Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Can the various forms of cooperative learning techniques be applied effectively in the classroom in content driven accounting courses?

Gordon Woodbine
School of Accounting
Curtin University of Technology


When establishing a basis for constructing an appropriate response to the aforementioned question, it is important to determine exactly what is implied by the term "cooperative learning". In its broadest sense the term can be interpreted as applying to a "wide range of programs, projects, pedagogical techniques and classroom strategies " (Whipple 1987, 3) and thereby imply different meanings to different people.

A recent survey of faculty members teaching accounting related subjects indicated that they used some form of group teaching about 40% of the time, on average, but had widely different opinions about what the process implied (Woodbine 1996b, 2). The most commonly used version involves allowing students to form small informal groups to discuss and report upon particular tutorial topics.

The use of any form of collaborative technique within tutorials tends to diminish significantly in the content driven financial accounting units where it is perceived obligatory to apply strict teacher-directed methods to ensure that students are appropriately exposed to the rules and standards identified with the profession. Much more emphasis is therefore placed on the use of practice drills, rote-memorization and competency attainment measured by written tests and final examination.

Researchers in accounting education have recorded a fall off in the number of high-aptitude students wishing to major in accounting and that colleges are having to accept lesser qualified applicants (Adams et al 1994 45; Cohen and Hanno 1993, 219). Students are opting for other majors where more attention is given to the development of conceptual and analytical skills.

Whether the local trend away from accounting is due to the same issue is untested; however, there is evidence that students view the financial accounting units as demanding and would prefer alternative modes of instruction (Woodbine 1996a, 2).

It is the author's belief that there is much scope for reviewing course curricula with the object of enabling more effective use of cooperative learning methodology which, would not only facilitate learning, but improve inter-personal and communication skills attainment as well as improve the attitude students may have towards accounting as an appropriate course of study.

What cooperative learning implies (from an accounting perspective)

Cooper and Mueck (1989) describe cooperative learning as "a structural systematic instructional strategy in which small groups work together towards a common goal (1). It is a structured form of collaborative learning which contains the following basic components..
  1. Consists of small groups (usually 2 -5 members) working together to complete academic tasks.

  2. Tasks involving a range of objectives: searching for facts; applying skills, concepts and principles; problem solving and creative thinking.

  3. The teacher acts a facilitator and coordinator, setting the guidelines, encouraging cooperation, reviewing performance and mingling with the groups.
The planning, implementation and facilitation roles assume further responsibilities often not accommodated within the models used within the typical classroom. Cottell and Millis (1992) identified several conditional attributes associated with cooperative learning that distinguishes it from other general models (pp. 98-9). These include:

Positive interdependence: The process by which all members contribute to the team effort which is characterised by goal achievement by consensus; mutual reward systems which have regard to team contributions in some agreed format; interdependent roles of the contributors; and role rotation.

Individual accountability: Courses are structured to ensure that the assessment process adequately rewards group effort, e.g. through tests etc.. At the same time group activities should be structured to encourage students to participate, while discouraging "free-riders" and/or "distracting " membership. Positive grading techniques rewarding group effort seem to promote peer teaching and a voluntary sharing of acquired knowledge.

Appropriate grouping: Groups to be structured to accommodate membership heterogeneity (i.e. as to ability, gender and ethnicity). Such combinations may act to improve communications, self-esteem, cross-cultural values etc.. These accommodations need to be carefully planned and orchestrated as there is a tendency for younger tertiary students to prefer same gender/ethnic grouping arrangements (Woodbine 1996, 5). Group performance would need to be closely monitored and variations in the composition and/or tenure of the groups negotiated depending on the tasks and objectives set.

Group processing: Represents the essence of cooperative learning whereby students work together building team skills, improving communications, developing relationships with common objectives in mind. Life long learning skills ensue, but progress needs to be monitored by both the students and the teacher. All members ought to be able to share in the responsibilities that accompany group dynamics (including managing conflict, contract negotiation, trust maintenance and the sharing of leading/supporting roles).

In summary, the key phrases associated with cooperative learning can be summarised as follows:

Each of the four factors discussed above require a significant shift in the role of the teacher. He/she is no longer the "sage on the stage" but a "guide at the side" (Cottell and Millis 1992, 101) The emphasis is clearly on student directed learning with the teacher as the facilitator. The role change is significant and demanding in the sense that more responsive leadership qualities are required as success is measured in terms of the teacher's ability to motivate action through the dynamics of the group setting.

In emphasising the need to introduce cooperative learning methods in the classroom, it is not suggested that other forms of teaching become redundant. Much depends on the nature of the course. In the content heavy, rule-directed, financial accounting units, it is realistic to presume that cooperative learning techniques may be applied between one-third to one-half of the time, with a significant component of the time being devoted to lecturing and demonstration.

What is to be gained from cooperative learning?

Educationalists have long espoused the notion that teachers ought to encourage more student involvement in the classroom. Such notions require the need for active participation and not simply a transfer of information (Caldwell et al 1996, 17). Cooperative learning encourages such participation. Individualism is replaced by a sense of community in which the student learns to be an effective participant; a community which includes the teacher, the institution and the team members.

Slavin (1990) claimed that cooperative learning researchers agree that the benefits are substantial (52). Within business studies courses in which cooperative learning is applied, accounting knowledge is pursued and reinforced through the active participation of group members. The additional benefits acquired include improved communication and interpersonal skills.

In a study of first and second year accounting students Caldwell et al (1996) found a direct relationship between the use of cooperative learning methods and the attitudes of students towards studying accounting. They also discovered that such methods helped to ensure students maintained positive perceptions of accounting (34). In the area of performance the grades of students involved in a cooperative learning program were only marginally better than students taught within a standard program. This finding goes some of the way to complying with the general notion that cooperative learning methods have a positive effect on performance. Slavin (1990) claimed that two essential elements of cooperative learning need to be present in models applied within education if performances are to be improved, namely group goals (or positive independence) and individual accountability (52).

Such qualifications imply a need for careful planning and implementation strategies if the academic performance is to be improved and communication and social skills enhanced. Local research by the author into the perceptions of accounting students towards the use of group work in classrooms disclosed a that most students believed such involvement improved their ability to relate to others and developed their social skills (Woodbine 1996c, 5).

Prospective employers also benefit from these efforts. Anecdotal evidence was gathered during a recent needs analysis survey of accounting firms into the justification for training students in the use of accounting packages. A number of companies volunteered the advice that they were more concerned with employing graduates who could exercise appropriate interpersonal skills and work well within groups (Woodbine 1996d, Appendix II).

What strategies for change ought be effected?

There are two factors which act to encourage spontaneous actions to implement cooperative learning strategies and these effect the way teachers and coordinators operate within a business studies environment. The first relates to the innate desire of the teacher to search out and apply teaching methods which are likely to benefit students and make classroom management more enjoyable, if somewhat demanding. The second, and possibly more important, is the nature of the curriculum documents governing the management of a particular unit or set of units. Even the most enterprising teacher will find his/her progress inhibited by a content heavy, teacher-directed document which stresses the transfer of knowledge through rote-memorisation and constant practice drills. There is little that can be done in the short term when one is but a member of a team of tutors guided by an unwritten code of practice which prescribes what process is to be followed.

If changes are to be recommended then it is necessary to impress upon members of the accounting faculty that the incorporation of cooperative learning teaching options stand to benefit them as well as the students they serve. Two factors come readily to mind. The first relates to the fact, already mentioned above, that local students are moving away from selecting accounting as a course of study or are opting to select double major combinations which broaden their academic experiences, but reduce the demand for accounting units per se.

The second refers to the changing expectations of the profession and employers, who are expressing their demands through the quality assurance process. These demands are being expressed as requiring a standard of educational input that will produce graduates who have well-developed social and interpersonal attributes in addition to satisfying general academic requirements.

Strategies for change therefore need to be applied across the range of courses available within the accounting school or division and imply a change of policy that impacts curriculum development and teacher education as well as delivery processes. The following strategy summarises what is considered to be essential if cooperative learning methods are to be applied in a beneficial way.

Review of the education policy: The school or department ought to incorporate educational objectives in its plans and strategies for the future. It is essential that every effort be made to raise the of standard of education delivery to include all necessary methodologies likely to produce graduates of quality. Such objectives need to be debated and discussed amongst faculty members so that the final statement is acceptable to those likely to be impacted through its implementation.

Selection of appropriate models of pedagogy: This would include consideration of applicable cooperative learning methods with their attendant benefits. It is common practice within tertiary institutions to assume that persons with academic qualifications in disciplines such as accounting will already be equipped with a knowledge of how to deliver the information. Nothing could be further from the truth. Usually, a small minority of lecturers and tutors possess teaching qualifications and it would be inappropriate to expect untrained personnel to apply cooperative learning strategies without prior instruction.

All staff should be trained to accommodate these demands through local short courses of instruction, teacher learning group involvement or formal education processes. It is important to recall that such methods work to enhance affective as well as cognitive abilities and teachers need to be aware of their responsibilities as facilitators in the process.

Curriculum redesign: The objectives and purpose of cooperative learning methods should be written into various course documents. Courses, like most of the financial accounting units, which are considered to be heavily content laden might need to be "unstuffed". In any event, students and teachers need to be aware of the demands expected of them, although room should be allowed for negotiation within the classroom context.

Students should be introduced to the processes associated with cooperative learning from the beginning of their tertiary education. Foundation year units in communications could aim to stress the purpose and benefits of such processes (e.g. through team building exercises) so that students will approach later courses with a knowledge and eager expectation of the nature of the work with which they will be involved.

Assessment strategies: To ensure that the objective of individual accountability is maintained, unit curricula would still apply a majority of the assessment to the completion of periodic and/or end of semester examinations. However, the commonly applied practice of giving students periodic take home assignments to be completed in convenience groups of two to four members would be replaced by comprehensive in-class group assessment strategies, which reward joint effort and discourage non-involvement and distraction.


There is a misplaced belief that pervades tertiary institutions which maintains that students come equipped with an ability to gain knowledge which they will presumably apply effectively within the work place. The acquisition of knowledge and the demonstration of appropriate levels of cognition are important, but teachers ought also to accept that they are working with incomplete entities who need to be molded and instructed in the art of communication and social interaction.

Cooperative learning methods enable such life-long learning skills to be developed that are undoubtedly essential within the accounting profession and which are as important, if not more important than the knowledge which may have been transferred during their tertiary experiences.


Adams, S. V., Pryor, L. J. and Adams S.L. (1994). Attraction and retention of high-aptitude students in Accounting: An exploratory longitudinal study. Issues in Accounting Education, 9(1), 45-58.

Caldwell, M. B., Weishar, J. and Glezen, G. W. (1996). Effect of cooperative learning perceptions of accounting in the principles courses. Journal of Accounting Education, 14(1), 17-36

Cohen, J. and Hanno, D.M., (1993). An analysis of underlying constructs affecting the choice of accounting as a major. Issues in Accounting Education, 8(2), 219-238.

Cooper, J. L. and Mueck, R. (1989). Cooperative/collaborative learning: Research and practice at the collegiate level. The Journal of Staff, Program and Organisation Development, 7(3), 149-151.

Cottell, P. G. and Millis B. J. (1992). Cooperative learning in accounting, Journal of Accounting Education, 10, 95-111.

Slavin, R. E. (1990). Research on cooperative learning: Consensus and controversy. Educational Leadership, 47(4), 52-55.

Whipple, W. R. (1987). Collaborative learning: Recognising it when we see it. AAHE Bulletin, 40(2), 3-7.

Woodbine, G. F. (1996a). Student questionnaire: Accounting (Financial Reporting) 211. Unpublished report, School of Accounting, Curtin University of Technology.

Woodbine, G. F. (1996b). A pilot study of the use made of cooperative learning methods within courses conducted within the Curtin School of Accounting. Unpublished paper, School of Accounting, Curtin University of Technology.

Woodbine, G. F. (1996c). Test of evidence of behavioural responses within group learning involving accounting students. Unpublished paper, School of Accounting, Curtin University of Technology.

Woodbine, G. F. (1996d). Needs analysis to determine whether there is a justification for including an additional elective unit within the Bachelor of Commerce (Accounting) degree course. Unpublished report, Curtin University of Technology.

Please cite as: Woodbine, G. (1997). Can the various forms of cooperative learning techniques be applied effectively in the classroom in content driven accounting courses? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p357-360. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/"Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/woodbine.html

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