Financial Accounting is an essential subject for many students and business professionals. It’s a requirement for Accounting majors and for many business majors. As a career, accounting pays well and should see 16% growth in demand, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Despite its value in business and careers, many students worry about mastering accounting knowledge taught in class. Financial Accounting thwarts the efforts of many students who try to learn it.

Often, students take Financial Accounting because they have to, not because they are majoring in Accounting. So, as the instructor, you meet with a wide range of attitudes and abilities. Accounting majors are often ready and eager to master the steep learning curve. But other students with different majors may be less serious about mastering core concepts. While some students push through on their own, you find others looking to you as the instructor for help learning. You may want to help students who grow increasingly confused, instead of accomplished, as the course goes along.

In order to rise above these challenges, let’s look at the major reasons why educating financial accounting students successfully can be difficult in the first place. Then we’ll see how to overcome them with the added challenge of teaching accounting online.

Accounting has the reputation of being difficult to learn for many reasons:

    • Too much stress on detail and complex processes overwhelms students unintentionally. Students get lost and can’t see a larger framework. A traditional focus on details and testing often overwhelms students’ ability to see the process as a whole. If as a teacher you don’t have a good organizing framework for the concepts, students can’t tell what’s important, how to fit the details together, and what’s just helpful detail.
    • Dense, detailed textbooks and heavy reading requirements defy today’s norms. The typical accounting textbook is at odds with the way today’s students use information. Students readily digest short bits of text they can read very briefly. Most textbooks present extensive, detailed text, and demand long sessions of close reading. Many students find they don’t understand what they read, and the format is overwhelming and doesn’t encourage them to keep trying.
    • Huge confusing vocabulary gets memorized instead of learned. The terminology of accounting defies understanding for many new students. Traditional definitions do little to help; being so academic they only add to the confusion. Students who want to pass exams often cram to memorize terms by rote. They don’t emerge with the right concepts to think through material later in your course.
    • Some schools add conflicting pressures to cover more material and keep more students enrolled.Some colleges are not able to offer more than one financial accounting course. And teachers feel pressured to retain students and prevent failing or dropping out. This means a lot of information has to be covered in one course, with more concern that students hang on and work with it. This makes an already challenging subject even more daunting to cover successfully. The pressures push some toward lower expectations for learning.
  • Students can’t find relevance and don’t feel motivated. Some students don’t see why they need to learn the material. Problems given as examples or exercises are often out of context with career interests or the main area of study. Without a meaningful tie to a familiar frame of reference the importance of the concepts is easily lost. It becomes hard to find the motivation to gain knowledge that doesn’t seem to apply. Many simply settle for being poorly prepared for class.

In a live classroom, you probably use several strategies to help your students overcome difficulties in learning accounting:

    • Respond more promptly and individually when problems arise. When you can see and talk with students, you can spot trouble and respond in real time. You are in a better position to give students the feedback they need when you can see who is having trouble despite their efforts, and who is doing poorly because effort is lacking. You can speak to individuals about what you expect and you can personally encourage them to do better.
    • Enable group work. Peer study is proven to improve learning. Studies show that in live settings, group study fosters learning. Students can help each other in person when you create opportunities for students to work together.
  • You can leverage personal accountability. If they have to face you in class, it is harder for students to be as complacent about coming unprepared. You can leverage the need to attend class in person to help motivate some students hold themselves to doing the work.

Meeting new challenges of teaching accounting online

Online, the lack of personal contact can be a disadvantage when you are used to classroom teaching. It is more difficult to respond to individuals who are underperforming if you can’t easily see why.

The online setting adds to a sense of isolation for students that hinders learning. Students who feel invisible are tempted to work less hard. It’s easier for students to make less effort if they feel anonymous. Without direct observation some lack of effort can go unnoticed. If it seems you don’t notice or care if they apply themselves fully, why should they?

For many reasons, failure rates and withdrawal rates increase for online courses. A 2011 report, Online Education, Promises and Problems notes the fast growth of course offerings online, and also the rise in withdrawal rates and failure rates. This affects courses in all areas of study, including accounting.

To teach effectively online, you’ll have to think about the new challenges to learning and how to overcome them. Here are 5 top tips:

    1. Add a second book or resource. Consider using a new textbook; one that helps you cover concepts with briefer material, or that uses an approach that complements or is different from your own. Accounting professor Joe Hoyle observes that “faculty members rarely change textbooks” in his blog on teaching accounting. Take the opportunity of your the new setting to try a new book or a second book to supplement your favorite text. If you’re not open to changing textbooks, a second textbook can help your students grasp the material when you’re not there in the room to answer questions.
    1. Add a mini course. One study showed that after adding a mini-course on fundamental business concepts for new accounting students, passing rates increased 14% over the previous year before the mini course was offered.
    1. Show the career value of accounting knowledge. Relate course material to careers or interests. One group of accounting professors found that by tying instruction to career interests, significantly more accounting students passed and remained enrolled. Their study compared a traditional class to a “career usage” class which related topics to each student’s chosen career. The study found:

      The traditional class experienced a drop rate of 13.64%, while 2.22% dropped the career-usage class.

    1. Show students you see them as individuals and encourage an active role in their own learning. Make effort to know students personally and show you see each of them as an individual. It does take more work to give students a sense of belonging and to hold them accountable, even if you can’t call them into your office or gather them as a group. You may have to adapt to using online media to convey your concern instead of in person. Even if it feels impersonal, your recognition of individual effort — or the need for more of it — can help dispel a student’s notion of being invisible.
  1. Adjust your expectations, but try to maintain your standards.
  2. You may have to deal with new expectations for meeting enrollment goals and passing rates. It may be a harsh reality that withdrawal rates for online classes are going to be greater than for traditional live classrooms. But you know the basic knowledge students need to use accounting professionally. You may need to create new teaching strategies to help students grasp it online.

Success teaching Financial Accounting is especially important since it introduces accounting as a career. It gives students a foundation for all future accounting. To teach well online, you’ll have to think about how to reach today’s students effectively. You may need to add new materials and make new plans for getting students to participate. Teaching online doesn’t mean you should lower standards. Instead it can be a way for you to review and refine your methods to give students the solid understanding they need when learning accounting.