the approach, as perceived by both staff and students involved in the programmed, are briefly outlined. The authors question whether such an approach needs to be introduced in other subjects earlier in the course to ease the transition to a different approach to teaching and learning.

Introduction

There has been much written in support of the case approach to teaching in the social sciences and in the teaching of business studies and accounting in particular (see for example Gragg 1954; Anthony 1974; Christensen and Hansen 1987; Harvard Business School 1984; Knechel 1992; Moores and Booth 1994; Wines, Carnegie, Boyce and Gibson 1994). Cases provide a more interesting real life organisational context in which to explore decision making techniques and options, and arguably develop students' problem solving and analytical skills in ways that traditional repetitive exercises cannot. Students need to learn how to apply technical skills and knowledge in a real life situation, where there is rarely one correct answer but merely several possible alternatives with different consequences, and where the decision making process often requires significant value judgements.

Accountants and communication skills

In addition there has been much written and said about the need for accounting graduates to have improved communication and problem solving skills in order to cope with a rapidly changing commercial environment and the much broader role expected of accountants. Major inquiries and reports on accounting education in Australia (Matthews 1990, ICAA 1994) and in the United States (Accounting Education Change Commission 1990 a & b) have pointed to the need for students to be taught the skills and strategies that help them learn more effectively, and to increasing demands on accountants, particularly in the areas of communication and analytical skills. Any regular reader of the financial press or attendee at accounting conferences will have seen or heard a plethora of business and government leaders expounding the need for accounting graduates to have much more highly developed communication skills than traditional accounting education has been able to deliver.

Cases and communication skills

The participative approach to learning which is central to the case study method of teaching is viewed as an invaluable tool in the quest to improve accounting graduates' communication and analytical skills. For example Knechel (1992, p206) makes the point that:
"...by being forced to actively participate in a discussion a student better internalises his or her own ideas while preparing to communicate with others. Also such communication assists other students to develop their own understanding of the problem, alternatives and solution..."

The role of the student and the instructor

The role of the student and the role of the instructor are argued to be critical for the success of the case teaching method. The Harvard Business School (1984) identifies four key rules of student conduct, described as "the four P's":

1.Preparation i.e. necessary pre-reading, quantitative and qualitative analysis
2.Presencei.e. students must be present to be involved
3.Promptnessi.e. entering class in the middle of a discussion inhibits learning
and may distract others
4.Participationi.e. learning is facilitated by being actively involved in discussion
and problem solving

The School also identifies "the three C's" of instructor involvement:

  1. Careful preparation
  2. Control of discussion
  3. Concern for students
Most educators would probably see these as essential ingredients of any good teaching, but case study proponents would stress that they are even more critical for the effective use of case studies.

Our experience at VUT

The use of case studies is certainly not new and they have been a central feature of the programme in many, if not most, VUT post-graduate and under-graduate accounting units, including Advanced Management Accounting (AMA), for a number of years.

While the role of the instructor is critical in managing the learning environment and planning and controlling the learning experience, our experience shows that it can all amount to nought if the students do not 'do their bit' in respect of the four P's.

Thus we have found that the single most important role of the instructor has been to ensure first of all that the students are present, prepared, prompt and, perhaps more importantly, that they are able and keen to participate.

Part-timers and postgraduates

In respect of our post-graduates and working part-time students, who generally have acquired the work and general life experiences to confidently participate and contribute to case study analysis, achieving the required level of participation and desired learning outcomes has been perhaps easier to accomplish. The simple incentive provided by a portion of assessment being based upon attendance and participation has been sufficient to ensure that, for the most part, people come adequately prepared and able and willing to participate. The additional measure of nominating one or more people to lead discussion in either smaller syndicate groups or as an entire class group has also been found to be reasonably effective, as long as the nominated person(s) are very clear that their role is not necessarily to provide an answer as such, but to be so familiar with the circumstances of the case as to be able to lead a worthwhile discussion.

Full-time undergraduates

Our typical under-graduate classes are predominantly made up of relatively recent school leavers with limited work experience, and include a high proportion of students from a non-English speaking background. For many of these students speaking up in class may be a complete contradiction to the way they have been raised and educated. Many find the pressure to present a case or lead a discussion very traumatic and need to be very carefully encouraged to build their confidence. Of those who don't have a cultural or historical aversion to a participative learning environment, many demonstrate little self-generated motivation to be an outstanding student of anything in particular - let alone AMA! These factors can make it more difficult to ensure that students have done the necessary preparatory work and are keen to participate.

Whether this is the result of 14 years of accumulated educational experience, or cultural, social or economic pressures is something about which lecturers and tutors continue to speculate, but it is not for this paper to address. Each semester student evaluations are analysed and staff continue tinkering with subject content and methodology, in an effort to make the subject more interesting, relevant and motivating for students, and most importantly to try to improve learning outcomes.

Assessment as a motivator

Introducing attendance and participation as a small proportion (5%) of the assessment component, and then later increasing it to 10% were seen as having had a positive influence on students' preparation efforts, and is believed to be worth maintaining in spite of the problems of ensuring consistency between different tutors across several campuses.

Students as presenters/discussion leaders

In an effort to ensure students prepared effectively for discussion of cases, various tutors have experimented with nominating an individual or two or more individuals at random, with notice or without notice, to present or lead discussion amongst the entire group or within smaller groups. Some tutors have nominated students at random and without notice, in the belief that if all students know that in any class they could be called upon to lead the discussion, then all students will be motivated to do the necessary pre-reading.

However history has shown that it is a tall order to expect students to have the depth of understanding of one (sometimes more) case(s) to be able to lead a discussion at a moment's notice, when they have limited experience of leading discussion in a participatory learning environment, and are more used to simply presenting prepared answers. For many of our students, such an approach arguably creates unnecessary and unfair trauma, and in the past has even led to absenteeism. Evaluations at VUT have shown that AMA students have a clear preference for being given at least a week's notice of which journal article, case or problem they are expected to present.

Given notice, nominated students generally prepared for their allocated task but, perhaps as a consequence of their previous experiences in presenting 'answers', most seemed to perceive their role as simply to provide an answer and found it extremely frustrating if they could not quickly perceive an obvious path to 'the answer'.

Students as facilitators

Nominating students as facilitators instead of presenters may seem a semantic change, but it is part of a strategy to try to increase the quality of preparation and participation by all students.

We were trying to change the way students prepared for discussion of cases and problems. Despite repeated efforts by staff, students still tended to think that the role of the presenter was to provide 'the answer' to the other students so that non-presenters felt little obligation to do any serious preparation for tutorials.

At the start of the semester there is a long discussion on the role of the facilitator(s) nominated for each journal article, case or problem, and on the roles expected of the other students. Facilitators are given some guidelines and hints on suggested approaches and constantly reminded that their role is not to just provide an answer. They are to manage a discussion, selecting the important issues and preparing key questions around which to structure a discussion.

In each session teaching staff need to focus not just on the content and whether key points are being adequately covered, but also on making sure students reflect on the way the process is being managed by the facilitator, highlighting and reinforcing good approaches and tactfully pointing out where approaches are not working as well and why.

Some critical issues

On reflection the approach seems to have been most effective where:

Problems/difficulties

Some of the problems encountered by staff and students have included:

Outcomes

It is not possible to identify any real change in student results as measured by written exam and assignments. Classes seem to be more enjoyable for the student and there is a discernible improvement in student interest and effort, but are they learning any more about AMA than they would have otherwise? Short of sophisticated research using controlled testing we may never know. However it has been possible to identify a number of clearly beneficial outcomes since introducing student facilitators:

Facilitators in all subjects?

The difficulties experienced by many students and some staff in adjusting to a more participative learning style begs the question whether such an approach should be adopted in other subjects earlier in the course. Staff teaching introductory technical and procedural units in accounting may see little benefit in such an approach. However given the focus on decision making which should be central to all subjects in accounting we would argue that there are likely to be significant benefits for a staged introduction to the use of student facilitators in all subjects. The relatively recent change in the structure of most undergraduate subjects at VUT to include only a single one hour tutorial (in favour of an additional hour of lecture time) has reduced the opportunity for participative learning when educational wisdom and even the professional accounting bodies indicate we should be doing the opposite.

Bibliography

Accounting Education Change Commission, (1990a). AECC Urges Priority for Teaching in Higher Education: Preparing for the Expanding Accounting Profession. Issues in Accounting Education, Fall pp 330-2.

Accounting Education Change Commission (1990b). Objectives of Education for Accountants: Position Statement No 1. Issues in Accounting Education, Fall, pp 307-12.

Anthony, R. (1974). The Case method in Accounting. In Edwards, J. (ed.), Accounting Education: Problems and Prospects. American Accounting Association, Education Series No 1, Sarasota, pp329-40.

Christensen, C. and Hansen, A. (1987). Teaching and the Case Method. Harvard Business School, Boston.

Gragg C. (1954). Because Wisdom Can't Be Told. In McNair, M. (ed.), The Case Method at the Harvard Business School. McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, pp 6-14.

Harvard Business School (1984). Hints for Case Teaching. Harvard Business School Publishing division, Boston.

ICAA (Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia) (1994). Chartered Accountants in the 21st Century. ICAA, Sydney.

Knechel, W. (1992). Using the Case Method in Accounting Instruction. Issues in Accounting Education, Fall, pp 205-17. Libby, P. (1991). Barriers to Using Cases in Accounting Education. Issues in Accounting Education, Fall pp 193-213.

Matthews, R. (Chair) (1990). Accounting in Higher Education: Report of the Review of the Accounting Discipline in Higher Education. Volume 1: Main Report and Recommendations. Department of Employment, education and Training, Canberra.

Moores, K. and Booth, P. (1994). Strategic Management Accounting: Australasian Cases. John Wiley & Sons, Brisbane.

Wines, G., Carnegie, G., Boyce, G. and Gibson, R. (1994). Using Case Studies in the Teaching of Accounting. Deakin Australia on behalf of the ASCPA's, Geelong.

Please cite as: Sims, R. and Demediuk, P. (1995). Student facilitators: Maximising the outcomes from tutorial casework, literature analysis and problem solving. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p239-244. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/sims.html


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