Working With Today’s Students

By William A. Raabe, CPA, Ph.D.

Editor: Annette Nellen, CPA, CGMA, Esq.

It always has been difficult to teach tax at the college level, with heavy technical material, law changes galore, and students who may come into the class with a dread of studying tax. Many undergraduate tax students will not enter tax practice immediately, and several might already have jobs in hand by the time they take their first tax course, so, combined with "senioritis," these factors often make it difficult to keep the students' interest at the needed levels.

This is in a context of an increasing amount of material that the tax course must deliver. Just in the past 10 or so years, tax syllabuses typically have added a serious dose of accounting for income taxes; tax aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148; multijurisdictional taxation; and changes in how the IRS operates and how clients and their advisers work with the agency.

Now factor in the reality that students today can be much different from those of prior years. Interviews, focus groups, and field experience show that students today are more goal-oriented and have been raised to expect instantaneous information and entertainment from various social media outlets they regularly access. Tax professors often find that:

  • Students are not well-prepared for class, in that they probably did not read any assigned material ahead of the session;
  • If they are not engaged fully during class, they may turn to electronic devices and tune out class activities;
  • They are CPA Exam-oriented to the point that they may not invest time or effort on materials that are unlikely to appear on the exam;
  • Their verbal communication skills are better than how others would characterize them, but their computational and analytical skills almost certainly are less developed than they would self-assess, especially spreadsheet and planning/consultative skills;
  • They have experienced different learning approaches in their earlier classes, even in accounting: Lecture time may have been minimal, group work often is the norm, and online materials may have been common.

This all means that it is harder than ever to deliver an effective tax course of the traditional type: lectures focusing on the Code and regulations, quizzes and exams completed individually, and "Professor Kingsfield"-style grilling and drilling during class time.

Complain as they might in the faculty lounge about the current students, instructors should adjust their teaching styles and learning techniques in tax classes to accommodate current student characteristics. This does not mean that tax professors should "dumb it down" or talk about taxes rather than develop the skills and attitudes that students need to succeed in today's tax profession. More than ever, students need a solid technical foundation in the tax law, not a "highlights of taxation" or "tax lite" course that may yield favorable evaluations of the instructor but not challenge the students.

Rather, students need to be ready to perform well on the job, often in a matter of months, and they need to be able to grab points on the CPA Exam on the tax questions that will face them. This all makes the job of teaching tax more difficult than ever. That is why a premium must be placed on engaging students in new ways, without sacrificing the tax content that they need and that instructors enjoy teaching them.

Student engagement of this type does not come from flipping a switch or from attending a single conference and attaining immediate results. More likely, instructors should employ a trial-and-error approach to finding the best way to attack the tax learning objectives that lie before them. Sometimes they will succeed, sometimes less so, but the most important step is the first—for the tax professor to adapt the approach to the course to the needs and characteristics of today's students.

Following are ideas on how to attain the levels of student engagement needed. Tax professors should trade ideas such as these with colleagues on their own campus and elsewhere. The mix of techniques used likely will be unique to the time and place, but this process certainly will be worthwhile for tax professors and their students, as instructors coach them toward a long career that includes the tax law in their client advocacy arsenal.

Flipping the Classroom and Using Social Media

"Flipping the classroom" is a piece of educational jargon that can mean many things. In a tax class, it probably best means that the instructor "steals time" from the students outside class meetings, attempting to keep tax on their minds between class sessions. This likely will entail a combination of the following techniques, all of which at first increase the instructor's preparation time for the course but which then can become almost second nature after a little practice.

Record a video clip to be viewed by students as they begin a new textbook chapter or topic. YouTube is easy to work with, using the video recording software that came with your laptop, tablet, or webcam. Do not worry about providing a clip of professional quality—the point is to grab three to five minutes of the student's time during a workout or quiet time—but using a third-party microphone is a good idea. The instructor might say, for example, "Here's what we'll talk about; you read about this in last week's Wall Street Journal," or "Don't spend too much time on this topic; we won't emphasize it." This also might be a good way to bridge from one topic to the next: "We just formed a new corporation; now, what if it pays dividends?"

Resist the temptation to record and post full-length lectures. Keep any video clips to a five-minute maximum to prepare students for class time, not replace it. An instructor can post a longer video to go into detail about solving a difficult class assignment or to answer specific questions about topics that have come from multiple students.

Use Twitter and Facebook to connect with students between classes and for them to connect with one another. Send a link to students to a New York Times article about whether Uber drivers are employees or contractors. Or share a post from the Tax Foundation about the tax climates of the states. Try to make six or so contacts like this per month—not too many, not too few. The tax professor should not mix these posts with his or her personal accounts and should not feel a need to be a "friend" to all of the students. Most of these communications are one-way only, from the instructor to the students. The instructor should also provide students with round-the-clock email access, but don't promise them an immediate response.

Bridge to Other Courses

Bring into the tax course materials and topics that arise in previous classes. How does international tax law parallel business law concepts? What is the present value of the tax due, after applying the tax-deferral techniques that are discussed in the textbook chapter? How would you express the computation of a specific tax credit as an Excel formula? How do progressive tax rates follow the economists' law of diminishing marginal returns for cash and income? The instructor might bring up a topic like this as a part of class time but then assign another such item for course points.

Broaden the Definition of Tax Research

Tax research skills are valuable for the student, who often develops them in the tax course with a textbook chapter and assignments to deliver a tax research memo or client letter. It also is prudent to add class assignments that direct students to websites that they will use in tax practice and to sites that examine the public policy aspects of the tax law. Include in the course assignment list repeated visits to irs.gov,taxfoundation.org, the websites of the largest accounting firms, and no-fee sites with government tax reports, tax regulations, and court cases (see Nellen, "Campus to Clients: Government Tax Treasures," 46 The Tax Adviser 628 (August 2015)). Have the student read and comment on testimony delivered to Congress on proposed legislation or tax reform packages. Send a technical comment to a member of the House Ways and Means Committee or an equivalent person at the state level.

Vary the Assigned Deliverables

Think beyond course assignments as only a computation or essay. Today's students are good with video and editing software, so have them simulate a web-based meeting to discuss a project assigned to them: "I am your tax partner, and I want to see what you have been working on for the sales tax project, but I will be out of town, so send me a three-minute video summarizing your findings by the due date." Do an in-class role play where a student group conducts a meeting with a client about the deductibility of an employee business expense. It might make sense to work closely with the students the first time they engage in an assignment like this, to make sure that they see the high bar of expectations set for them and that they are expected to perform with a serious degree of professionalism. "How would you dress for a meeting with the client or your partner?"

Engage With the Profession

Alumni are happy to come back to campus to meet and work with students; they gain as much from campus contacts as instructors do in bringing them back. Have the student group present their findings to a tax manager, where that role is played by an alum from the program instead of by the tax professor. Prepare the alum for this meeting by sharing expectations of the students, the professionalism that is expected of them, and the answers to any assignments they have completed. But then sit back and watch how well and quickly the interactions take place, with each side trying to impress the other.

Use Cases to Develop Tax Skills

Many tax professors have used the comprehensive tax return or midsemester tax-compliance problem to pull together concepts from multiple textbook chapters in a more real-life setting. These problems often take a long time to grade, but they can allow for the application of tax software in an effective manner. Many students will have used tax prep software in an earlier internship, and they will grasp quickly the nuances of the programs that the professor employs, so that the software can be used to develop critical-thinking and tax planning skills as never before. "How does the charitable deduction change if the taxpayer earns an additional bonus at the end of the tax year?" "How does a year-end bonus affect the penalty for tax underpayments?"

Comprehensive tax return problems are actually tax-based case studies, as that term is used in other courses. Usually, the fact patterns needed to do a full tax return are elaborate, so the student first must organize the material before doing anything with it. Especially when the completed tax return is examined with a directed sensitivity analysis, or a second tax year is added so that some tax acceleration or deferral can occur, critical-thinking and consultative skills are developed in a meaningful way.

Now vary the deliverables expected from the tax-compliance case:

  • Turn in a document explaining assumptions made and research completed.
  • Submit one or more spreadsheets that were prepared for supporting schedules or computations.
  • Conduct a role-play meeting in which the preparer delivers the return to a supervisor. Make one of the other students a "reviewer" of the return, providing to-do notes to the preparer later.
  • Present a slideshow to others in the tax department about a specific item that required some tax research to complete.
  • Submit a time sheet, detailing time spent on the project and describing the work done during those periods.

Case studies often are used in MBA programs and in the medical, legal, and consultative sense, but those uses differ from the comprehensive tax return problems that this column discusses. Case studies of this sort—longer, text-based narratives supplemented with detailed financial statements and legal documents—can be used in tax courses, too.

Tax case studies are available on occasion through the American Accounting Association and American Taxation Association. Harvard, Darden, and other publishers provide cases for sale, but very few of them are suitable for the typical tax course. PwC has offered a collection of cases for many years; it is the tax equivalent to the financial accounting Trueblood cases. The PwC cases cover a multitude of advanced business topics and have proved popular among tax professors. They are distributed as Word and Excel files, so that the tax professor can modify them to achieve variety and maintain course integrity. The PwC collection offers cases with varying degrees of difficulty, and some of the cases have multiple assignments, so that the tax professor can tailor the student requirements as desired. Information about the PwC collection, now offering over 50 such cases, is available at billraabetax.com/pwctaxcases.html.

Typically, a compliance case study would be used in the first tax course or for one of the major business entities (i.e., Forms 1120, 1120S, or 1065), and a narrative case study works best in a second tax course or beyond. Here are additional thoughts about using tax case studies in classes:

  • Take a prepared case study and modify it for your course, emphasizing and de-emphasizing topics to match the syllabus.
  • In doing this, add to the fact pattern plenty of information that seems irrelevant or superfluous to the solution, a situation that often is encountered in the profession. Hardworking students may find something in those materials that enhances their analysis.
  • Build several research points into the fact pattern, requiring students to go beyond their usual resources for this project.
  • If a purchased or prepared case is used, read it thoroughly before distributing the assignment, and work through your own solution before peeking at the author's suggestions.
  • Triple the expected time to complete the assignment, to allow students to digest the fact pattern, make several false starts in their approach, and polish the final product. Do not be unfair to the students by giving them a project that is too big to handle.
Conclusion

The nature and characteristics of today's tax students require that professors augment their courses with additional learning techniques, engaging the students in ways that develop skills in addition to knowledge of the tax law. The tax profession's demands on students will direct these new approaches and others to follow them, to match the needs of the profession with students' skills and abilities.

 

Contributor

Annette Nellen is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif. William A. Raabe was the Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of Taxation. His work has appeared previously in this column and in the articles sections of The Tax Adviser. He is an author of more than 20 books, including the South-Western Federal Taxation series. For more information about this column, please contact thetaxadviser@aicpa.org.

 

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