Flipping the Tax Classroom for a Better Student Learning Experience

By Mitchell Franklin, Ph.D., CPA

Editor: Annette Nellen, CPA, CGMA, Esq.

Over the past several years, the author has observed through networking with various firms and other professional organizations that many accounting major recruits have a key weakness: Students' verbal and written communication skills require improvement.

Universities and firms want students and graduates to be able to communicate clearly and professionally for everyday email as well as professional documents, such as research memos. A tax class offers opportunities to practice drafting research memos and client letters and the related research and to develop critical-thinking skills crucial to such writing. Though many tax faculty include preparation of these documents in their courses, the classroom time committed to writing and coaching likely is minimal or nonexistent because so much time is devoted to lecture and discussion of technical topics.

A tax professor's desire to work more with students on key communication skills comes up against the reality of time constraints. A traditional semester or, in many distance-learning formats, a condensed semester, with the significant amount of technical content necessary to prepare students for future courses as well as the CPA exam, leaves little time for instructors to focus on writing. Thus, much of the effort to advance student writing and critical thinking is left to other courses within the college curriculum, often taught by faculty who are not even part of the business program and do not have experience in the writing or analysis required of tax professionals.

With the increased use and availability of technology, it should be easier, though, for faculty to deliver technical content in a way that allows devoting more class time to writing without eroding the delivery of technical content. This approach should better meet the needs of the workplace.

This column looks at how technology and innovative teaching methods can be used to help students develop better writing and analytical skills for tax work. The approach described is commonly referred to today as "flipping" the classroom.

The Basics of Flipping

The classroom is "flipped" when the instructor uses the opposite of traditional teaching methods to deliver content. In a traditional classroom, class time is used to deliver information. The instructor blends lectures with some examples, introducing material enabling students to describe and understand basic concepts. However, there is often no significant opportunity in class to think critically and apply concepts. The student is expected to use critical thinking and apply skills independently through homework and projects outside class, individually and as a group.

A flipped classroom takes the opposite approach. Students are responsible for learning the traditional lecture material outside class. Then, more of the work traditionally done outside class is done inside the classroom. Thus, "homework" becomes more about reading and listening to recorded lectures and similar materials, while class time is devoted more to problem-solving and writing activities.

To better ensure that students watch lecture videos outside class, a follow-up quiz or questions can allow students to demonstrate their understanding of the assigned material. The follow-up activity in class is not meant to repeat the content of the videos but instead is devoted to application problems and having the students work together to apply the concepts. This application can be through computing homework problems from a textbook or performing other in-class activities and projects prepared by the instructor. In many subject areas, videos are available on the internet through sources such as Khan Academy or YouTube that can provide additional support after classroom activities. Some textbook publishers might also have suitable video or similar materials for students to use.

Within a flipped tax class, class time is used to work not only on more complicated projects and problems but also on the writing skills necessary to prepare more powerful workpaper memos and client letters.

Through a partially flipped classroom, the mix of outside multimedia and class time is allocated so that approximately 75% to 80% of class time is dedicated to the flipped approach of applying concepts through group work and spending one-on-one time with the professor, and the remaining 20% to 25% is dedicated to lecture and the more traditional methods of instruction.

The Benefits of Flipping

Clyde Freeman Herreid and Nancy A. Schiller, in "Case Studies and the Flipped Classroom," 42-5 Journal of College Science Teaching 62 (2013), provide evidence via case studies of how instructors can effectively flip a classroom. These authors offer numerous advantages of the flipped classroom gleaned from research of others (Fulton, "Upside Down and Inside Out: Flip Your Classroom to Enhance Student Learning," 39-8 Learning & Leading With Technology 12 (2012)) and their own survey of instructors. Kathleen Fulton suggests many advantages of flipping the classroom. Most significant are:

  1. The ability of students to move at their own pace to learn the material;
  2. Having students do traditional "homework" and other application assignments in class allows the instructor to better assess progress in real time and identify struggling students quickly;
  3. The instructor has more flexibility to customize a curriculum based on the students and emphasizing areas where support is necessary;
  4. Instructors can be more creative in how classroom time is used; and
  5. Students are likely to be more engaged and interested.

Technology is an important tool for a flipped classroom. Since the lectures and technology tools are available online, students may access them at times that best fit their schedules. In addition, students can take breaks when they need to rather than being confined to the classroom schedule.

Herreid and Schiller surveyed over 15,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) case-study teachers to gauge use of the flipped classroom and its effects. Additional benefits they discovered included teachers' spending more time with students on research, more active involvement of students in the classroom, and flexibility for students who have to miss class.

One example presented by Herreid and Schiller was a case from Kristie Ruddick in Improving Chemical Education From High School to College Using a More Hands-On Approach (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Memphis (2012)), of an instructor who taught two otherwise identical sections of a chemistry course—one in a flipped and the other in a nonflipped mode. At the conclusion of the term, the instructor found that students in the flipped section had significantly higher final exam scores than students in the traditional classroom model. In addition, the instructor found that students in the flipped classroom had an increased interest in the profession, based on end-of-term course evaluations.

Further details on the benefits and pitfalls of flipping the classroom can be found in Fulton's work, as well as in Herreid and Schiller's work.

Flipping the Traditional Tax Class

In class, during the flipped component, the professor does not lecture but instead acts as a coach and works with individuals and groups personally on areas where the greatest weakness is apparent. For example, when teaching the topic of gross income concepts and inclusions, the lesson could be prepared as follows:

Step 1. Due the day before class: Students watch a video recorded by the instructor introducing the topic and highlighting the key points from the reading. This video might be approximately 15 minutes. Following the video, students read the chapter in the textbook while using interactive multimedia and videos provided by textbook publishers via their website and course management software to augment the topics covered in the reading. Following the reading and multimedia activities, the students would be assigned basic problems and questions from the book to be completed online to demonstrate mastery, often graded as a quiz.

Step 2. In the classroom: Students have received what would traditionally be considered lecture content before attending class (step 1). As a result, they can spend classroom time working as a group to apply concepts. At the beginning of class, students may be assigned a case relating to the topic covered that also involves current events. For example, when Derek Jeter recorded his 3,000th hit, the fan who caught the ball exchanged it with the Yankees for other tickets and memorabilia. This ties well to instruction on gross income. Did the fan recognize income from this transaction? If so, how would the amount of income be computed? What arguments can one make that the exchange did or did not generate income to the fan who caught the ball? How should a CPA explain this to a client and defend a specific position to the IRS?

With the class broken up into teams, the students can work together using primary source material to research the case and come up with a determination. The students can work together to prepare a client letter, a client workpaper memo, or a formal presentation, as if the students are a team hired to advise the client. Class time might not be sufficient to complete the assignment, but there may be enough time for a significant portion of it to be completed and for the instructor to coach each team on the research process and the steps necessary to create a well-written document or presentation.

The instructor's coaching can be customized to each team where support is most needed. In classes where the focus is not on preparing written documents, the emphasis would be on working in teams to complete questions and complex problems from the textbook that apply what was delivered in the preclass lectures. Prior to working with teams on writing or solving specific problems, the instructor might spend the first 15 minutes of class addressing questions from the online lecture material and quizzes due prior to class.

Step 3. After the class: Following class, students complete assignments that were not completed during class time. In this example, teams would work together to complete the memo and submit it at the start of the following class. There would also be a reinforcement assessment, such as an out-of-class quiz or graded homework assignment. The professor would record and provide an additional video to recap the learning in the chapter, as well as provide links to videos from YouTube or Khan Academy that may also cover the topic that was just completed.

The flipped classroom gives students the opportunity to prepare client letters and tax research memos in class. This class time can allow for real-time interaction with the instructor as memos are written. This approach also allows for real-time peer review of the documents by classmates, with an opportunity for the instructor to comment on the review process in real time as well.

An approach such as this is likely to lead to significant improvement of writing and critical-thinking skills over the traditional approach, which may involve a short in-class discussion on writing and an out-of-class assignment in which students prepare documents independently, with little or no structured support from classmates or the instructor. Significant academic research supports the notion that students learn more effectively from each other and in learning groups than from traditional lecture formats.

Additional Considerations

It is important to note that flipped classrooms work significantly better in upper-level classes restricted to students within a major, as opposed to a required core course attended mostly by freshmen or sophomores. Success in this environment takes a significant level of maturity by the student, as the responsibility to learn basic concepts is shifted to them outside the classroom. Students who are not willing to take this responsibility and do the extra work outside class will not be successful in the course and are likely to earn low grades and provide lower teaching evaluations of their instructor instead of taking responsibility for their own lack of engagement. Students who are willing to put in the appropriate time and dedication required in this environment and who are willing to learn will reap the most benefit.

From the standpoint of additional skills beyond improved writing, a flipped classroom can also significantly improve a graduate's interpersonal skills and ability to verbally communicate key issues with others and explain technical rules. The flipped classroom may also improve students' appreciation of taxation due to their greater involvement in the subject matter.

The class time "freed up" by flipping also allows for more discussion of current tax topics that can help students apply technical rules to current events and public policy issues that are often in the news. For example, the 2016 presidential election provides a significant opportunity to accomplish this goal. Candidates often suggest changes to the overall tax system, such as moving to a flat tax, changing how capital gains are taxed, or offering more tax preferences to middle-income taxpayers.

Using a flipped classroom and technology, the instructor can allow students to learn the relevant rules (flat tax, capital gains, etc.) outside class, prior to the scheduled class session. In the flipped classroom, the first 10 minutes of class can be used to answer questions on current rules, but the class time can be used to break the class into teams and discuss how candidates plan to change the rules and how these changes can impact the tax system and overall economy. Following the in-class exercise, teams can be asked to give presentations to generate class discussion. This method of teaching provides a significantly higher level of learning and critical thinking than is typically found in tax classes taught using traditional methods.

Examples of other topics to be used in an undergraduate tax class include:

  1. Actions of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in November 2014, relating to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of "mega" IRAs (see GAO Rep't No. GAO-15-16): What changes were suggested and why? What is the impact on taxpayers? Using concepts covered in the course, what strategies can a taxpayer consider for tax planning if IRAs are restricted? How would a CPA advise an affected client on tax issues relating to this action?
  2. Reasonable salaries and issues for owners of closely held C corporations and S corporations: How would a CPA advise an affected client on tax issues relating to this issue?
  3. The Northwestern University athlete unionization debate: What are the tax issues? Would the athletes still be considered students? If they are treated as employees, how would a CPA advise the scholar or his or her parent on tax issues relating to this action?
  4. Tax implications of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148: How should a CPA advise an affected business owner client on tax issues relating to applicable PPACA rules?
Reality Check

With the number of good tax textbooks on the market at the introductory level, as well as packaged multimedia and online systems that often accompany these texts, along with software available to record lectures, the basic principles easily can and should be moved out of the classroom almost entirely. However, given the complexity of taxation, completely moving all lecture materials outside the classroom may not be ideal.

Instead, a partial flip, where the majority of the principles can be moved outside the class and a minimal portion of class time set aside to answer questions and address trouble points from the textbook assignments, works well. For example, it would be useful to spend the first 15 to 20 minutes of an 80-minute class period addressing issues related to homework and reading and to reserve the remaining 60 minutes for application and discussion of the basic principles through cases and communication of results through written professional documents such as a workpaper memo and client letter or presentations. If more than 20 minutes is needed to cover a specific issue, the instructor could set up an out-of-class live video chat session or record an additional lecture to highlight the issue.

The focus in class is not to reteach what was in the textbook but to emphasize application through working in teams to apply concepts and communicate findings. The goal is to help students develop writing skills to effectively communicate these issues to clients and the IRS. In addition to the classic tax cases, activities that focus on research and written communication of real-life events will significantly increase interest in the profession and allow practice of the necessary writing skills.

Significant research shows that use of current events and social issues as a significant part of classroom discussion will increase learning and understanding of issues as well as student engagement in the subject matter. Newspapers, journal articles, and open discussions can also be employed as a foundation for writing-based assignments and play significant roles in increasing student interest in the profession.

Conclusion

Tax professionals are significant stakeholders in how the current generation is educated. Those enrolled in accounting and tax programs today will become associates in firms over the next few years. It is detrimental to the future of all firms if the best of qualified students in the future applicant pool lack strong written communication and analytical skills. Firms often find they must devote additional time and resources to training new hires in basic skills before they can be elevated into more meaningful roles within the firm.

Understanding the trends in education, how students are educated, and how the more successful academic programs operate can allow the firm to make more informed decisions as to what schools will produce the most qualified applicants. In addition, practitioners serving on an accounting or tax program advisory board should be aware of trends and how new technologies might enhance the learning process and better prepare students for a strong start at a CPA firm.

This column does not imply that schools that do not use flipped classrooms are poor and not good recruiting channels but instead provides a perspective to address a problem that many firms face with new hires—weak communication and analytical skills—and suggests one possible solution that has been shown to be successful in higher education. Beyond higher education, the flipped classroom approach has many applications, including in continuing professional education (CPE). Unfortunately, many professionals often attend CPE courses simply to satisfy a state requirement, with little engagement in the class material. Could using a flipped classroom approach improve CPE quality and make courses more valuable to professionals?

This column, hopefully, can at least generate some talking points for discussion among tax educators and professionals on providing more meaningful formal tax education and CPE.   

 

EditorNotes

This article is based on a presentation the author made at the 2015 midyear meeting of the American Taxation Association in Washington.

 

 

Contributors

Annette Nellen is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif. Mitchell Franklin is an assistant professor of accounting with the Madden School of Business of LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. Prof. Nellen is a member of the AICPA Tax Division Tax Executive Committee and the Tax Reform Task Force. For more information about this column, contact Prof. Franklin at franklma@lemoyne.edu.

 

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