A Comparison of Student Attitudes & Beliefs of Lecture/Discussion

and Cooperative Approaches to Learning in An Accounting Classroom


Robert E. Holtfreter is Distinguished Professor of Accounting and Research in the department of accounting at Central Washington

University in Ellensburg, Washington.  Kristy L. Holtfreter is a PhD student and research assistant in the School of Criminal Justice at

Michigan State University.


There is reason to believe accounting classes should be structured to provide the opportunity for students to practice and improve their personal skills as well as enhance their performance. The problem is that most accounting classes, whether small or large in size, do not provide this opportunity because the classroom activities are based on the lecture/discussion approach to learning. In addition, grading on the curve is very common in this type of classroom structure and, as a result, motivates students to compete rather than cooperate. The instructor ends up dominating most of classroom activities in the classroom while the student’s take on a very subordinate and passive role. In this type of atmosphere it is difficult to motivate students to ask questions, which stifles the learning process and hinders the growth of personal skills such as oral communication, interpersonal, critical thinking, leadership, decision making, and teamwork.


An alternative approach to the lecture/discussion methodology is cooperative learning, which has been defined by Slavin (1987-8) as “instructional methods in which students of all performance levels work together in small groups toward a common goal. The essential feature of cooperative learning is that the suc­cess of one student helps other students to be successful.” Working in small groups of two or more individuals promotes the use of higher-level critical thinking skills (Johnson et. al. 1990), increase students’ motivation and positive attitude toward a particular subject (Johnson & Johnson 1986c; Johnson et. al. 1990), enhances higher self [esteem (Johnson et. al. 1990), provides greater mutual social support (Johnson et al. 1985b; Slavin 1988), enhances communication skills (Johnson and Johnson 1987; Sharan and Sharan 1992), and leads to greater achievement (Johnson, Johnson, and Houbec 1990; Slavin 1987; Holtfreter, Holtfreter and Holtfreter, 1997). In another recent study, Edward (2000) found that peer discussion groups helped to facilitate the building of critical thinking skills helped students to develop and organize ideas, and encouraged them to apply relevant strategies.


The accounting literature is devoid of any articles that explore the perceptions of accounting students regarding their attitudes about the cooperative and lecture/discussion approaches to learning. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to investigate the perceptions of students in an accounting class regarding their attitudes and beliefs about cooperative versus the traditional lecture/discussion approaches to learning. In a similar study by Glass & Putnam (1988-89), it was determined that students in two graduate and one undergraduate education classes overwhelmingly preferred the cooperative rather than lecture/discussion learning activities. In a related but different study Holtfreter & Holtfreter (2001) investigated the percep­tions of accounting students regarding their assessment of working in student learning teams as well as the its’ advantages and disadvantages. In this latter study it was determined that the students enjoyed working in the cooperative environment and felt that the advantages far outweighed the disadvantages.


In this study it is hypothesized that the students will prefer the cooperative rather than the lecture/discussion approach to learning.





Subjects. The subjects for the study were forty-three stu­dents, twenty-one male and twenty-two female, from an Accounting Principles-Financial course, which was scheduled over a ten- week quarter on MWF. The first day of class was devoted to talking to the students concerning their background and experiences with the lecture/discussion and cooperative approaches to learning. Their classroom experiences were dominated with the lecture/discussion learning approach. Although all of the students had worked on small group projects in and out of class, none of them had ever experienced a classroom whose activities were structured around a cooperative approach to learning on a near daily basis.



Procedures. Standard procedure for an effective cooperative learning environment is to establish a reward/grading system that encourages cooperation, not competition, among the participants. As Cottell (2000) points out, “most experts agree that grading on the curve, a practice that creates a quota system in the class and thus sets up a competitive rather than a cooperative atmosphere, should be avoided, especially by teachers who have embraced the cooperative learning philosophy”. In this study this was accomplished by assigning grades based on the following preset standards:  A=90-l00; B=80-89; C=70-79; D=65-69 and F=0-64.


For each chapter, the instructor used one class period to introduce the new material with the use of overheads. After that normally two class periods were used for the experi­ment. The Homework Check cooperative learning model, developed by the authors (See Holtfreter, Holtfreter, & Holtfreter (1999) for a complete description of the model including the role of the instructor), was initiated and used until the course ended. (For an excellent description of other cooperative learning models see Cottell & Millis, 1993). The Homework Check model provides the opportunity for stu­dents to work in learning teams in to go over previously assigned homework in class. The students are instructed to complete all the their assignments on their own outside of class and are encouraged to ask questions and provide expla­nations as they go through each assignment in their learning team in class. This strategy can be very effective because stu­dents tend to ask more questions in a small group setting compared to a typical larger classroom environment.


Eleven cooperative learning teams were formed based on the scores on the first exam. Four performance levels based on the ranking of the exam scores from high to low were used to place the students on teams. The first performance level included the top eleven scores, the second performance level was comprised of the next eleven scores etc. Except for the eleventh team, each of the first ten teams included one student from each of the four-performance levels. The eleventh team included three students, one from each of the first three performance levels. Including students on each team from every performance level promotes effective oral communication, problem solving, decision making, leader­ship, strategic/critical thinking, interpersonal and teamwork skills. This strategy helps to increase the probability that questions will be answered and learning will be enhanced.


On the contrary, learning would tend to be stifled if a team included students from only one performance level, e.g. the third or fourth level. This latter situation would rend to leave many questions unanswered and would not promote effective personal skills or enhance learning to its’ greatest potential.



Measure. One instrument was used to measure the attitudes and beliefs of the students concerning classroom-learning activities that relate to both the lecture/discussion and cooper­ative approaches to learning. The instrument was adapted from a similar one used by Glass and Putnam (1988-89). The ques­tionnaire contained fifteen questions with the first eight per­taining to specific classroom learning activities (e.g. “I practice skills of listening, sharing and giving encouragement to class­mates through this approach”) and the last seven focusing more on the beliefs regarding the activities overall (e.g. “I look forward to these activities”). On a five-point scale (1 1-Disagree to 5=agree) the students were asked to rate their level of agree­ment with each questionnaire item for both the cooperative and lecture/discussion approaches to learning.



Statistical Analysis. Means and standard deviations were calculated for each of the fifteen questionnaire items for each of the two learning approaches and t-tests were then conducted to determine if any significant differences existed between the two approaches for each item.





As revealed in Table 1, the results clearly demonstrate that the students rated the cooperative approach to learning more favor­able than the lecture/discussion approach. For seven of the first eight learning activities the students felt that they acquired valu­able information, shared information and ideas with other stu­dents, engaged in critical thinking activities, listened to the thoughts and opinions of their classmates, got a chance to see how ideas could be applied in the real world, practiced skills of learning, sharing and gave encouragement to classmates, had a better opportunity to review information, could check on their level of understanding and received help when needed to a greater degree in cooperative versus lecture/discussion approach to learning. As anticipated, the students felt that they learned more about the instructor’s ideas and experiences through the lecture/discussion rather than cooperative approach to learning.


Student attitudes and beliefs regarding the learning activities overall were measured in the last seven questions of the instrument. In a similar manner, they favored the cooperative over the lecture/discussion approach to learn­ing. They looked forward to class, felt more actively involved, were less frustrated and impatient, got confused less often, felt more intellectually challenged, were closer to their classmates and felt that their classmates participated more actively in the cooperative rather than the lecture/dis­cussion approach to learning.





These findings are extremely important and support the findings and recommendations of the American Accounting Association’s Education Change Commission in their first Position Statement, (2) the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants Core Competency Framework for Entry Into the Accounting Profession and (3) the Albrecht and Sack report that was the result of a joint project of the American Accounting Association, American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Institute of Management Accountants and the big five CPA firms.


In their First Position Statement, The Education Change Commission stated, “Students should be active participants in the learning process, not passive recipients of information…working on teams should be encouraged.... Teaching methods that expand and reinforce basic communication, intellectual and interpersonal skills should be used” (1990). This recommendation represents a major endorsement of the cooperative learning methodology and a red flag to accounting faculty who haven’t adopted it into their classrooms.


The AICPA, in their Core Competency Framework for Entry into the Accounting Profession, “supported a paradigm shift from a content-driven to a skills-based curriculum. The framework identifies core, functional, personal and broad business perspective competencies that are universally applicable to a diverse and growing array of accounting career options. Personal competencies relate to the attitudes and behaviors of individuals preparing to enter the accounting profession. Developing these personal competencies will enhance the way professional relationships are handled and facilitate individual learning and personal improvement.” (2000). Included in the personal competencies were the elements of professional demeanor, problem solving and decision making, leadership and communication skills. Strategic/critical thinking skills were included under the broad business perspective competencies.


The Albrecht and Sack report (2000) included a measure of the attitudes of practitioners and educators on a five-point scale concerning which of twenty-two skills were important for entry-level students. Analytical/critical thinking was ranked second by the practitioners (4.29) and first by the educators (4.53). Oral communications was ranked third by both the practitioners (4.27) and educators (4.22). Decision-making was ranked fifth by the educators (4.03) and sixth by the practitioners (3.96). Interpersonal skills were ranked sixth by the educators (3.94) and seventh by the practitioners (3.89). Teamwork was ranked eighth by the educators (3.81) and fifth by the practitioners (4.02). Leadership was ranked eleventh by the educators (3.58) and eighth (3.83) by the practitioners. These skills are similar to those mentioned in the AICPA Core Competencies framework report.


The attitudes of the students in this study concerning how learning should take place in the classroom in order to enhance student performance and develop the skills that are necessary for entry-level students in the accounting profession mesh very well with the wisdom and recommendations of the above three major reports. This results of this study clearly show that the students feel that the cooperative rather than the lecture/discussion approach to learning provides a better opportunity to develop the communication, critical thinking, decision making, interpersonal, teamwork and leadership skills that are necessary to succeed in the work place and in life. The typical lecture/discussion approach to learning is relatively devoid of any opportunity for students to develop the necessary personal skills needed for entry into the accounting profession. Students who have not experienced the cooperative learning methodology should encourage their instructors to adopt it for the classroom. Student performance will normally improve, in some cases significantly, which would be an additional bonus.