Sunday, January 13, 2013

AN INTERESTING WRITING ASSIGNMENT


At this moment, I am half-way through my 42nd year as a college professor.   Tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. I walk back into class to see if I can do it all again.   This semester, I have 28 students in one Intermediate Accounting II class and 26 students in another Intermediate class.    I also have 15 students taking my Governmental Accounting course.   I have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these 69 young people.   Hopefully, that will be a positive difference.   That is not a responsibility that I take lightly.   Whether each of these students is better off on the last day of the semester depends in large part on how well I do my job.    After all this time, I am still thrilled when I think about going into class and leading the conversation.   I never fail to get a stomach full of butterflies before the first class.   You could describe my feelings as somewhere between deeply anxious and completely excited.   If it were not important, I would not care so much.

Good luck to all of you other teachers who are starting a new semester in the next few days or weeks.

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Unless you have never read my blog before, you probably know that I teach all of my classes by use of the Socratic Method.   I pose some kind of weird situation and then, by asking a series of questions, I try to get the student to figure out a logical response or solution.   I often begin each day with a statement such as “What would happen if….”

 I think teaching by the Socratic Method is just the most fun you can have without laughing.   Plus, I truly do believe that it helps young students to develop their critical thinking skills.

However, I am also a big believer that students need to learn to write clearly and professionally.   In my college days, I considered majoring in Journalism so I have a real appreciation for the importance of the written word.   Plus, recruiters and employers often complain that they have problems finding new accountants who know how to write well.   Because of texting and the like, writing skills seem to be deteriorating.

Here in the Accounting department at the University of Richmond, we require a certain amount of writing in most of our upper-level courses.   The question I face is how to make that writing assignment relevant and beneficial to my students and also consistent with a class based on the Socratic Method.   Some type of essay would work but does not seem to go along with the way the course has been constructed.

Over the last few years, the writing assignment I use has developed into one that seems to work well and accomplishes my goals.   I am not sure how this could be adapted to a course other than accounting but you probably can make it work with a few adjustments.

I divide this assignment into three parts (and the first part has two separate assignments) with each due about two weeks apart.

Part One – Assignment One.   As in our daily classes, the student must pose an accounting problem that needs to be resolved.   The student pretends to be a “business person” who has encountered a reporting challenge where no easy solution has been found.   To stimulate their creativity, I provide the students with a list of hundreds of different problems that have been put forth and solved in previous semesters.   Students often believe that only a few problems remain unanswered in accounting.   This list alerts them to the almost infinite number of problems that accountants face in their chosen profession.  

Each student then must write a letter as the “business person” to a local CPA firm to describe the problem and ask for help in arriving at an appropriate accounting solution.   The first part of this assignment mirrors what we do each day in class.  I always warn the students that better grades are given for more complicated problems.

Part One – Assignment Two.    The student now pretends to be an “accountant” working for the CPA firm who receives the above letter.   As the “accountant,” the student must analyze and research the issue and come up with the best possible solution.   Again, this process mirrors what we do in class.   During the semester, students learn to use various research tools and the databases available online through the university library.   Once an answer is derived, the “accountant” writes a formal letter back to the business person outlining the proposed solution and its justification.    I tell the students that the resolution letter must look completely professional and the answer should be appropriated explained.  

Part Two.   These first two letters (the problem letter and the resolution letter) are attached and turned in to me.   I then give each set to a different student who now must take the role of the “boss,” the person in charge of the CPA firm.   This second student reads both letters to ensure that the proper answer has been determined.   This verification can take quite a bit of time because the “boss” must check the research and also ensure that each letter is written professionally.   For example, I expect the grammar to be perfect.

The “boss” then writes a memorandum to the “accountant” to make constructive suggestions.   Ultimately, the “boss” is in charge of the CPA firm and is responsible for all work that is distributed to outside clients.   Therefore, the “boss” must be certain that the letter meets an appropriate standard for the firm.   This memorandum tells the first student what needs to be done to ensure that every aspect of the letter is proper.

Part Three.    The original student (the “accountant”) reviews the suggestions made by the “boss” and then edits the two letters one final time so that they will be perfect.   In my class, the student is not required to follow the suggestions of the “boss” but needs to consider them carefully.

I then grade all of the letters:   the first drafts, the memorandum, and the final versions.   The largest portion of the grade, though, is given for the final versions after the editing process is complete.

What I have found is that structuring the assignment in this way meets my goal of setting up the writing assignment along the same lines as class.   In addition having the students edit the work of their peers helps them to learn more about the importance of written clarity even within accounting.   If the “boss” does not understand the answer written by the “accountant,” then there is a serious problem.   However, the editing process gives the student a chance to see their problems and decide whether changes are necessary.   In the end, the final versions are usually quite well done which is my goal from the beginning.

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