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Why project-based learning is all the rage—and how to apply it to accounting

At this point, it’s highly likely you’ve heard of project-based learning (PBL). You might not be familiar with the details of how to apply this specific pedagogy, but you’re probably familiar with at least some of its attributes and benefits. Here’s a rundown of both and some ideas for how to use it to teach accounting. 

PBL is a well-established instructional strategy in which students gain knowledge and real-world skills by collaborating over an extended period of time to explore and actively solve problems, answer questions and tackle challenges. In addition to helping students deepen their knowledge on specific subjects, PBL helps them develop the critical thinking, collaboration and communication skills they need to succeed in work and life.

The impact these beyond-the-classroom benefits have on student outcomes are amplified in the digital age. Now that facts and information are just a quick online search away, the ability to parrot back information has lost its former importance and impressiveness. PBL also serves to give context and relevance to all manners of material—which in turn increases student engagement and interest.

This teaching method has other benefits too. It can engage a wider variety of learning styles, improve student outcomes and strengthen its resulting knowledge retention. But students aren’t the only ones who benefit. Educators continue to see improvements in their relationships with their students, greater collaboration among fellow educators and increased confidence in their ability to reach students. 

Sound too good not to implement? Here are the eight essential elements, as explained by the Buck Institute for Education (BIE)—the leading voice in PBL—to help you get started: 

1.) Key knowledge, understanding and success skills. Student learning goals should be at the center of the project and propelled through collaboration, communication, problem solving, critical thinking and self-management skills.

2.) Driving question or challenge. Projects should be framed by a challenging, meaningful, age-appropriate question to answer or problem to solve. Guest speakers, videos, field trips, class discussions or other real-world examples can help introduce subject matter in an engaging way.

3.) Inquiry and innovation. This is a cyclical process in which students ask questions, figure out the resources needed to find answers, apply that information, then develop subsequent questions, starting the process over again. This can be initially started as a class, then focused and refined within groups.

4.) Authenticity. Making projects applicable to students’ interests, concerns and lives helps ensure relevancy, which increases engagement while helping them hone skills for the real world. It’s all about giving content context.

5.) Student voice and choice. Whether it’s deciding which topic to explore from the prompt, selecting some of the elements that they’ll be graded on or choosing their entire set of deliverables, it’s critical students have some say in their learning experience. 

6.) Reflection. Examining obstacles that present themselves along the way and the effectiveness of inquiry methods helps students improve the quality of their work and better positions them for successfully tackling future projects.

7.) Feedback and revision. In addition to you checking in with teams to provide guidance, as needed, and to review their drafts or plans, groups should also give and receive feedback between one another to improve their projects. 

8.) Public product. Students present or prominently display their work—in a format that goes beyond the classroom—to show and explain their work. This step increases the overall quality and thoughtfulness students put into their work.

PBL can work with any subject, including accounting. After all, adult life hinges on a series of projects—both professional and personal. Whether it’s a deep dive on a new client’s business challenges at work or building a tree house in the backyard at home, the skills used in PBL help better prepare students for all aspects of life. 

When it comes to accounting, here’s an example of what a project might look like: Teaching your students about fraud could begin by showing them a documentary about Al Capone, followed by a class discussion. Everyone could talk about any other financial crimes they’ve heard about, the various ways they can be perpetrated, who the greatest victims of these crimes really are, how financial crimes have evolved with technology, etc. Then have them brainstorm possible ways accounting can help reduce or stop these crimes, possibly through enacting additional laws, developing software, creating systems and processes, etc. Allow your students to direct their focus and deliverables as much as possible. If they have a great idea or area they’d like to explore that doesn’t quite fit what the rest of the groups are doing encourage them to go for it. 

There are many accounting concepts that can be explored through PBL. In fact, Start Here, Go Places. has a collection of real-life CPA profiles spanning a variety of industries that are great for introducing accounting areas or concepts at the start of a project. While you’re there, do some exploring of your own into the resources across the site. You’re sure to find plenty of fodder for accounting project ideas to spark students’ interest while helping them develop skills for success—both in your class and beyond.