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Could case studies work as a form of assessment for accounting and finance undergraduate students?

Author: Andrew Smerdon, Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University

Published: 07 Jul 2021

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Andrew Smerdon reflects upon the use of open book applied case studies, consisting of advance and impact information, for coursework assessments on large Accounting and Finance final year undergraduate degree modules.

Background to case studies

The Covid-19 pandemic presented multiple challenges to educators who were asked, at speed, to pivot to online teaching and assessment methods. Rapid change provides little opportunity to consider suitability, however we are now able to reflect upon the effectiveness of new assessment methods and to determine the extent to which they fit within an online environment. In particular I would like to consider the impact that open book applied case study assessments (“case studies”) might have upon positive student behaviours and deeper approaches to learning1.

For many years the ICAEW have utilised a case study as a means of testing student knowledge, skills and experience, challenging student’s ability to solve complex business issues and provide effective solutions2. Although, at almost 40 pages long, the ICAEW case study is perhaps too vast for application to undergraduate accounting and finance modules, the recent introduction of advance and impact information within the Corporate Reporting exam, provides an indication of the potential future trajectory of professional exams.

Case study assessments can have a positive impact on student engagement, providing students with an opportunity to develop learning and evaluative skills essential for employment and lifelong learning3. My experience of using applied case studies across three large Accounting and Finance final year undergraduate degree modules indicates that case studies can improve student performance and engagement leading to positive outcomes and student feedback. The use of advance information replicates a real world setting and asking students to interview ‘clients’ provides a valuable opportunity to apply knowledge in a manner that is sometimes lacking across traditional assessments whilst allowing you to assess student insight and comprehension effectively.

Some important considerations

  1. Group working works! 
    Students will work together on advance information, regardless of whether they are supposed to or not. Therefore consider a task that either involves group work or at least encourages students to collaborate on reviewing the advance information. 
    The most successful of our case studies involved groups of students conducting ‘client interviews’ following by an assessed task where groups justified the questions posed to the ‘client’ and discussed how the information they received was useful to the case. Self-selecting groups were the most successful.
    Impact information is best used as an individual timed assessment
  2. Make advance information relevant
    - Students will go off at a tangent so ensuring that the information provided can be used alongside the impact information is essential
    - The impact information should expand upon the advance information, allowing students to fully comprehend the scenario and evaluate and draw conclusions
  3. Design your case studies carefully
    - Reflect upon what skills you are asking students to demonstrate. Data analysis, commercial awareness, research and business appropriate communication4 are all the types of skills that can successfully be built into a case study.
    - Students can also be asked to engage with academic literature as part of the assessment to place emphasis upon research led critical thinking skills as well as employability skills

Don’t forget practical considerations too!

  • In addition to allowing time between the release of advance information and the individual assessment, students also need sufficient space in their timetables which they can dedicate to digesting and reviewing the advance information and conducting any necessary research
  • Multiple versions of the same assessment with slight adjustments can help prevent mass collusion although it is important to maintain the same standard between versions. A time individual assessment using the impact information is also helpful.
  • Case studies should be devised in a manner that sufficiently differentiates performance
  • Finally! Do not underestimate how long it takes to develop a robust case study. The results are worth the effort but start planning as far in advance as possible.

Employability skills vs academic skills

Although case studies might primarily be designed to develop students’ employability skills, it is equally important that final year modules strike a balance between these skills and academic skills. Fostering an environment which not only promotes technical expertise but also encourages research-led critical thinking5 is likely to result in a more robust set of outcomes at the programme and institutional level. It is possible to introduce an element of research-led critical thinking into the assessment so that students develop the full suite of required skills.

Concluding thoughts

As we move into the next academic year, one which may continue a trend of hybrid or remote learning, perhaps we can draw on our experiences to devise new and robust assessment methods which benefit both students and academics alike.

*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.

References

  1. Sangster, A., Stoner, G. and Flood, B. (2020) Insights into accounting education in a COVID-19 world, Accounting Education, 29:5, 431-562
  2. https://www.icaew.com/-/media/corporate/files/learning-and-development/aca-syllabus/aca-syllabus-handbook-20211305.ashx
  3. Elkington, S. and Evans, C. (2017) Transforming assessment in Higher Education. Advance HE.
  4. Institute of Student Employers (2021) ISE Student Development Survey 2021
  5. Gebreiter, F. (2021) A profession in peril? University corporatization, performance measurement and the sustainability of accounting academia, Critical Perspectives on Accounting