Experiential Learning: Linking the Classroom with Real-World Practice
Research has shown that both faculty members and accounting students can benefit from interaction with practicing CPAs1. Likewise, findings by the Pathways Commission2, which was created as a joint endeavor by the American Institute of CPAs and the American Accounting Association, found a deficiency between accounting practice and accounting education. To address this deficiency, one recommendation of the Commission is to provide opportunities for accounting practitioner/accounting educator exchanges to incorporate practitioner views into the education of the next generation of accountants. To deal with this deficiency, universities are expanding the use of experiential learning in their accounting programs.
What is Experiential Learning?
Experiential learning is the development and application of knowledge, skills and values from direct experiences outside of a traditional academic setting3. Unless accounting faculty were once practicing CPAs, there is a distinct possibility that students will have no interaction with practicing accounting professionals until interviewing for a position. Experiential learning helps relate course content to real-world opportunities. It is aligned with recommendations of the Pathway Commission to educate the next generation of accountants in such a way that they do not just know the technical aspects of accounting, but also understand how accounting contributes to business decision making and a prosperous society.
Examples of Experiential Learning
Experiential learning includes on-campus professional programs, audit setting/simulation events and competitions, service-learning opportunities and traditional internship programs. On-campus professional programs have become a common element in the education of accounting students. Such programs allow students to hear from and ask questions of practitioners. Some universities formalize this interaction through a required “introduction to the accounting profession” course with weekly presentations by practitioners. Discussions of work experiences, as well as the skills and education which facilitate employment, prompt students to envision how their education lays a foundation for professional success.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is another form of experiential learning. Under the supervision of their professors, students prepare tax returns for low-income families and gain practical experience while making a difference in their community. Another opportunity for experiential learning comes through the IRS’s Criminal Investigation Division. Accounting students are afforded the opportunity to experience the law enforcement side of accounting as they investigate a mock tax crime side by side with IRS special agents, prosecutors and other financial crimes units in an education program which has become known as “Project Adrian.” Students are coached though a series of exercises performing forensic and law enforcement tasks, expanding their knowledge of how accounting may interact with law. Overall, experiential learning requires creativity and innovation on the part of accounting faculty together with the assistance of the practitioner community.
Introducing students to professional associations is another form of experiential learning. For the last two years, Stockton University accounting faculty attended the NJCPA Annual Convention & Expo along with some of the university’s accounting students. Thanks to assistance from the NJCPA and the generosity of Stockton alum and NJCPA member Daniel Barbera, CPA, CFO of Lydia Security Monitoring, Inc., students were able to interact with accounting professionals to more fully comprehend what becoming a member of the profession entails. The convention attracts CPAs in public and private practice, providing a valuable link between the classroom and the real world for students.
When faculty partner with accounting professionals, it can enhance the abilities of accounting graduates. Through experiential learning opportunities, students are afforded the more balanced classroom and practical view needed to educate and motivate the next generation of accounting professionals.
Barry R. Palatnik
Dr. Barry Palatnik, CPA, MBA, is assistant professor of accounting at Stockton University. He is a member of the NJCPA and participates in tis Accounting Educators community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leo Previti, CPA, MBA, JD is assistant professor of business studies and accounting at Stockton. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.