Accounting Division, Leeds School of Business
Target: To assess analytical and writing skills in a technical writing setting separate from the assessment of knowledge of the underlying subject matter being written about. My long-term goal is for my students to be better-prepared for specific kinds of writing that they will encounter in the workplace. These include letters/memos to clients, to supervisors, and to employees below.
I teach business law and accounting. I did this assessment assignment in my Advanced Business Law class, BSLW 4120/5120. This semester I taught two sections of the course with a total of 56 students. The course contains both undergraduate and graduate students. All of the students are business majors. For the undergraduate students the class is a business elective, although, because the course material in on the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) examination, the portion accounting majors is considerably higher than in the Leeds School of Business as a whole. The graduate students are students in the 5 year Masters of Accounting program, for whom the course is a requirement.
I have long used multiple-issue essay questions on the exams in this course. The questions set up a complex fact situation in which there are many different legal and factual issues. The question is typically ½ to ¾ of a page single-spaced. The students typically take 30-60 minutes to answer the question. I generally include some issues that are readily apparent and others less so. Some issues have a single correct resolution, others are in “grey areas” where more than one outcome is possible and plausible. The students are limited in the space that they can use to respond, usually 1 ½ pages.
In order to do well on the questions, students must, among others:
• Know the underlying subject matter
• Be able recognize issues in a complex fact situation
• Be able to prioritize and organize issues to be discussed
• Apply critical reasoning skills in applying legal rules to fact situations
• Clearly communicate all of the above
• …and accomplish that communication within the time and space constraints
A student who does well overall obviously has done well in all of these aspect. A student who does poorly has failed to do well in one or more of the above areas. In grading these essays over the years, it has often been difficult to pinpoint the actual area(s) of weakness for an individual student.
In order to more specifically assess the latter points on the above list, I set up an assignment in which the “underlying subject matter” was made known to the students in advance and which was provided and/or available to the students when writing the essay. Furthermore, the issues were, for the most part, clearly stated and set out. In doing this, the assessment of the student essays could focus on the last 4 points above and would identify weaknesses in those areas.
Summary of outcome.
As I expected, the submitted essays differed greatly in overall quality from outstanding and professional-caliber to terrible. As all faculty members say at various times, these essays showed that many of our students (these were mostly seniors and fifth-year students in the Master of Accounting program).
To my surprise other problems were widespread, some of which I had not even considered in advance. These included:
• Inability to write to the purpose of the assignment
• Improper tone
• Inability to organize the issues
• Inability to prioritize issues
• Inability to critically assess information
• Reaching inappropriate conclusions
The situation involved consumer credit laws and credit scoring. The assignment put the writer in the position of a professional advisor (Attorney, CPA, financial planner, etc.) giving advice to a client. The client in this situation was a young single mother, divorced in the past few years, who then got laid off from her job, had difficulty finding new employment, and chose to have some elective surgery. Meanwhile she was opening new credit accounts and running up credit card balances. She had recently found a new job, though at a considerably lower salary than her prior job. The immediate events that led her to seek the advice of the professional was that she had been denied a credit card at a department store and she wanted to purchase a home in the near future. In the course of the credit card denial, the department store employee told her that they were generally inflexible with young single women, a violation of the equal credit protection act.
The specific assignment.
The students were to prepare a one page letter or memo of advice to the client.
Specific skills that would be needed in order to do well.
• Ability to identify the issues.
• Ability to classify and organize the issues.
• Synthesize the specific issues into an overall theme.
• Address all of this in order to accomplish the purpose of advising the client
Widespread problems or failures.
1. No organization; stream of consciousness writing. Many papers were written in the same sequence that thoughts came to students. This was not surprising as I have often seen this.
2. No questioning or analysis of statements by the client. The client stated that she wanted to buy a home in approximately 6 months, yet this was clearly unrealistic. Most did not question whether or not the client would be able to accomplish her goal, but simply jumped into detailed suggestions
3. Improper tone/approach. Some essays were a simple “tell the professor all I know about the topic” even though the assignment clearly indicated that this was to be a profession caliber letter to the client giving the client advice on what to do.
4. Educating the client rather than giving the client advice on what to do. Among the essays that were clearly addressed directly to the client, many spent far too much time “educating” the client but gave very little advice to the client on “what to do.” Following the prior point, this was essentially a “tell the client what I know about the topic,” with no consideration of what the client needed to know.
5. Failure to give much-needed overall advice. The client clearly had an ongoing spending problem and was losing ground. Relatively few essays included any general “you need to get a handle on your finances” type advice.
6. Failure to consider options not mentioned. The client was in a situation where filing bankruptcy might have been her best option. The scenario did not specifically mention bankruptcy, but she was in a situation that any advice to her should at least mention the possibility, along with pros and cons.
7. Failure to critically assess issues and their importance to this client. One issue was the department store’s violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Although illegal, the last thing that the client needed was another credit card. Nonetheless, many students started out with a lengthy explanation of how horrible and unfair the departments store was, and how the client should sue the store, etc. Although the store’s conduct was illegal and offensive, the best advice would be to not apply for any more credit. For whatever reason, many students could not, or at least did not, recognize that this was really a non-issue. Some devoted more than half of the assignment to this one issue. It would be similar if an alcoholic came complaining about improperly not being served alcohol, and then received advice on how to get the alcohol.
8. Failure to organize and classify issues. There were 10-12 specific issues that should have been addressed. Many essays addressed these in random order. Students should have organized them in some manner when discussing. In this assignment, they could have been organized in many ways, including 1) by importance, 2) by timing of the action to be taken, or 3) by the type of action to be taken, etc. Among those who did organize issues, all these and others were used. But far too many apparently did not even think of organizing.
9. Unjustified Conclusions. One particular issue was an item on the client’s credit report that she said “she knows nothing about.” Many students concluded that it was a case of identity theft. In reality, it might have been a legitimate item that the client had forgotten about, or an error caused by something other than identity theft.
Overall Conclusions and Next Steps
I learned much from this project. I realize that a number of specific skills are lacking, even among top students in their last semester of school. In particular, I was shocked at how many students simply tried to show how much they knew about the topic rather than meeting the purpose of the writing. Although my class is a business law class, and not a writing class, the nature of the material allows me to work on many of these writing and analytical skills and assess them. I believe that a relatively small amount of time in class addressing these skills will allow the students to improve them while at the same time learning the course subject matter. I undertook this exercise too late in the semester to work further in this semester, but will incorporate and experiment further in the future. For example, I’ll provide an early-in-the-semester assignment where the student will be given more information about organization so that the focus can be solely on meeting the purpose of the writing (which will be some other than “telling a professor how much I know.”
Plans to Share with Colleagues
I plan to distribute this report (with some modifications) to the other faculty in the accounting division. In modifying the report, I’ll provide more specific details relative to the kinds of skills that our accounting graduates need in the initial phase of their careers.