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The COVID cohort

Rebecca Wright ACA ACCA, ICAEW Course Leader and Lecturer in Professional Accountancy at the University of South Wales, gives tips on how to successfully study online during a pandemic and also reminds students of techniques to employ in any study situation.

The spread of COVID-19 brought many of our lives to a standstill. Our working, family and social lives were brought to a pause with immediate effect. As the UK begins to kickstart itself back into some sort of uncertain ‘normality’, what is certain is that there is now a ‘new way of normal’. As a country we have responded with resilience and adaptivity, with a strong focus emerging on recovery for businesses across all industries.

Behind these business leaders will follow a generation that will quickly be known as the ‘COVID generation’. During lockdown, many ACA students’ motivations dwindled, focus was clouded and goalposts were moved. This generation of learners will be required to dig deeper than ever to keep their careers on track. Many learners’ summers have been taken and replaced with study as they prepare for deferred exams in the late Summer or early Autumn.

COVID-19 has seen accountancy firms accelerate their use of technology overnight. Harnessing dynamic and innovative approaches to work from home, keeping their firm running and responding to the needs of their clients.

Innovation has rippled across all industries including universities and private training providers. ACA educators across the country are now providing guidance on what their learning environments will look like for 2020/21. Partners in learning have had to adapt traditional classroom teaching models, using technology to provide virtual classrooms and online learning to all.

I studied my ACCA and ACA Professional Accounting qualifications at the University of South Wales. Ten years later I now stand on the other side of the desk as ICAEW Course Leader and Lecturer in Professional Accountancy at the University.

I’ve noticed that some learners have adapted quickly to the new learning environment and are continuing make the most of their studies, whereas others have understandably struggled. I know for many online learning might seem a daunting prospect so I wanted to share the things learners can do to optimise their learning experience.

Engage

It is important that you initiate excellent communications with your tutor from the start. Actively contact your tutor, introduce yourself and understand what is expected from you on the course and the learning timetable. If there is an opportunity to book a 1-2-1 meeting or session make sure that you take up this opportunity.

Technical

You might be concerned that online learning could be flat, boring, lonely and isolating. However, our online tuition at USW includes live virtual classrooms with breakout rooms and interactive class activity, and most online providers will have such a ‘live’ element. It is vital that you engage with this element of a course and having the right technical set up will ensure that you gain the most benefit. Contact the tuition provider to ask about any technical apps/software you will require to access resources. Make sure you have a working webcam and microphone as interaction with your tutor and peers is crucial. Whilst you might feel uncomfortable initially using the webcam, you wouldn’t attend a classroom and sit under the desk, so dial in, turn your microphone and camera on and say ‘hi’ at the start of the class! All of this will help you feel more present in the online class. You can always turn your camera off after you’ve said hello but it’s nice for your lecturer and other students to put a face to your voice (even if you are having a bad hair day!).

Support Structure

The ICAEW Professional Qualification is challenging and demanding. Surround yourself with people who can support your professional journey. As a Course Leader I always advise my students to swap phone numbers and set up WhatsApp groups. The only people who truly understand how hard the module/course is and how challenging the learning materials are, are the people in the room. Obviously, this becomes even more of a challenge when we are virtual. Don’t be shy at making suggestions to use the WhatsApp group to discuss homework and class suggestions – it will encourage others to use it. I met one of my best friends studying my professional qualifications, and her support throughout my studies was essential - we laughed, cried, qualified and graduated together (we were lucky at USW to be allowed to be part of graduation as professional accountancy students).

It is possible that during your studies you might lose focus, confidence or direction. As an ICAEW student you have access to Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (CABA) support. CABA offer a wider range of support and advice, and if at any point you feel that you don’t have support, they can offer lots of help and advice.

Timetable

When completing studies through a combination of pre-recorded sessions and virtual live classrooms, it is easy to allow other activities to become a priority. Schedule a suitable time to watch your pre-recorded sessions, allowing enough time to digest and understand their content before the ‘live’ tutor sessions. Ensure your study time is focused and uninterrupted so that you can give it your full attention.

It can be really challenging to balance family and social life with studying. My twins were two when I began to study, and 4am was the only time I could find for my uninterrupted learning. (I’m certainly not recommending this for everybody, but it worked for me!) Having space and time for your learning is so important, it might feel indulgent, but your achievement will benefit your family. Lean on those around you to ensure you can get the right balance, focus and attention to the task at hand.

Perhaps most importantly ensure your study and revision timetable is realistic. Have you timetabled too much? Have you allowed for days off and breaks? I offer to review all my students study timetables. I notice many don’t allow any time for a break or time off (more on this later). Your timetable must be realistic. If it’s not, you won’t achieve it which will make you feel like you have failed before you have started.

Focus

The completion of your professional accountancy journey is long and at times can feel completely overwhelming, so much so the temptation to walk away can creep in. Try to focus on the module you are studying, one module at a time, rather than overall completion. It might be that sometimes you need to break down the module just to focus on one chapter of that module, that’s fine too, no-one eats a three-course meal in one bite.

Your Learner Journey

It took me a long time to understand myself as a learner. Try different revision techniques to understand which revision is the best for you. Without a doubt the best revision is question practice, but we need to be creative with our revision, so it doesn’t become too repetitive. As a learner I often revised through association. For example, when completing my Law module I would remember case law by thinking of things I could associate with the specific cases to remember them.

A top tip for these is once you have made them, photograph them on your phone and you can then test yourself when you have a few unexpected free moments - in work, on your train commute, or if you were like me, when waiting for the kids at the playground.

When you question practice, sometimes attempting another full question in that session might seem too much of a challenge, so try answering the question through a mind map or answer plan instead – that is still more beneficial than not attempting the question at all. And planning is vital per se. When you get to your final Advanced Level Case Study exam half of the four-hour exam is spent planning, so starting to develop this essential technique of planning at lower levels can be really beneficial.

Feedback

Throughout your studies it is likely that you will have opportunities to have your work marked and obtain feedback. Take advantage of these occasions to understand if you are on track. Feedback on your technical approach and layout will help you maximise your marks. It can be very easy to avoid completing mock exams and progress tests for fear of not doing well, but these are vital learning opportunities to help you and your tutor gauge your understanding and progress. Far better to address deficiencies in your mock exams rather than realising that you have knowledge or application gaps on exam day.

Feedback is important both ways too. As a tutor I welcome ideas and constructive feedback from my students. Some of my best teaching has come from ideas from students who have been clear on what they need help with. Be bold and if there is something you would like to be covered let your tutor know.

Time Out

We all need time out, but everyone’s time out is different. To some people it is a run or exercise, for others it is baking or switching on the TV and zoning out. All of the above and more are correct, what is important is that you do whatever you need to take time out, as often as you need …… well, as long as you find the right balance.

Obtaining my Professional Accountancy Qualifications were one of the most challenging yet rewarding achievements, but it wasn’t without struggle. Be prepared for the challenge because nothing beats the feeling of viewing your final results letter or email, or holding your mortar board hat in your hand at professional graduation. But beyond that it opens so many possibilities for your future career. I’d have never imagined being a Lecturer ten years ago but it’s one the best jobs I could have. I love seeing how students progress and overcome challenges to get their qualification. COVID-19 is a challenge on the learner journey but don’t be put off because the long-term results will transform your life.

Rebecca Wright ACA ACCA
ICAEW Course Leader
University of South Wales
Email: rebecca.wright@southwales.ac.uk