Fostering Discussions in Your Classroom

March 9, 2018 H. Kyle Anderson


1. Stop Answering Questions

As I traveled through 12 states over several summers conducting 8-hour continuing education seminars for CPAs in public and private practice on Accounting, Auditing, and Data Protection and Privacy, I was often asked questions I had no clue how to answer—or more often, items that had many logical options that could be the correct answer. My response was to turn it over to the group by asking “What do you think?” or “What would you do in this situation?”

This approach turned my 8-hour day into an engaged learning session where I not only learned from the knowledge of my attendees, they learned from each other, and the day passed quickly with conversations continuing through the breaks. The collective experience of the group was fun to tap into, and even though the material for each seminar was the same, each day was different.

I started each session with a group discussion of the concerns, issues or questions the attendees had regarding the topic. Then, after covering the materials, we had a conversation about what changes they would make in their CPA practice or workplace as a result of our discussion.

I continue to use this model in my classroom by briefly introducing the concept for the day and then presenting a question or problem the students need to solve. They are asked to discuss this for around 5-10 minutes, and then each group presents one aspect of their discussion to the class.

Most important for this process to work effectively is that when the groups or individuals ask for my answer or opinion, I ask them, “What do you think?” or “What does your group think?” The result is that the students begin to learn from each other and form friendships in class that extend outside of class.

2. Stop Lecturing in Class

An unfortunate problem we all face today are distractions in our lives. I am just as guilty as my students of losing focus from time to time, and I understand it takes effort to stay on task along with activities that encourage engagement. So, my advice is to stop lecturing in class unless you are good at it and it works for you and your students. I find it boring, and it just does not work for me.

I deliver my Concept Lectures via KyleTV videos to cover the key topics that students should learn before attending class. There is a concept video for each chapter that is available 24/7 and can be watched on any device. They range from 15 to 35 minutes and cover five to seven learning objectives in the section. I make sure these videos contain not only learning objectives but changes in scenery (i.e., not just a power-point with voice) and myself either in full screen or in a box in the video. I do not advocate breaking the chapter content up into separate short videos for each learning objective. The students need to learn to use the pause button if they lose focus during the video.

In class, I introduce the topic or concept for five to eight minutes and then have students form groups of three to five to complete a discussion or online assignment related to the subject. The toughest part of this process is that I need to refrain from assisting the students and instead encourage them to use each other to answer questions during the process. The next toughest part is that I need be sure to allow them enough time to discuss the assignment, but not so much time that it degrades into just talking or searching the web on their phone. Finally, I make sure that I have each group present their idea, solution, and/or questions to the entire class and hold all groups accountable for contributing to the class discussion.

3. Give Meaningful Tasks for Students to Complete

Discussions and assignments should carry a reward for each student. Although my course is based on 1,000 points, the one to two points they can earn completing an in-class discussion and/or assignment is important to them and adds up to approximately 40 points a semester.

4. Relate the Assignment to Students’ Everyday Lives

Managerial Accounting courses lend themselves to practical applications such as calculating the cost of various activities, quantifying purchasing decision options, creating budgets, analyzing trends, and covering the qualitative aspects of every decision. A fun assignment involves students learning how businesses create budgets by creating budgets that focus them on preparing for graduation by calculating expected salaries and costs of living for their first job and by creating a five-year timeline of income, expenses, capital purchases, and borrowing.

5. Utilize Discussion Boards in Your LMS (Learning Management System)

In a class discussion, I have each group post their comments into the discussion board so everyone can read and learn from each other. This does require grading but is easy to complete if you grade based on effort and remember it is just one or two points.

6. Utilize Online Assignments

These are great because they are automatically graded, and they give you a starting point for teaching your students how to go beyond the “answer” and think critically about the assignment. I use Excel in class, and I copy the online assignment entirely into Excel to avoid flipping back and forth between sites. This also eliminates students having to type in data, provides an example of different layouts for calculating the answer with support for the result, and provides a ready-to-present report. Yes, calculators are banned in my class (and are referred to as the student’s worst enemy).

The answer required in the online assignment makes up approximately 20% to 40% of what I want the student to learn from the task. This is an excellent opportunity to add prior tools or analysis or introduce new tools to the problem. For instance, when we use the Contribution Margin statement to analyze various change options, the online homework requires the students to input an answer to the final result for the new Contribution Margin statement. I expect the students to add Vertical and Horizontal analysis, Margin of Safety, and Degree of Operating Leverage. This ensures they have the tools for each group to argue which option is best based on a broad view incorporating risk and qualitative factors. As each chapter adds new tools, we include those into our analysis to reinforce learning, understanding, and retention.

In conclusion, always have fun in class, take your students out of their comfort zone with the new tools and topics from your course, and hold them accountable for contributing to discussions and problem-solving. I enjoy walking around the room and talking with each group about their ideas and results. It is gratifying to observe their improving ability to think critically and express themselves using the new tools they learned during the semester. These same students often tell me how the course helped them be successful in other classes!

About the Author

Lecturer, Clemson University //

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