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Shedding the mantle of 'The expert'

Seng Thiam Teh
School of Accounting, Edith Cowan University

Donna Brandes
Director, Synergy Works

The environment we are in is constantly changing. Employers are increasingly identifying "soft" or "transferable" skills such as creativity and flair, initiative, problem solving, motivation, ability to work both independently and in teams and critical thinking as essential selection criteria in the recruitment process - skills that are necessary in order to succeed in a constantly changing environment. So one of the challenges facing educators is "How do we facilitate the acquisition and development of learning skills in students?" Do lecturers have to be the ultimate experts in the subject? Or can they be partners with their students in their mutual learning process? This paper examines the effects of implementing student centred learning strategies in a second-year financial accounting unit at Edith Cowan University.

Introduction

Increasingly, educators are finding it necessary to involve students more in the learning process. This is partly because of the explosion of information in the knowledge economy to the point where students need to develop learning skills rather than be storehouses of information - trying in vain to keep up with the latest developments. A recent federal government study (ACNielsen Research Services, 2000) found that employers are placing greater importance on skills other than academic or technical skills in graduate recruitment. Employers are increasingly identifying "soft" or "transferable" skills such as creativity and flair, initiative, problem solving, motivation, ability to work both independently and in teams and critical thinking as essential selection criteria in the recruitment process. So one of the challenges facing educators is "How do we facilitate the acquisition and development of learning skills in students?" Can this be achieved by the teacher assuming the role of the "expert" and imparting knowledge to students? Or would there need to be a rethinking and reorganising of such a traditional approach to one that recognises the resources within the students and empowers them to develop their own expertise?

This paper supports the view that the aim of tertiary study is to develop life-long learners with the skills to succeed in an environment that is constantly changing. We propose that in order to facilitate the mastery of learning skills, students need to be involved in the planning, organisation and evaluation of their work so that they feel directly responsible for the learning outcomes they achieved. We argue that the sense of ownership enables more successful learning outcomes. We examine the effects of introducing these strategies in a second-year financial accounting unit at Edith Cowan University.

Why the need to reconsider the teaching approach?

Prior studies in adult education have found that didactic methods of teaching and imparting knowledge achieve little in the way of developing learning skills other than to enable "the students' acquisition of information" (Bligh, p.50). They do not fulfil the functions of promoting thought, changing attitudes and developing creativity. Further, these desired outcomes require students to be actively engaged in the learning process and be encouraged to adopt "deep" approaches to learning as opposed to "surface" approaches to learning. Therefore a student centred learning approach, rather than a teacher centred learning approach, is more desirable. However, a student-centred learning approach means more than merely having learning outcomes that benefit the students. Students need to be involved in the planning, organisation and evaluation of their work and be directly responsible for the learning outcomes they achieved. Consequently, students become collaborators and partners in the learning process. As Illich (1971, p.44) noted some thirty years ago:
In fact, learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others, Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being 'with it'...
This suggests that the role of the teacher is to be a facilitator and not necessarily the "expert". However, shedding the mantle of the expert does not imply the abrogation of responsibility for the students by the teacher nor a deficiency of wisdom, knowledge or experience. Rather, it suggests the need to recognise the contribution students can bring into the learning environment. Students themselves are resources with much to offer to both their fellow students and the teacher.

What happened in ACC2430: Financial Accounting II?

This is a second year financial accounting unit of the Accounting major. Approximately half of the syllabus deals with the theoretical aspects of accounting with the remainder dealing with the more "practical" nature of accounting. There is a strong perception among students (and possibly among the general public) that accounting is a so-called "practical" discipline with "hard and fast" numbers and clear-cut or precise solutions. While this may be true in respect to the bookkeeping nature of the discipline, the broader practice of accounting requires accountants to exercise a high degree of professional judgment. One of the challenges facing the teacher is to engage the students and help them come to terms with the ambiguity of the issues they are confronted with and apply fundamental principles and concepts to solve practical problems, which often do not have a single "right" answer.

The approach I adopted was to open up the two-hour lecture class and make it highly interactive and dispense with the traditional lecture format. Students were given real-world and hypothetical problem scenarios to solve. These scenarios were typically open-ended with multiple possible solutions. To assist students in acquiring and developing critical thinking and problem solving skills, activities such as brainstorming, role playing, games and small group discussion were introduced. These activities also serve to help students develop in other areas such as teamwork and confidence. The approach adopted is consistent with Samuelowicz (1994) reporting on research that reveals that of critical importance is the context in which a task is set rather than the task itself. Thus by providing students with strategies for reaching a conclusion and feasible solution rather than covering a problem and "the" solution in detail, students are required to integrate knowledge and techniques and engage in decision making. In this class environment, I am no longer the sole source of knowledge and expertise. Students are able to call on their own experiences or tap into the experiences of fellow students to solve the problem at hand.

An example of brainstorming

In the first class, students were introduced to brainstorming in addressing the question - What skills would you need to be where you would like to be after you graduate? Diagram 1 shows an example of the responses to the brainstorming activity. Not surprisingly, the responses were consistent with survey findings of skills employers deemed to be important.

Figure 1

Diagram 1: Responses to brainstorming activity

Debriefing and questioning were carried out at the end of the activity - What did you notice about the brainstorming? How might this activity be useful in problem solving?

This first activity also sets the tone of the class for the remainder of the semester. Whilst I have set certain learning objectives as the unit coordinator, students also now have objectives that they have identified as being important. My role is to facilitate the acquisition and development of these skills. In effect, this process has already begun with the brainstorming.

An example of role playing

Students were given a newspaper article on the proposed takeover of one company by another. The class is divided in to small groups each representing various stakeholders in the takeover process - shareholders in the acquiring company, shareholders in the target company, creditors, potential investors, corporate regulators, corporate management. Within each group, some time is spent on discussing the role of the stakeholder the group represents. Within the confines of the role assumed, each group is asked to address their major concerns arising from the proposed takeover given the information in the newspaper article.

While the groups are discussing the concerns, I move from group to group to facilitate the discussion by provoking thought, providing directions and responding to queries as needed. Each group then presents their concerns to the class and an open discussion follows where the various stakeholders may respond to the concerns raised, or question another stakeholder. This activity engages the student in thinking through the issues and provides a unique perspective on the problem as they are constrained to addressing the issues within the role they assumed.

What are the outcomes for the students?

At the end of the semester, students were asked to fill in a questionnaire on their experience over the semester. The responses were generally positive and they found the strategies implemented to be beneficial in their learning. Students found their critical thinking skills have improved and they are learning to consider the broader issues and implications when confronted with a problem. They have also learnt to be more independent and confident. This may be attributed to the promotion of a positive environment where students are able to take the risks of voicing their thoughts and opinions without fear of being ridiculed or criticised. The following are examples of responses when students were asked how they have changed when doing things under the approached adopted in the class:
I have changed in my method of studying as this unit has encouraged me to express my opinion. It has also allowed me to accept the views of others.

In the beginning I was against the alternative approach. But I have come to enjoy the different structure. I believe that I have developed many skills that I wouldn't have acquired under a normal structure. These skills include group skills, more responsibility, more participative (sic) in larger groups.

I would say that this unit has really opened my eyes to the wealth of knowledge in those around me and has increased the likelihood of approaching classmates in other units, something I would not have done previously.

I have become more open and confident in talking to classmates. It really opens up the channels for networking and sharing experiences.

Some of the activities and characteristics about the unit that students like included: Students generally prefer to retain the approach adopted rather than returning to the traditional approach. Even when they expressed some reservations about their preference the following responses were noted:
The traditional approach would be easier, however, I do not think I would be satisfied [with] what I would learn compared with Teh's approach.

Maybe? It's a lot of work, but the end benefits I think are better than traditional.

I believe under the traditional approach that I may achieve a higher mark, but in terms of content Teh's approach is more relevant.

What are the outcomes for the teacher?

I find this approach provides mutual benefits for the students and myself. It allows me to be more flexible and offers opportunities to present the syllabus in new and interesting ways. It is also more challenging and demanding. As the class does not simply rely, say, on a set of slides and presentation material, I have to be thoroughly familiar with the syllabus. Further, as the activities often lead to students raising concerns or queries on the spot, I have to develop skills in managing and responding to these "impromptu" situations. This may involve engaging other students in the class in the discussion and utilising their thoughts and ideas to facilitate the learning process. Consequently, in such an environment, I remain an expert but not the sole expert. These types of situations offer learning opportunities for me. The advantage of solving problems without fixed answers is that both the students and myself become collaborators in the search for solutions. Of course, the use of brainstorming, role-playing and games in the class provides the element of fun and alleviates the "dryness" of a subject such as accounting, making it more interesting. This is an aspect that has been commented on by students in their questionnaire responses. While the responsibility for learning is shared, at no time do I give up the responsibility of overseeing the progress of the class.

An important outcome of this approach is that the discussion of issues is often initiated by the students. They begin to take on the responsibility for their own learning. These are issues that concern them and should be addressed accordingly. Sometimes the issues or questions seem to come out of "left-field" and offers challenging opportunities for me to consider them from different perspectives or to rethink my original position. Thus begins the learning partnership between my students and me.

Conclusion

Results of the questionnaire indicate that the approach adopted in the unit does lead to the desired learning outcomes. Students have noticed improvements in their transferable skills in additional to their technical skills. Some of the responses do suggest that students walk a fine line between wanting to learn and wanting simply to achieve high marks or adopt a passive learning process. While educators do not necessarily see any incongruence between what students learn and how they fare grade-wise, this may not be a view shared by students. Students may perceive that certain aspects of a unit should be learnt because they are examinable but not necessarily see the relevance to their careers and vice versa. Under the student-centred approach adopted, the learning process begins with the students and their learning needs, and often are initiated by them.

References

ACNielsen Research Services (2000). Employer satisfaction with graduate skills: Research report. (Evaluations and Investigations Report 1999/7). Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. [verified 5 Dec 2001] http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/highered/eippubs/EIP99-7/eip99_7pdf.pdf

Bligh, D. A. (1972). What's the use of lectures? Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, Middlesex.

Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. Harper & Row.

Samuelowicz, K. (1994). Teaching conceptions and teaching practice: A case of assessment. In Phenomenography - Philosophy and Practice. Brisbane: Queensland University of Technology. pp. 343-354.

Authors: Seng Thiam Teh, Lecturer, School of Accounting, Edith Cowan University. Email: s.teh@ecu.edu.au
Dr Donna Brandes, Director, Synergy Works. Email: val2@iinet.net.au

Please cite as: Teh, S. T. and Brandes, D. (2002). Shedding the mantle of 'The expert'. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/teh.html


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