Approaches to Learning and Contemporary Accounting Education



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Abstract from:

Education in a Changing Environment 17th-18th September 2003



Conference Proceedings

Approaches to Learning and Contemporary Accounting Education




Kathy Spencer, k.spencer@salford.ac.uk




Abstract

This paper considers and summarises the literature on approaches to learning in accounting education. The three approaches cited by the literature are defined and factors which influence the learning approach adopted are discussed. The key question ‘Is the learning approach an inherent student characteristic or is it a response to outside factors?’ is asked. The effect of the learning approach on the learning outcome is considered and evidence that a deep approach is associated with higher quality learning outcomes is considered. As educators we may inadvertently reinforce surface approaches, encouraging students to tackle problems from a narrow and inadequate perspective. Suggestions are highlighted as to how accounting education can nurture something different, moving away from the learning of facts to a more holistic learning model.


Introduction


The approach to learning of all students in higher education is of growing interest to educational researchers at a time when the promotion of deep learning becomes a great challenge in the face of high workloads, declining resources, decreasing staff/student ratios and increases in students from non-standard backgrounds. As educators we must share the responsibility of producing learners capable of responding to the fast changing social and working environment. This paper therefore comments and reviews the literature and considers the following points on the agenda of accounting education:



  • Factors which influence student learning approaches and why educational researchers believe that ‘deep is best’;

  • Student perceptions that learning accountancy is simply learning a set of rules and evidence that accounting students adopt a surface learning approach compared to other disciplines;

  • How accounting educators may reinforce surface learning;

  • Changing quantitative assessment structures which fail to reward a deep learning approach;

  • Provision of a holistic educational experience, in an effective learning environment and a stimulating course of study that lays the basis for lifelong learning empowering students in self – development, enabling them to learn how to learn.


Background


A student’s ‘learning approach’ describes the main way in which students engage with learning matter and how temporal matters surrounding the task are organised. Whilst this is an area of debate and contestation, much of the literature describes three approaches, deep, surface and strategic (achieving).


Deep Approach


A deep approach is characterised by a student’s active engagement with the subject matter. The student will seek real meaning and be interested in the subject matter for its own sake. Deep learners have the ability to globally represent problems, relate new information to old, generate high quality inferences and exhibit integrated problem solving plans.


Surface Approach


A surface approach is characterised by memorisation of information and procedures. The student will tend toward accurate reproduction of facts and will be syllabus bound, often lacking interest in the subject. Surface learners lack the domain-specific knowledge, fail to self-question, spend minimum time representing problems and characterise problems by their superficial features, for example, computational requirements. They often fail to perceive the subject relevance and may be motivated by fear of failure.


Strategic (Achieving) Approach


Further research undertaken by Entwistle (1987) and Biggs (1987) extended the definitions of deep and surface categories to a third approach which is defined as a strategic or achieving approach. Their findings suggest that this approach is characterised by the students’ intention to excel in assessed work with the focus on effective organisation, time management and self-regulation in study.
Entwistle (1998) argues that the simple dichotomy between deep and surface learning at first sight may seem over-simplified and implausible. Although it has recently been criticised (Webb, 1997) it continues to have a strong influence on research into improving student learning (Gibbs, 1992).

Factors Influencing the Learning Approach


There is a fundamental debate within the literature as to whether a learning approach is fixed or variable, for example, an inherent student characteristic or a response to outside factors known as situational factors.


Student or Situation


Entwistle and Ramsden (1983) argue that learning approaches can be viewed as relatively consistent individual differences. Across a range of everyday tasks and across departments most students show enough consistency to justify describing approaches as characteristic of individuals. However, Beattie et al. (1996) propose that the approach to learning is only partly a function of a student’s characteristics, since it can be modified by specific learning situations, such as the student’s perception of the relevance of the learning task, the attitudes and enthusiasm of the lecturer and the expected forms of assessment. Biggs (1978, 1979, and 1987) proposed a model in which the study process mediates between presage factors and product factors. Presage factors are those which exist before the student enters the learning situation and are identified as personal characteristics such as intelligence, personality, home background and cognitive style. Product factors are identified in terms of academic performance defined either objectively (examination marks) or subjectively (satisfaction with whatever level of performance is attained). Eley (1992) agrees with this analysis and reports that some variables affecting the learning approach are within the student, while some are within the learning environment. Study approaches thus seem to involve aspects of both the operation of relatively stable predispositions to act consistently across situations and the effects of demands perceived to have come from teaching procedures, assessment requirements and course contents. Some findings even suggest that students with a particular study approach predisposition may prefer, and thus might seek, courses with sympathetic teaching and assessment requirements (Entwistle and Tait, 1990).

Perception and Situational Factors


The literature claims that some students can adopt different study approaches dependant on the perceived situational demands residing within any given context (Ramsden, 1984 & 1988). Research supports the contention that a student’s approach to learning is related to his/her conceptions of learning and perceptions of the teaching context and that ultimately, these approaches determine the quality of the learning outcome. Ramsden (1979 & 1981) demonstrated that study approach and orientation are related to the perceived learning environment. Interviews provided evidence that issues such as inappropriate assessment procedures and heavy workloads could have the unintended consequence of discouraging positive attitudes towards learning and encouraging surface approaches. Objective teaching was found to help with study approach. A genuine commitment to the subject and to student learning, on behalf of the lecturer enhanced positive attitudes to study and encouraged a deep approach. It was also clear that lecturers who taught badly could easily induce surface approaches.


Other Influences


Entwistle (1987) found a clear correlation between approaches to learning and contrasting forms of motivation. Interest facilitates both deep and organised approaches whilst a fear of failure and narrow vocational concerns are associated with a surface approach. Fransson (1977) and Biggs (1987) both showed that a lack of interest in the material studied, or a failure to perceive relevance in it, were associated with a surface approach. Interest in the material was associated with a deep approach. Trigwell and Prosser (1991b) found correlations of surface approach with heavy workload and the use of tests. They concluded that it might be much easier for academics to induce a surface approach through teaching and assessment procedures than to cultivate a deep approach.



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