Writing to Learn in Managerial Accounting Classrooms:

Further Evidence About Student Performance and Perception

by 

Barbara Woods McElroy and Carol Lynn Coman

Barbara Woods McElroy bmcelroy@campbell.berry.edu is an Assistant Professor, Berry College. Carol Lynn Coman coman@clunet.edu is an Assistant Professor, California Lutheran University.

ABSTRACT: The one-minute paper is the subject of this report, which addresses three issues:

First, it builds upon a previous experiment in which one-minute papers improved student performance in auditing and accounting information systems classes, but not in managerial accounting classes. It was unclear whether these differences were due to the course material or the nature of examinations, since the managerial accounting examinations included only objective questions, while those in the other courses included both objective and subjective items. Using tests which include both objective and subjective items, we discovered that writing-to-learn exercises improve student performance in an introductory managerial accounting course.

Second, this study offers additional evidence regarding the use of less-structured questions for one-minute papers. In the literature, two approaches have been used. In the first the same two broad questions are used repeatedly. The second requires different, more directed questions specific to particular topics. We chose the first approach and, based upon previous research, the papers were not graded or returned. We found that the experimental group earned significantly better test scores. Therefore, students can be given the benefit of writing-to-learn exercises without substantially increased effort by the professor.

Third, the study provides preliminary evidence of the perceptions of students about the value of one-minute writings and their unsolicited comments about them on teaching evaluations. We found that very few students elected not to continue the papers when they were made optional. More (but still few) students mentioned the papers in unsolicited comments on teaching evaluations. However, those comments were uniformly negative.

 

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INTRODUCTION

In current accounting education literature, much has been written about infusing active learning methods into course design and classroom activities. One activity that many educators have used to increase student performance is the one-minute paper. One-minute papers are used at the end of a class meeting to help students and professors determine whether students have mastered the dayís material. They ask students to briefly reflect on the topics for the day and their level of understanding of them.

The one-minute paper is the subject of this report, which addresses three issues. First, it builds upon a previous experiment (Baird, Zelin, and Ruggle, 1998) in which the papers improved student performance in auditing and accounting information systems (AIS) classes, but not in managerial accounting classes. In fact, there was some evidence that exercises were detrimental to the performance of top students in the managerial accounting classes. It was unclear whether these differences were due to differences in the course material or the nature of the examinations, as both the auditing and the AIS exams contained both objective and open-ended questions, while the managerial accounting exams were entirely multiple choice.

Second, this study offers additional evidence regarding the use of less structured questions for one-minute papers. In the literature, two approaches were used. In the first ( e.g., Stocks, Stoddard, and Waters, 1992), two broad questions, one related to important topics and the other related to areas of confusion, are used repeatedly. The second approach (e.g. Cunningham, 1996) calls for a series of different questions, closely related to the specific daysí topics. Because we hoped our students would develop a habit of reflection and the ability to recognize important information without it being specifically directed to their attention, and we also wanted to determine whether students could be given the benefit of one-minute papers without increasing professorsí workload substantially, we chose the first approach. We each used the same two questions at the end of selected lecture/discussion classes in one section of a course, and used the other section as a control group. Papers were collected and reviewed, but were not graded or returned. The results of tests for the experimental and control groups were compared. Results show that the experimental group received significantly better test scores than the control group. This is important, because it means students benefit from one-minute writings without professors needing to spend much time designing them. This study reinforces previous research (Almer, Jones, and Moeckel, 1998), which found that student performance could benefit even if the papers were not graded.

Third, the study provides preliminary evidence of the perceptions of students about the value of one-minute papers, and their unsolicited comments about them on teaching evaluations. We found that very few students elected not to continue the papers when they were made optional. More (but still few) students mentioned the papers on teaching evaluations. However, we were surprised to find that their comments were uniformly negative.

LITERATURE REVIEW

The literature on one-minute writing is voluminous, so this review is, of necessity, limited to studies in the accounting domain. Theoretical papers and empirical studies will be discussed separately.

Theoretical Papers

Writing-to-learn exercises first entered the accounting professorís view in 1992 with Accountants as Learners (Francis, Mulder and Stark, Chapter 1), a monograph sponsored by the Accounting Education Change Commission [AECC]). This document outlined several goals for educators, including helping the student to "develop self awareness and learn to monitor and reflect on educational activities" and creating a responsibility for learning within the student. One-minute papers were specifically identified as a method to help students become "intentional learners." In addition, the AECC called for research about and the use of active learning in accounting classrooms (Position Statement No. Two, 1992, pg. 4) and for students to be "active participants in the learning process, not passive recipients of information (Position Statement No. One, 1990, pg. 5). Stocks, Stoddard, and Waters (1995) suggest asking students to write summaries of the major issue presented in class and of a question that remains unclear. Cunningham (1996) discussed ways to restructure accounting courses to meet the AECC objectives. However, her approach was somewhat different. Professors were instructed to design specific questions requesting an explanation or analysis of an "issue or topic" that was new.

Ingram and Howard (1998) expressed concern that there is not a strong link between learning objectives and assessment methods. With the use of new models designed to address the issues as set forth by the AECC, we are called upon to make pedagogical changes in how we deliver the material in the courses we teach. Ingram and Howard (1998) stressed that changes in our courses must be accompanied by changes in assessment.

Cunningham (1999) and Harwood and Cohen (1999) provide concrete examples of ways to "energize your teaching" by utilizing active learning methods, including writing-to-learn exercises.

Empirical Papers

Bryan, Praeter, and Schleifer (1993) found that both instructors and students perceived that there are benefits to one-minute papers in auditing and intermediate accounting classes. Interestingly, students did not perceive that the papers increased test scores; instead they thought the papers "enhanced understanding." No experimental comparisons of student performance on exams were done.

Almer, Jones, and Moeckel (1998) explored the optimal use of one-minute papers. Their study included 867 students in twenty sections of introductory accounting courses. They found that (1) grades improved only if exams were essays; (2) student performance was the same whether their papers were addressed to the instructor or to a friend with no accounting knowledge; (3) better results were achieved when the one-minute papers were not graded; and (4) that the papers appeared beneficial to students of all ability levels. They questioned whether over-use of the papers could lead to burn-out, but did no tests in that regard.

Baird, Zelin, and Ruggle (1998) compared test scores of students who did writing-to-learn activities with those who did not in managerial accounting, accounting information systems, and auditing classes. They pointed out that previous research results have been mixed, and they are primarily anecdotal. Their study, too, found mixed results. While students in the other two courses performed better when writing-to-learn exercises were used, the managerial accounting students did not.

Hypothesis 

One-minute papers improve student test scores in introductory managerial accounting classes when tests include both objective and subjective questions.

Particularly surprising to us was the finding ( Baird, Zelin, and Ruggle, 1998, pg. 271) that top students did more poorly in the writing group conditions in managerial accounting and AIS. We wanted to explore that result further. However, we felt the question was too exploratory to state  hypotheses, and thus we developed the following research questions.

1. Will students recognize the benefit (or detriment) of one-minute papers and make the appropriate choice if the exercises are made optional?

2. What are student perceptions about the one-minute papers?

EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN

We each taught two sections of an introductory managerial accounting class. The control group was formed by combining the results from each professorís smaller section. The experimental group contained each professorís larger section. Each section included a series of three tests as well as other graded activities, including group projects, group cases, class participation, Internet research, and Excel assignments.

The control group did no one-minute exercises at any point throughout the semester. The experimental group went through a series of changing manipulations. Before the first test, they did not write one-minute exercises, and they were not aware that these exercises would be introduced. Thus, prior to the first examination the two groups were treated identically. This is an important part of the design because students were not randomly assigned to the control or the experimental group. They became part of the group simply based upon the section in which they had chosen to enroll with no knowledge that an experiment would be part of the class activities. We compared the two groupsí scores on the first test to determine whether there were differences in performance unrelated to the experiment.

Between the first and second examinations, the experimental group was required to complete the one-minute exercises. The two groups were compared to see whether the manipulation (the one-minute papers) had a positive effect on test scores.

Finally, between the second and third tests, the one-minute exercises were made optional for those in the experimental group. The purpose of this manipulation was to explore the research questions. In order that students would not choose to skip the one-minute exercises just to get out of class early, those who chose not to do the writings were asked do a one-minute paper explaining why.

The Form of the One Minute Papers

As discussed earlier (Stocks, Stoddard and Waters, 1992; Cunningham, 1996), two forms of one-minute papers are commonly used. We wanted to encourage our students to become "more responsible for and actively involved in their own learning." and to develop a "habit of reflection" (Harwood, et al, 1999, page 713). Our hope was that perhaps by creating a habit of reflection and problem solving, life-long learning techniques would become internalized. Thus, we chose to use two broad questions repeatedly, rather than develop different questions. Based on the results of Almer, Jones and Moeckel (1998) we made it clear to students that their papers would not be graded. As we were concerned with burn-out (Harwood, et. al, 1999, pg. 719), the papers were used on agreed-upon topics. Finally, because previous research had shown that one-minute writings had not affected student grades on strictly objective examinations (Baird, Zelin, and Ruggle, 1998) or on quizzes (Almer, Jones and Moeckel, 1998), we decided to measure student performance using examinations with both essay and objective items. The questions we used on the one-minute papers were "What is the most important thing we covered in class today?" and "What do you still not fully understand among the topic(s) covered today?"

Though overall the two courses were very similar, they needed to fit within the curricular demands of two different universities. Therefore, the two courses are compared and contrasted below.

Setting

The study was performed within introductory managerial accounting classes at two institutions which are similar in many ways. Both are small, private, liberal arts colleges which have a Christian tradition. Both can fairly be described as teaching schools with few non-traditional students and limited diversity among students, faculty, and staff. Both have undergraduate and masters programs in business. Each has a total enrolment between 2,000 and 2,500 students. Each is influenced by a nearby major metropolitan area.

Course similarities

At each school, the managerial accounting sections utilized for the research study are taught by tenure-track faculty who have utilized a variety of active learning techniques for several years. Each professor taught two sections of the course. Both professors are female. The same textbook was used. The course is the second in an introductory series that is required of all business majors. Each requires an introductory financial accounting course and a finite math course as prerequisites. The tests in each case included essays, multiple choice, and problems.

Course Dissimilarities

Though the courses were very similar in most ways, they differ somewhat in three areas. As described in Chart 1 (below), the experimental group at one school was somewhat larger and included two students of non-traditional age, students received differing amounts of course credit, and the material covered and examinations, though quite similar, were not identical.


Chart 1

Characteristics of The Course

Characteristic

Berry College

California Lutheran University

N

Control Group

Experimental Group

Traditional Age Older

13                       0

22                       0

Traditional Age Older

14                       0

30                        2

Semester hours of credit

3

5, including one lab credit

Chapters covered

(Garrison, Noreen text)

1-7, 9, parts of 10 -12, 13-14

1-4, 6, 7, 9, 12-14, 18


Results

H: One-minute papers improve the performance of students in introductory managerial accounting classes, as measured by examination scores

Chart 2 (below) shows descriptive data for the three examinations in both the experimental and the control group. On each of the three tests, the experimental group's mean score exceeded that of the control group. The same was true of the two median scores.


Chart 2

Descriptive Data From Scores on the Three Examinations

Examination and Group N, Mean, Median, Standard Deviation

Experimental Exam 1

52

85.1635

88

8.27927

Control Exam 1

27

83.1111

83

9.2655

Experimental Exam 2

54

87

91

10.8628

Control Exam 2

27

84.3333

87

9.19866

Experimental Exam 3

53

76.7168

76

9.21996

Control Exam 3

26

73.2946

72.665

9.14836


To determine the proper method to test our hypothesis, each of the six sets of test scores was tested for normality using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. As shown in Chart 3 (below), results were inconsistent. Using traditional probability levels for significance (alpha < .10), when N is around 50, two of the three sets of scores appear to be non-normally distributed. The converse is true when N is smaller, but still approaching the traditional cutoff point for "large" samples of 30 observations. Overall, we decided that non-parametric tests were more appropriate. However, given the inconsistent nature of the tests of normality, parametric test results will be reported in parentheses to provide additional data for your consideration. The results of the two sets of tests are qualitatively similar.


Chart 3

Results of Tests of Normality

Examination

Exp.1

Exp. 2

Exp. 3

Control 1

Control 2

Control 3

Approximate p-value

< 0.01

< 0.01

>0.15

> 0.15

< 0.01

> 0.15


The first step in preparing to test our hypothesis was to compare the scores of the control group and the experimental group on the first examination. The purpose of this comparison was to provide evidence that any differences in subsequent examinations were the result of our manipulation and not because of inherent differences between the students in the sections. This was important because students were not randomly assigned to sections. Instead, students prepared their own schedules, with no knowledge that the experiment would take place in the following semester. Using a two-tailed Mann-Whitney test (p = .3576) we were unable to reject the null hypothesis that the two samples are the same. (A two-tailed t-test [p =.34] would lead to the same decision.) Thus, any differences on subsequent tests are likely to be the result of our manipulations.

To actually test our hypothesis, we compared the scores of students in the control and the experimental groups on the second and third examinations. Using a one-tailed Mann-Whitney test, the examination scores of the experimental group were found to be significantly better (p = .0080) than those of the control group. (A one-tailed t-test [p = .13] was qualitatively similar but, using traditional levels for significance would lead to the opposite decision.) The hypothesis that one-minute papers improved the scores of students in introductory managerial accounting classes where tests include both objective and subjective items was supported on examination two, but only marginally. Second, we compared the scores of the control and the experimental groups on the third examination. A one-tailed Mann-Whitney test indicated (p = 0.0486) that the experimental group continued to perform significantly better. (A one-tailed t-test [p = .063] would lead to the same decision.) Note that there is a discernible trend in scores. On the first examination, the control and the experimental groups were not significantly different, demonstrating that any later differences are likely to be the result of the manipulation. On the second examination, the evidence is mixed. Nonparametric tests are marginally significant, while parametric tests are not significant. By the third examination, differences were clearly significant. It appears that the benefit of one-minute writings increases with repetition.

This clarifies the reason behind the varying results in different accounting courses in Baird, Zelin, and Ruggle (1998), where one-minute writing exercises improved student test scores in some courses but not in managerial accounting courses. However, the tests in the managerial accounting course were entirely objective, while those in other courses included both objective and subjective items. The source of difference apparently was not the course material, but the difference in examinations. To paraphrase the results of Almer, Jones, and Moeckel (1998), one minute writings will improve student examination scores only if the examinations include subjective material.

Other research questions

1 . Will students recognize the benefit (or detriment) of one-minute papers and make the appropriate choice if the exercises are made optional?

This portion of the experiment was designed in light of the results of Baird, Zelin and Ruggle (1998), which found that one-minute papers appeared to have a detrimental effect on the performance of the best performing students in introductory managerial accounting classes. We made the exercises optional in the experimental group, in order to see whether students would "choose the best approach for them." Our plan was to compare those students in the experimental group who chose to continue the exercises with those who did not. However, we were unable to explore this question rigorously because only three students elected not to continue the exercises, rendering statistical analysis impractical.

Interpreting this nearly unanimous choice by students to continue the exercises when they were made optional is difficult. We offer three alternate explanations, but have no opinion as to which is valid. First, it may be that students do not recognize whether they benefit from the one-minute writing exercises. That would not be surprising, since a student can not experience both the control and the experimental setting. Second, students may have felt uncomfortable choosing not to do the exercises, perhaps because they believe that the instructor would think poorly of them. Finally, they may have perceived writing the regular papers to be less onerous than writing about why they chose not to.

2. What are student perceptions about the one-minute papers?

As explained above, statistical analysis was not possible. However, a brief analysis of anecdotal evidence is presented below.

Data from the experiment

Anecdotally, the three students who chose not to do the optional writings were "average performers" (neither Ds nor As). When asked why they chose not to do the optional writings, one (a "C" student) said "I just donít need this, but if I had questions I would find it useful." The other two (both "B" students) reported that in order for them to be useful, they should not be given the same day because sometimes it takes going home and studying to figure out what they understand and what they donít. This may indicate a change should be made in the way one-minute papers are typically used, and the need for future research. Perhaps using one-minute papers in the following class would lead to even greater improvements in student performance. Alternatively, using the papers may motivate students to reflect and study, so the effect is the same whether used immediately or on the following day.

Other data

Several students mentioned the one-minute papers when they later completed teaching evaluations for the professors. Unlike the information above, these responses were not directly solicited. They were simply put in the "comments" section of the teaching evaluation form. All comments were negative. Four students mentioned that they did not like having to put their names on the one-minute papers. Three said that they were a waste of class time. We find it interesting that though students seem to perform better when one-minute papers are used, they apparently either pay the exercises no notice or perceive them negatively. Further study of this unexpected and counterintuitive result is indicated.

LIMITATIONS

This experiment took place in two very similar schools, each small, private, with a Christian emphasis, and having few non-traditional students. All classes were taught by tenure track, female instructors with substantial experience with a variety of active learning techniques. Results may not generalize to other settings. They are, nevertheless, promising.

DISCUSSION OF CONTRIBUTION

This study makes a contribution to the literature in several areas. First, the experimental design reduces concerns that any differences in student performance might be the result of differences in the students rather than of the manipulation. Second, by using examinations with both objective and subjective questions, it provides evidence that one-minute writings also benefit students in managerial accounting classes and reinforces previous findings that positive effects are shown only where tests include subjective material. Third, the study provides a preliminary look at student perceptions of and reactions to one-minute writings. Interestingly, though the writings improved student performance on tests, and most students chose to continue the writings when they are made optional, unsolicited comments on teaching evaluations were uniformly negative. These findings a should be of interest to accounting educators as we work to help our students both to develop lifelong-learning skills and to understand technical subject matter. They should also interest those who evaluate professors and use student evaluations as an input to that process.

REFERENCES

Accounting Education Change Commission (AECC), 1990. Objectives of education for accountants. Position Statement Number One. American Accounting Association, Sarasota, Florida, USA

----. 1992. The first course in accounting: Position Statement Number Two, American Accounting Association, Sarasota, Florida, USA

Almer, Elizabeth Dreike and Jones, Kumen and Moeckel, Cindy L. 1998. "The Impact of One-Minute Papers on Learning an Introductory Accounting Course," Issues in Accounting Education, Vol. 13, No. 3 August 1998. American Accounting Association; Sarasota, Florida, USA.

Baird, Jane E. and Zelin, Robert C. II and Ruggle, Leo A. 1998. "Experimental Evidence on the Benefits of Using ĎWriting to Learní Activities in Accounting Courses, Issues in Accounting Education, Vol. 13, No. 2 May 1998. American Accounting Association; Sarasota, Florida, USA

Bryan, E. L., M. A. Praeter, and L. L. Schleifer (1993). The One-Minute Essay: Toward better communication in an accounting class. Presented at the 1993 AAA Southeastern Regional Meeting, Atlanta, GA.

Cunningham, Billie M. 1999. Educatorsí Forum. "Energizing Your Teaching: A View From Deep in the Trenches, Issues in Accounting Education, Vol. 14, No. 2 May 1999. American Accounting Association; Sarasota, Florida, USA.

___________"How to Restructure an Accounting Course to Enhance Creative and Critical Thinking," 1996. Accounting Education, A Journal of Theory, Practice and Research, Vol. 1 1996, No. 1, JAI Press, Inc., Greenwich, Connecticut, USA, and London, England

Francis, Marlene C. and Mulder, Timothy C. and Stark, Joan S. 1992. Intentional Learning: A Process for Learning to Learn in the Accounting Curriculum, Accounting Education Change Commission and American Accounting Association, Accounting Education Series, Volume No. 12, Sarasota, Florida

Harwood, Elaine M. and Cohen, Jeffrey R. 1999. "Classroom Assessment: Educational and Research Opportunities," Issues in Accounting Education, Vol. 14, No. 4 November, 1999. American Accounting Association; Sarasota, Florida, USA

Ingram, Robert W. and Howard, Thomas P. 1998. "The Association Between Course Objectives and Grading Methods in Introductory Accounting Courses," Issues in Accounting Education, Vol. 13, No. 4, November 1998. American Accounting Association; Sarasota, Florida, USA.

Stocks, K.D., T. D. Stoddard, and M. L. Waters, 1992. "Writing in the accounting curriculum: Guidelines for professors." Issues in Accounting Education (Fall) 193-204.

Ward, S, D. Cook, R. Ward, and W. Wilson, 1997. "Student Perceptions of Low-Inference Classroom Teaching Behavior in Principles of Accounting: An Examination of the Effect of Student and Instructor Gender," presented at the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association.


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