How to implement experiential learning into accounting education

The accounting landscape is evolving rapidly amid growing environmental and social challenges. There is a need for urgent action, yet finance teams lack essential sustainable business competencies

Helen Slinger's avatar
Accounting for Sustainability
19 Mar 2024
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Building a sustainable global economy that can address the multifaceted crises we face requires a reimagining of the purpose, principles and practices of accounting. As accounting professionals with a central place within both the real economy and capital markets, we need to understand and measure value creation differently, change the way we account for performance, present a more balanced, true and fair reflection of organisations’ positions and integrate social and environmental factors into financial decision-making. 

The pace of change currently outstrips the profession’s capacity-building efforts. We are heading towards a global skills shortage that will hamper the transition to a nature-positive, just, net zero economy. Although business schools are increasingly integrating sustainability into finance and accounting modules, syllabuses often do not provide the practical skills accountants need to integrate sustainability into their professional roles such as valuation, accounting, performance management, budgeting, financial risk analysis, capital allocation and the ability to make financial and business decisions.

Experiential learning offers a solution

Experiential learning emphasises the importance of acquiring knowledge through direct experience and, crucially, reflection on that experience. Instead of passively receiving information from lectures or textbooks, experiential learners actively engage in hands-on experiences, allowing them to directly apply what they’ve learned in real-world contexts. Examples include simulations, case competitions, internships or active implementation of a newly learned concept. Gaining this concrete experience fosters deeper understanding, problem-solving skills, critical thinking and personal growth. 

Embedding experiential learning into your programmes doesn’t have to be complicated. For example, simulations don’t have to be centred around technology; you can set an assignment that requires your students to act out situations they may face within an organisation navigating sustainability. 

Setting experiential learning assignments

Below is a simple framework you could use to incorporate experiential learning into your accounting courses:

Choose an approach

 Select a fictional or real-world scenario. There are advantages and drawbacks to both; a fictional scenario gives you greater flexibility to tailor the assignment to specific learning outcomes, but developing it takes time and care. Alternatively, using a real-world scenario enables you to build the assignment around a public company with readily available accounting and sustainability information. There is also the potential to involve the company, particularly if it is located nearby.

Define students’ role

Students may form various teams such as management accountants, financial analysts, a finance leadership team, an audit committee or a due diligence or audit team. Does the team need a leader who plays the role of finance director, CFO, audit committee chair or accounting firm partner? Do you select this leader or leave the team to choose their own? Setting parameters around leadership could provide extra learning opportunities.

Set the challenge

Assignments should be accessible to the students, consider their skills and experience and challenge them. The scenario should allow them to gain new knowledge and apply their existing competencies to new situations. Base the challenge on real-world business needs. 

Examples for undergraduates could include:

  • Developing a company-specific carbon accounting manual, based on recognised carbon accounting standards while incorporating the rigour of financial accounting and control environments
  • Building a management information framework to present sustainability information alongside financial information
  • Creating a capital investment decision-making process that incorporates social and/or environmental factors.

For master’s students:

  • Presenting a commercial business case for investment in a specific asset or initiative that generates significant social or environmental benefits
  • Developing an internal carbon pricing mechanism to support a greenhouse gas reduction target and presenting the plan for roll-out to executive management
  • Writing a due diligence report or investment analysis incorporating a balanced critique of financial, social and environmental considerations. 

Design the assessment 

Ensuring students are fairly assessed in an area in which you might not have specific expertise can be a real worry. Here, collaboration is key. You could:

  • Call on colleagues within or outside your department who have sustainability expertise and split the marking accordingly
  • Use an assessment panel of internal and/or external expertise (which can include representation from the company the assignment is focused on). This can work particularly well for assignments where students are required to present their findings as a pitch/to a mock executive team
  • Build the marking rubric for the sustainability element based on how understandable and usable the students’ proposed solutions would be to a typical accountant.

If this all feels a step too far, you can always take advantage of existing sustainability-focused case competitions and challenges. In whatever form your students engage with experiential learning opportunities, the benefits are noteworthy. They can really enhance accounting students’ learning, give them the freedom to make mistakes in a safe environment, strengthen their professional credibility and skills and empower them to drive much-needed change. 

Helen Slinger is executive director of knowledge and learning at Accounting for Sustainability (A4S). She is also head judge for the A4S International Case Competition

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