Closing the gap between accounting education and the workplace

By Patrick Walsh, CPA, Ed.D.

Editor: Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA

The gap between what is taught in accounting in higher education and what is sought in practice has been documented multiple times since the Bedford Committee published its report in 1986 (American Accounting Association, Committee on the Future Structure, Content, and Scope of Accounting Education, “Future Accounting Education: Preparing for the Expanding Profession,” Issues in Accounting Education, p. 168 (Spring 1986)). Yet little has been done in higher education to help close the gap. One reason for the lack of change in higher education is that accounting graduates have been a sought-after commodity. One could argue that if there really were a gap, employers would not continue to hire accounting graduates. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily a valid measuring stick for educational quality.

In 2000, Steve Albrecht and Robert Sack (Accounting Education: Charting a Course Through a Perilous Future (American Accounting Association 2000)) sounded a warning bell to accounting professors as the authors discovered that accounting graduates were not adequately prepared for employment. At that time, the demand for new accounting graduates was flat and began to decrease in 2001, providing support for their concern.

The warning bell was quieted when in 2002 the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, P.L. 107-204, was enacted, increasing the need for more accounting graduates. New regulations and a robust economy contributed to the need for accounting graduates. It was easy to think that higher education closed the gap. However, the accounting profession has always filled the knowledge gap with apprentice-based learning. Associates would obtain on-the-job training as they worked on lower-level tasks in preparation for becoming senior associates.

Since 2000, additional studies have reaffirmed the gap between the skills and competencies typically fostered by higher education and what is needed in the real world (see 36 Issues in Accounting Education (Fourth Quarter 2021) for supporting articles). As a result, the gap is now fully apparent as accounting firms look for nonaccounting graduates to fill their ranks. The knowledge gap is widening as the lower-level tasks traditionally done by accounting associates are automated. New staff are expected to do reviewer-level work as soon as they start, without having the traditional apprenticeship experience the firms provided. Nonaccounting graduates are helping firms automate more business processes. These graduates with different skill sets can learn the accounting work and layer in their technology knowledge to help the firm. This situation raises the question: Will accounting professors embrace the charge of closing the gap and change, or will they blissfully ignore the gap?

A solution to help close the gap

Many accounting professors are aware of the gap, and the common solution is incorporating a case into a course to help students apply their learning in a real-world setting. Many case ideas have been shared in this column as well as in other publications. A tax course in the United States followed a similar format, and the professor noticed that even though the students had learned tax rules and financial concepts necessary to solve a complex problem independently of one another, when they were asked to bring those rules and concepts together in a real-world situation, they struggled. This common phenomenon — a student’s inability to integrate isolated, specific knowledge to real-world scenarios — is called the “transfer paradox” (defined by Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer and others in 1997 and 2011).

To solve the transfer paradox, van Merriënboer and others created the Four-Component Instructional Design (4C/ID) model and wrote a book, Ten Steps to Complex Learning, to help professors apply the 4C/ID model into their courses (Van Merriënboer and Kirschner, Ten Steps to Complex Learning: A Systematic Approach to Four-Component Instructional Design (Routledge 2018)). The premise is that, to avoid the transfer paradox, professors identify and teach the desirable complex skill throughout a course as progressively complex cases are introduced to incorporate learning. The four components of 4C/ID are:

  1. Learning tasks (similar to case studies): By starting with the learning tasks, a professor designs with the end in mind. Identifying what a student should be able to do by the end of the course is a way to identify the learning tasks that will support the course objectives.
  2. Supportive information: Supportive information is schema or models to help solve problems. The information is studied by the student and can be shared in readings or lectures.
  3. Procedural information: Procedural information is knowledge needed at the time of completing the complex task. These are rules that are applied multiple times, and, over time, the need for procedural knowledge cues fades.
  4. Part-task practice: This component is not required but instead is used when automaticity is desired to help the students reduce the cognitive load of solving a problem and the procedural information cannot be practiced enough to create the automaticity.

The Ten Steps to Complex Learning walks readers through the process of designing a course using the principles of 4C/ID instruction.

4C/ID in a tax course

The 4C/ID model has been researched and found to be effective in other education settings (most notably, in medical education) but not until recently in accounting. A university professor teaching the second tax course (Tax II), which principally covers entity taxation (the first tax course covers individual taxation), created an experiment to see whether 4C/ID effectively helped students solve real-world problems while not compromising performance on CPA Exam–like questions (Walsh, “Designed Intervention in Accounting Higher Education to Solve Authentic Problems,” dissertation, Indiana University, 2020). A two-week module on partnership taxation in an upperdivision undergraduate Tax II course was tested. One section was the control group, which learned using a textbook with traditional instruction shared during class. This group had assigned readings before and homework after each class. The other section was the experimental group, and these students did not use a textbook for their resource material but instead had access to a well-known tax research database to help them answer professor-selected prompts about partnership taxation. In place of the standard lecture, students in the experimental group were assigned to watch videos before class. During each class period, they worked on increasingly complex cases (four cases in total). They saw partnership concepts through real-world scenarios.

Both sections took a 10-question pre-quiz that included CPA Exam– like questions and a post-quiz with the same 10 questions with different numbers. They also completed the same partnership tax return using tax software. Each section also took an exam involving a real-world scenario that covered concepts learned by both groups. A comparison of the pre– and post–CPA Exam–like tests found no statistical difference between the sections. However, a comparison of the real-world assessment found that the experimental group performed significantly better. Although additional studies are needed before broad conclusions can be made, the results of this limited study indicate that courses that implement 4C/ID instruction can incorporate complex cases throughout the course to teach the relevant material without negatively affecting a student’s ability to demonstrate knowledge comprehension on multiple-choice exams.

After the experiment, the professor converted the entire Tax II course by using the Ten Steps to Complex Learning as a guide. Students who completed the course in fall 2021 and then completed internships in the January to April 2022 tax busy season provided anecdotal evidence regarding the change. All 10 students who were taking part in a tax internship were contacted, and seven responded. Below are summaries of their comments to the following prompts: “Do you feel that Tax II helped prepare you for the internship?

Have any of your reviewers commented on how well you’ve done compared to other students?”

  • I do believe that Tax II is the most “real-life” class. Recently, I was complimented on my overall progress, which was rewarding to hear. Overall, the class prepared me for the internship more than any other class.
  • I feel the class helped me prepare for the internship because it helped me reason through the process of placing support into tax software. My reviewers commented on how they have been able to trust me with higher-level returns than the average interns.
  • I feel like my internship and this class are a very good continuation of one another.
  • I think Tax II has had the most impact of any classes on my success during this internship. I have been told by reviewers more than once that they were surprised by things I had done or understood due to the class, including the various types of returns. Although we don’t use the same software at the firm, understanding how to navigate tax software, and how information flows between inputs to various forms, has been helpful. The other intern at my firm had no experience with tax preparation software, so it was a steeper learning curve for them.
  • Your class was very beneficial for my internship. The partners started assigning me the more complicated returns because I know my way around a tax return and how to calculate basis and understand financial statements. The other interns usually came to me with questions.
  • Initially, I did not love Tax II, but it turned out to be one of the most applicable classes I took in college for real-life job stuff.
  • Tax II has and continues to make a huge difference for me. My employer gave me complicated business entities to work on due to the knowledge I gained from taking your class.

The feedback has been positive, as 4C/ID can help close the gap and prepare accounting students for more complex tasks. It is important to note that it is not without its challenges, though. Developing the course takes time, and students often dislike the class at first. It differs from their other courses because there is no textbook, and students work on different real-life cases each week. In addition to learning the material, they develop the skill of asking questions and learning from prior mistakes, similar to being on the job. This approach resembles a guided apprenticeship model. Hopefully, when participating students start their careers, they will be able to perform more complicated tasks and review work faster, which is necessary now that lower-level accounting-related tasks are being automated.

Making room for more cases

While students do learn relevant knowledge, it is unlikely a course could contain all of the concepts that were included in the original course. Any gap in CPA Exam knowledge is easily corrected with a CPA Exam review course. Students will have a solid base to build on for their CPA Exam studies. The following quote from nearly a quartercentury ago is appropriate, regarding the sacrifice that may be required to wrestle with the dilemma the accounting field has faced for 35-plus years:

[W]hile pedagogical intentions to stress integrated coursework and explicate concepts with newer technologies is somewhat encouraging, instructors often use electronic innovations as a means to teach even more facts and information. Accounting professors face a common teaching dilemma in higher education today: whether to focus on the “correct procedure” and “cover” the majority of the text material or adopt themes that more deeply address multiplicative views of knowledge. In effect, they state that the philosophical question confronting the accounting instructor is whether they view the student as a receiver of knowledge or as a knowledge constructor. [Bonk and Smith, “Alternative Instructional Strategies for Creative and Critical Thinking in the Accounting Curriculum,” 16-2 Journal of Accounting Education 261, 266 (August 1998)]

One must wonder how professors can “tidy up” their courses by removing some content to provide more time to incorporate 4C/ID into their courses. Marie Kondo, an organizing expert, provides a framework to use when deciding what to eliminate (Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Random House 2014)). According to Kondo, to tidy up your clothes, you should put all of them in one big pile on the bed, no matter where they were located in the house. Then pick up each clothing item and ask: “Does this bring me joy?” If it does, keep it, and if it does not, thank it and discard it. Sometimes people have trouble letting things go, and this stems from either attachment to the past or a fear of the future. Two examples of attachment to the past are: “I cannot discard the soccer shirt I have had since high school or the one my mom got me for my birthday 20 years ago.” Fearing the future can look like this: “I have not worn this shirt in five years, but I might need it in the future.”

Now, what would this look like for course content? Professors would make a list of all the content in their course. Next, they would evaluate each item one by one and ask: “Are my students likely to use this?” If so, keep it. If not, thank it and discard it. Now, a professor cannot approach content like clothes, asking, “Does this content bring me joy?” That can lead to trouble. For example, the author of this column learned in school a commonly taught concept in partnership taxation but never saw it in practice. This rule is fun to teach, and it does highlight a partnership theory, but students are unlikely to encounter it in practice. In this case, professors might keep the lesson because they are attached to it. Or they may fear that even though they did not use it in practice, one of their students might. These two concerns can prevent professors from eliminating content that students are unlikely to use. Professors are making a choice: Do they want their students to be regurgitators of facts but unable to apply a concept in a real-world setting? Or do they want them to be lifelong learners who can solve problems and learn content as needed, even if they did not learn it in school?

Authentic preparation

Maintaining the status quo in accounting education is a dead-end proposition. The study described above that tested the application of 4C/ID principles in an upper-level tax course demonstrates the importance of exploring instructional design theories that can prepare accounting students for today’s technology-enhanced environments without sacrificing their ability to learn the content. The study is only a first step in applying one instructional design model in accounting higher education. The results nonetheless indicate that 4C/ID can prepare students to solve authentic problems without compromising their capacity to learn content that will be important for their careers and assist in preparing them to pass the CPA Exam.


Patrick Walsh, CPA, Ed.D., is a professor at Brigham Young University–Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho. Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA, is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif., and is a past chair of the AICPA Tax Executive Committee. For more information about this column, contact

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