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Experiential Learning—Service Learning: Linking Accounting Content to Practice and Real-World Problems

These excerpts by several authors address the promise of an experiential learning approach commonly called “service learning” for promoting learning of accounting content, related skills and the importance of engaged professional citizenship. The excerpts are in-press chapters from an upcoming volume on service learning in accounting that is part of the American Association of Higher Education’s (AAHE) Series on Service Learning in the Disciplines which will be available in the summer of 1998.

Service Learning—What is it?
Excerpts from D.V. Rama’s (University of Massachusetts Dartmouth) manuscript introduce service learning and argue for its inclusion as a tool for change in accounting education.

We consider service-learning to be a course based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity in such a way that meets identified community needs and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.

Bringle and Hatcher (1995)

Recently, accounting programs across the country have been challenged to better prepare students for the accounting profession. In contrast to the traditional approach to accounting education which stressed calculating one right answer, the new focus emphasizes dealing with unstructured problems and dealing with messy or incomplete data (Williams 1993). The Accounting Education Change Commission (AECC) notes that students should be active participants in the learning process and not passive recipients of information.

[According to Edward Zlotkowski (1996)] while in-class activities are valuable, they can only approximate the complexity of real world situations. Direct practical experience is probably the best way for students to learn how to deal with complex situations....This essay examines the use of service learning as a way of incorporating direct experience and promoting active learning in the accounting curriculum....[But first,] it is important to distinguish between the terms “community service” and “service learning.” William Weis, Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University, observes that while his accounting students participated extensively in community service through organizations such as Beta Alpha Psi, he moved towards service learning as a vehicle to connect such service more directly with the curriculum....Markus (in Morton and Troppe 1996) asserts that: “The kinds of service activities in which students participate should be selected so that they will illustrate, affirm, extend and challenge material presented in readings and lectures.”

Another defining characteristic that differentiates service learning from community service is the role of reflection....The National Society for Experiential Education has formulated a set of “Principles of Good Practice in Student Community Service-Learning” that describes the role of reflection in service learning projects:

The service experience alone does not ensure that either good service or good learning will occur. Both are improved by frequent opportunities for conscious reflection on the experience and critical analysis of the issues involved. This interplay of action and reflection on experience is central to service-learning. Seminars, carefully planned journals, discussions among service learners, conversations with those being served, faculty conferences with students, debriefing sessions, analysis papers, public presentations, and creative artistic expressions are examples of reflective practice which can help the experience become much more than a one-time service opportunity.

Service Learning Examples from Accounting Classes
This excerpt from William Weis’( Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University) manuscript describes a service learning application for students in a first accounting course.

For a service-learning opportunity to be appropriate for a beginning class in financial accounting, it must involve accounting [teamwork skills had been a major focus of an earlier MBA project]. And the needs of the clients served must fall within the scope of what can reasonably be expected from students in beginning accounting.

The required experiential component [added to my course] did not mandate service—the service project element was optional....The experiential project involved the use of MYOB accounting software which each student was required to purchase (the educational rate was approximately $40). Each student was to pretend to start a small business and to contrive a set of reasonably diverse transactions the first three months of the entity’s operations....I wanted students to set up an accounting system on MYOB, tailor it for their business, and use it to process business transactions, make adjustments and closings, and prepare financial statements.

For the service-project option students could, individually or in collaboration with other students, find a non-profit organization that needed some accounting systems work and provide for that need. In explaining this option, I emphasized that I would be flexible in my approval of a service project because I realized that clients’ needs for accounting assistance could vary greatly....Ideally, students might find an organization that was in need of a complete, from-scratch, accounting system—but that was unlikely. Other possibilities were clients with a manual bookkeeping system that would like to convert to MYOB or with an unsophisticated software accounting system that might benefit from conversion to a more powerful yet inexpensive software like MYOB...I also provided a grade weight incentive for trying the service-project option.

The results of the experiment were far more positive than I could have imagined. About a third of my students chose the service-project option...They served ten nonprofit organizations during the Fall of 1995. In several cases the students not only created or converted the client accounting systems, but wrote user-friendly manuals for client personnel and gave hands-on training to those who would be maintaining the system.

It became clear to me during the post-experience reflection sessions that students who had opted for the service-learning opportunities learned more from those experiences than they would have learned by doing the make-believe projects...in the end the students felt they had learned more from dealing with real clients in service situations than they had learned in other courses where opportunities for practical application were not offered.

James Woolley describes one of several service learning projects used in a capstone course at the University of Utah.

The University of Utah’s School of Accounting recently revised its undergraduate curriculum. The changes included adding two senior level “accounting integration” classes...designed to integrate various subjects—financial, tax, managerial, systems and auditing—into a more cohesive paradigm. Ethical and social issues associated with the accounting profession were included in the “integration” concept. One approach chosen to help bring all the issues together involved designing service projects for both non-profit service organizations and struggling profit-making organizations...Over 20 projects have been completed involving more than one hundred students and several hundred hours of service-learning experience. [One of the five projects included in the chapter is outlined below.]

Local Chapter of National Council: The national office of an organization dealing with Hispanic issues indicated that its local chapter was in need of major and immediate assistance. Required tax returns had not been filed. There were no financial reports which would allow the preparation of the tax returns. Financial and other operating information was not available for budgeting or decision-making. Finding and organizing the records necessary to reconstruct three years of financial history would be a problem. Additionally, the local chapter had hired a new director charged with...putting on a statewide conference while at the same time learning her new job.

During class discussions, it was determined that the critical issues facing the organization were three in number. First, meeting the tax deadlines facing the local chapter and avoiding loss of the organization’s tax exempt status. Second, designing a new accounting and information system compatible with the skill levels of the personnel involved. Third, selecting and implementing a database system which would allow the organization to maintain an active record of its donors and potential donors.

Two groups of five students were assigned to deal with the basic accounting problems. The first group was to be responsible for reconstructing financial statements for the preceding three years. They were also responsible for defining basic accounting information needs of the organization. The second group was assigned the design and implementation of an information system commensurate with the skills of the administrators. A third group of five students was responsible for recommending and, if time allowed, implementing a donor database system....[Each group attained its goals of meeting the association’s needs in the defined areas,] the members of the groups each logged nearly forty-five hours [over a seven week period] in meeting time, systems design, computer and software evaluation before presenting their report and outlining the steps necessary to successfully implement their recommendations. One student volunteered to help in the implementation of the project on her own time.

Excerpted from the American Association of Higher Education’s (AAHE) brochure, Service Learning in the Disciplines.

During most of our lives, our learning is concrete, contextual, linked to problems that demand solutions. By linking traditional classroom-based learning to community-based challenges, service-learning reconnects the classroom to a felt sense of education’s power to make a difference.

Bringle, R., and J. Hatcher. 1995. A service-learning curriculum for faculty. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (Fall): 112–122.

Morton, K., and M. Troppe. 1996. From the margin to the mainstream: Campus compact’s project on integrating service with academic study. Journal of Business Ethics 15: 21–32.

Williams, D. 1993. Reforming accounting education. Journal of Accountancy (August): 76–82.

Zlotkowski, E. 1996. Opportunity for all: Linking service-learning and business education. Journal of Business Ethics 15: 5–19.