Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 113, Issue 2, pp 225–241

The Interaction of Learning Styles and Teaching Methodologies in Accounting Ethical Instruction

Authors

    • Accounting and Law DisciplineGriffith Business School, Nathan Campus, Griffith University
  • Jenny Stewart
    • Accounting and Law DisciplineGriffith Business School, Griffith University
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10551-012-1291-9

Cite this article as:
O’Leary, C. & Stewart, J. J Bus Ethics (2013) 113: 225. doi:10.1007/s10551-012-1291-9

Abstract

Ethical instruction is critical for trainee accountants. Various teaching methods, both active and passive, are normally utilised when teaching accounting ethics. However, students’ learning styles are rarely assessed. This study evaluates the learning styles of accounting students and assesses the interaction of teaching methods and learning styles in an ethics instruction environment. The ethical attitudes and preferred learning styles of a cohort (137) of final year accounting students were evaluated pre-instruction. They were then subject to three different teaching methods while studying ethics during an auditing course. When ethical attitudes and preferred learning styles were re-assessed post-instruction, the teaching methods were found to have influenced active learners more than passive ones. Furthermore, when learning styles matched teaching methods used, usefulness was assessed as high but when learning styles and teaching methods differed, usefulness deteriorated significantly. Students displayed a preference for passive learning styles, despite being so advanced in their education. The implications are that instructors should consider learning styles before deciding on appropriate teaching methods, in accounting ethics environments.

Keywords

ActiveEthical instructionExperientialInteraction of teaching and learningLearning stylesNon-experientialPassiveTeaching methods

Introduction

The new millennium has failed to reduce the volume of corporate scandals globally. Sullivan (2006) highlights 25 major scandals from 2000 to 2006 alone and this is, of course, prior to the global financial crisis. Bean and Bernardi (2005), among others, have questioned the ethical behaviour of auditors in many of these cases. Hence, teaching ethics to final year accountancy students, many of whom will become tomorrow’s practitioners, appears crucial.

The importance of ethics education for accountancy students has been discussed by many researchers (Piper et al. 1993; McDonald and Donleavy 1995; Peppas and Diskin 2001). The accounting professional bodies have also hinted at its importance in releases such as the International Federation of Accountants’ (IFAC 2006) International Accounting Education Standards Board’s (IAESB) guidance ‘International Education Practice Statement (IEPS)’. This statement focuses on the implementation of good practice and maintenance of professional values, ethics and attitudes in accordance with International Education Standard (IES) 4. Despite this renewed emphasis on ethical training for accountants, Abdolmohammadi et al. (2009) observe a decline in the ethical reasoning of accountants over a 15-year period. This could be due to a number of reasons. Zeff (2005) for example, notes the increased pressures on accountants to produce accounts which will act in the best interests of their organisation. Another possible reason could be the lack of effectiveness of the ethical training currently being provided for future practitioners, and this becomes the focus of the current study.

Employers, lecturers and students all agree that the university learning environment is critical to the development of suitable trainee accountants. Ethical training poses unique problems. Psychologists such as Ajzen (1985) note how behavioural intention does not always leads to actual behaviour, so whether there is any benefit in ethical training at all is a valid query. Despite this, ethical training continues and many studies claim to have found ethics can be taught to business and accounting students and to accounting practitioners (Sims 2002; Weber 2007). However, problems arise when decisions have to be made as to the most appropriate method(s) of instruction to employ in attempting to produce accounting graduates with good ethical decision-making qualities. Many of the more methodological studies support active or experiential learning (Sims 2002; Weber 2007), embracing the theory of ‘cognitive moral development’ from the work of Kohlberg (1969, 1981). Other ethicists, such as Spence and Wadsworth (2002) tend more towards a passive or non-experiential method of imparting ethical training. Passive learning involves the subject area expert telling it as it is, without need for discussion or debate. Weber (2007) notes how this type of ethical training is aimed at re-enforcing the perceived correct ethical attitudes held by the instructor(s).

Deciding on appropriate instructional methods for ethics training may, however, be only part of the issue. Much attention in the accounting education literature has also been generated towards research on the actual learning styles of accounting students. In terms of their learning styles, students have been variously described as divergers, assimilators, convergers and accommodators (Kolb 1984, described in more detail in the next section). The way students learn is important, as instructors need to deliver the material in the most appropriate manner in order to achieve the desired outcomes for accounting graduates.

The interaction between teaching methodologies and learning styles during accounting training, and specifically in relation to ethical training, does not appear to have been studied. This gap in the literature provides the motivation for the current paper. The findings of Abdolmohammadi et al. (2009) suggest that ethical attitudes are not improving, despite increased educational emphasis on ethics in accounting education. One possible reason for this lack of improvement is a mismatch between student learning styles and instructors’ teaching methods.

The objectives of this paper are therefore twofold. First, we examine whether final year accounting students studying ethical issues as part of their auditing course, have a predominantly preferred learning style for this complex area. Second, we consider the interaction between different learning styles and different teaching methodologies in an accounting ethics environment.

Contrary to our expectations, we find that the majority of students in their final year of accounting studies prefer a passive learning style for ethics instruction. Furthermore, passive learners who engage in active teaching methods assess those methods of instruction as significantly less useful than active learners. The interaction between teaching methods and learning styles is also found to be significant. The active learners in this study demonstrated more of an improvement in their perceived decision making than their passive learner colleagues, despite being subject to the same teaching methods.

The remainder of the paper is structured as follows. First, a literature review surveying prior research is presented. Three hypotheses are derived from the literature and the research design is outlined. Subsequent sections discuss the results, analyse the findings of the study and consider the implications. Finally, limitations in the work and areas for future research are identified.

Literature Review and Hypothesis Development

Teaching Methodologies

Literature in the field of education occasionally classifies instruction methodologies as either active (experiential) or passive (non-experiential).1 Active teaching, as defined by Hawtrey (2007), relates to the incorporation of active, participatory learning opportunities into a course of study. In its purest form, it occurs whenever the student is roused from the role of passive listener to that of active respondent. Active student learning tasks involve the delegation of some control and responsibility from the instructor to the students, who in turn make decisions about what they will learn and how they will learn (Adler and Milne 1997). Examples of active learning methods include the use of case studies, role plays and seminar presentations. Taking a more active role has resulted in positive outcomes for students, with their learning being optimised (Smart and Csapo 2007).

Many methods have been used to provide accounting students with the opportunity to become more active learners. Results from Healy and McCutcheon (2008) indicate that accounting students benefited from case study and problem-based learning in groups, gaining confidence, self-learning skills and lifelong learning skills. Brickner and Etter (2008) provided in-class and out-of-class active learning strategies, including having the students fill in partial lecture notes during class, with instructors walking around asking questions and students then reflecting on the information provided during the lecture. Out-of-class activities included students preparing article summaries and reviewing annual reports. Both strategies facilitated greater student interest and engagement in their classes.

A study by Lock and Kocakulah (2007), reports on the benefits of engaging students in active learning by having them participate in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Other researchers have focused on the area of self-regulated and cooperative learning as a teaching strategy to encourage active student participation. These have been found to be effective in producing accounting graduates who are self-motivated, independent, and have acquired lifelong learning skills (Cottell and Millis 1992, 1993; Smith 2001). The view that instructors can create a classroom atmosphere to enhance self-regulatory learning to assist graduates to achieve independence as lifelong learners has been promoted by Smith (2001). The use of business case studies has also been promoted to encourage accounting students to become more active and independent learners (AECC 1990; Sundem et al. 1990; Adler et al. 2004; Wynn-Williams et al. 2008).

Specifically in the area of teaching ethics to trainee accountants, studies by O’Leary (2009) and O’Leary and Mohamad (2008), among others, have noted the positive impact of active teaching methods on ethical decision making. Some of the more common active methods of instruction reported in the literature for ethics teaching to business/accounting students have been mentioned above, including class discussions, case studies, group assignments and role-playing. With advances in information technology, teaching methods that utilise computers, such as interactive case studies, games, etc., have increased significantly in recent years. Other methods have also been used as shown in Appendix 1.

Learning which is classified as passive does not actively involve students. Heron (2002) describes it as ‘information bound’, and relating to indirect knowledge. Passive learning consists of description, extraction, ideation and judgement mediated by the written and spoken word and is the traditional method of instruction, as described by Dewey (1938). A plethora of techniques involve the expert in an area imparting his/her knowledge to the recipient. As a foundation stone of learning, Dewey considered passive learning to be a critical precursor to active learning. Some studies support passive learning in an accounting ethical context. These studies contend there are some moral absolutes in existence (that some things are absolute, in that they are right or wrong). Any training that simply does not ‘deliver the message’ ignores that existence (Weber 2007). Passive ethics training techniques are therefore recommended as they can assist in this process of reinforcing these perceived moral absolutes. Studies looking at cultures such as Hong Kong, where passive learning is the norm, report success with traditional lectures (Hwang et al. 2008). Further support for passive techniques can be found in Sims (2002). He argues that as student learning styles are different, students with passive learning styles respond better to passive techniques. Spence and Wadsworth (2002) found some students were actually hostile to active approaches, preferring the anonymity of passive techniques.

Many passive techniques have been used in ethics training for accountants. These include items such as lectures with accompanying class notes and exercises (Loeb 1988), guest lecturers (Huss and Patterson 1993), guided examination of operational codes of businesses (Stewart 1997), vignettes with explanatory interventions (Chung and Monroe 2007) and viewing professionally produced videos (Ziegenfuss 1996). The two studies by O’Leary (2009) and O’Leary and Mohamad (2008) also noted the positive impact of some passive teaching methods on ethical decision making.

Student Learning Styles

The experiential learning model (ELM) devised by Kolb (1984) and its associated learning style takes an information processing approach to learning. It is as applicable to accounting as it is to any other field. Essentially, the ELM is a four stage cyclical process, where students who learn effectively will experience all four stages at different times in the learning process and can move backward and forward through the stages, depending on what is being taught and the method used. However, the learner will generally have a preference for one particular style and, as their learning develops, that preference may change to a different style (McCarthy 2010). Figure 1 summarises the model.
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs10551-012-1291-9/MediaObjects/10551_2012_1291_Fig1_HTML.gif
Fig. 1

The experiential learning cycle and basic learning style (Kolb 1984)

The model has two opposing directions of how the experience and information are perceived—concrete experience (CE) and abstract conceptualisation (AC), and two opposing directions of processing the experience and information—reflective observation (RO) and active experimentation (AE). Four types of learning styles emerge from this model—divergers, assimilators, convergers and accommodators (Kolb 1984).

Divergers perceive learning through CE and process the learning through RO. They view situations from many different perspectives, are imaginative, interested in people and usually specialise in the arts (Baldwin and Reckers 1984; Kolb 1984; McCarthy 2010). Assimilators perceive learning through AC and process it through RO. They create theoretical models from inductive reasoning, but are not concerned about practical application of the model or about people. Assimilators would normally be found in the sciences (Baldwin and Reckers 1984; Kolb 1984; McCarthy 2010). Convergers perceive learning through AC and process it through AE. Their greatest strength is in the practical application of ideas to solve problems and make decisions. They use hypothetical deductive reasoning to focus on specific problems and perform best in situations where there is one correct answer. Accountants and engineers generally adopt a convergent learning style (Baker et al. 1986; Baldwin and Reckers 1984; Kolb 1984; McCarthy 2010). Finally, accommodators perceive learning through CE and process it through AE. Their strength is in doing things, carrying out plans and taking risks to excel in new situations. Accommodators are often found in active, practical roles such as business, marketing and sales (Baldwin and Reckers 1984; Kolb 1984; McCarthy 2010).

Kolb also developed the learning style inventory (LSI) which is an instrument to assess individual learning styles (McCarthy 2010). It has been used as a tool for investigating experiential learning theory (ELT) and individual learning styles, to assist in improving instructional design, curriculum development and lifelong learning skills (Kolb and Kolb 2005).

A number of studies have examined the learning styles of accounting students using the LSI. These have shown that accounting students overall have different learning styles from other business students and generally prefer a convergent learning style (Baker et al. 1986; Baldwin and Reckers 1984; Brown and Burke 1987). As students progress through their course, their learning style preference changes, with first and second level accounting students preferring an assimilator learning style (Baker et al. 1986; Baldwin and Reckers 1984; Jenkins and Holley 1991) and more advanced accounting students preferring a convergent style (Baker et al. 1986; Brown and Burke, 1987).

More importantly, however, the preference for convergent learning style increases as accounting students and graduates are exposed to real work experience, complete their professional accounting qualifications and are more exposed to accounting education material (Baker et al. 1986; Brown and Burke 1987). In a survey of accounting practitioners, Brown and Burke (1987) found accountants exhibited predominantly converger style learning preferences, which increased as they attained more senior positions within the firm. They also found that over 53 % of professional accountants were classified as converger learners. This research suggests that accounting students progress through the ELM from assimilators when they are less experienced learners and their learning is more passive, to convergers when they are more experienced and their learning style is more active.

To align learning styles theory discussed in this section with teaching methodologies (discussed in the previous section), this study summarises learning styles into two simple categories, active learners and passive learners. Munro and O’Leary (2011) utilised this framework and discussion in an exploratory study which evaluated the impact of teaching methods on learning styles of accountancy students and found it an effective framework with which to evaluate effects. It was also considered this was more practical from the participants’ viewpoint, as accountancy students are unlikely to be familiar with Kolb’s model, and if faced with a four-category model to describe their learning style, may have considered it too complex. Hence, a simple two category model was used. Active learners are described as participatory learners, who like to research topics first, either alone or in a group, come up with answers from their own experience and then reflect on the instructor’s viewpoint and reaction thereto. Passive learners like to be instructed, given the answers by their instructor, the accepted ‘expert’ on the topic area, and then reflect upon this.

Hypotheses Development

From the literature review and discussions above, three hypotheses are proposed. They address the two stated objectives of the study outlined in the introduction. First, consider the preferred learning style of students in the area of accounting ethics. The student cohort utilised in this study, final year Business students majoring in accountancy, were undertaking an Auditing course when they participated. In most accountancy programs, auditing courses are taught in the final year, as it is considered a complex topic. Students are expected to have a thorough grounding in financial accounting, business law, computerised accounting systems, etc., before they tackle auditing and assurance. Earlier discussions noted the preponderance of converger style learners in accountancy studies as a whole. It was also suggested that students drift more towards active learning than passive learning the further they progress in their degree program and/or as their practical experience grows. Hypothesis 1 (H1) is therefore stated as follows:

H1

Final year accountancy students studying ethical issues will display a preference for active learning.

Addressing the second stated objective of the paper relating to the interaction of teaching methodologies and student learning styles, it is assumed that active learners will find active teaching methods more beneficial, while passive learners will find passive teaching methods more beneficial. Earlier discussions noted the preponderance of converger style learners in accountancy in general, and how they expressed satisfaction when teaching methods appropriate to their learning style were applied. This leads to the following two hypotheses (H2 and H3):

H2

Active learners will respond more positively than passive learners to active teaching methods in studying ethical issues in accounting.

H3

Passive learners will respond more positively than active learners to passive teaching methods in studying ethical issues in accounting.

Research Design

Participants in the study were, as mentioned previously, final year (third year) undergraduate accounting students. They studied in a large Australian public university. The students were studying the course Audit and Assurance which is a mandatory subject as part of the Bachelor of Business (Accountancy) degree. Enrolled numbers for the class totalled approximately 280 students. The subject consisted of a weekly lecture2 (2 h) and a tutorial (1 h). Assessment procedures for this subject are such that any week’s tutorial work can be collected for marking. Weeks are chosen at random. Hence, tutorial attendance was effectively mandatory.

For the purpose of collecting data, two variations of a survey instrument were used within the study. At the commencement of the first lecture in the subject, students were told there would be different approaches taken in tutorials for one of the 13 weeks of the Semester. To assist in this, they were told it was necessary to attempt to determine their preferred learning style. They were then given a simple description of active and passive learning and asked to describe which type of learner they were, when studying a topic like ethics in accounting. They then identified their tutorial group. This process resulted in the students self-assessing their preferred learning style, pre-instruction. Refer Appendix 2 for an example of the questions.

Five ethical vignettes were then used within the survey to evaluate students’ perceived ethical attitudes, again pre-instruction. These vignettes were initially developed by O’Leary and Pangemanan (2007) and further developed in a study by O’Leary (2009). They were successfully utilised in both those studies to evaluate changes in perceived ethical decision making by accounting students, pre and post some ethical instruction methods. Whereas the instrument is not a validated instrument for measuring ethical attitudes, such as Rest’s (1986) Defining Issues Test (DIT), the current instrument allows accounting ethical problems to be placed in a realistic context for these particular participants, and directs the focus on to their particular area of interest, accountancy/audit.

It is perceived (rather than actual) ethical attitudes that are therefore being measured and hence are referred to as such throughout the paper. While it is acknowledged that the instrument is not validated, the following factors all strengthen the validity of the study’s results. First, students completed their initial evaluation of the five scenarios at the commencement of their first lecture on Audit and Assurance. They did not know there would be any focus on ethics when entering the lecture theatre. Second, it was stressed to them, the responses were not part of any assessment procedures for this or any other subject. Hence, there was nothing to gain by giving any particular ‘perceived correct’ answer. Third, it was further stressed to them that there were no right or wrong answers. The answer was simply whatever they thought they would do in each situation. As the conduct of the survey was supervised in the lecture, each student completed them individually without comment/discussion with colleagues.

Ethical vignettes provide significant advantages over other research instruments when investigating ethical principles and ethical behaviour (Cavanaugh and Frizsche 1985). Within the accounting field, numerous studies in accounting ethics have used ethical vignettes (Douglas et al. 2001; O’Leary and Radich 2001; O’Leary and Stewart 2007). The ethical vignettes in this study similarly describe possible ethical dilemmas that may arise in an accountant’s working environment. The five vignettes are all accounting-related, portraying scenarios in which a recently graduated accountant has spent 6 months in his/her first job and is faced with an ethical dilemma (refer to Appendix 2 for a copy of the first vignette from the survey instrument). As all participants were expecting to commence full-time employment in the coming year, many as trainee auditors in public accounting firms, this added to the validity of the study. The following describes the five vignettes:
  • Vignette 1—an assistant accountant working in a chemical company is offered a once-off payment by the Chief Accountant to keep silent regarding improper accounting practices.

  • Vignette 2—an accounting clerk working in a confectionary company witnesses a respected senior colleague stealing a box of chocolates.

  • Vignette 3—an assistant accountant, is being presented with the opportunity to falsify his/her resume application for a job.

  • Vignette 4—a trainee auditor is being pressured to inflate travel expenses for reimbursement.

  • Vignette 5—a trainee auditor is being pressured to make necessary adjustments to a client’s accounts, in order for a bank loan to be approved.

At the end of each of the five scenarios, students were asked to select one response from five alternatives (Appendix 2). Although the five responses in each of the scenarios are tailored to the particular ethical dilemma, the first response in all scenarios always represented the response to act highly unethically; the second response to act unethically; the third response to act neutrally; the fourth response to act ethically and the fifth response to act highly ethically. The highly ethical response involved going beyond just doing the right thing. It entailed becoming a whistleblower on the perpetrator(s) of the unethical behaviour. The terms only have meaning in relation to each other. They are not meant to imply actual states of ethicalness, but they allow for measurement in perceived movement of an ethical position, when completed again on a subsequent occasion.

To encourage participation and genuineness of responses, confidentiality was stressed to the participants. The survey instruments were anonymous and there was nothing in the questions to describe or identify individual participants. This approach precluded subsequent matched pairing of responses, when participants completed the survey instrument again at a later date (refer below). Consequently, more robust statistical analysis of the results beyond basic ANOVA analyses was hindered. However, as earlier studies like Nelson and Wittmer (2001) and Spence and Wadsworth (2002) attest, some students withdraw from participation in certain ethical studies partly because of their desire not to express their beliefs publically. The authors of this study also considered answers had a better chance of being genuine and not subject to ‘demand effects’ if anonymity was assured. Hence, in the interests of increasing both the quantity and quality of responses, over the opportunity for more robust results analysis, results of each group were pooled and analysed as a group with no attempt at individual matching.

After the students had been subject to three training methods (discussed below) in the area of teaching ethics to trainee accountants, they completed the second version of the survey instrument in week 6 of the course. The second version was in two parts. The first part involved re-evaluating the ethical vignettes they had done 6 weeks previously. This was a total surprise to the participants since they had not been told they would be repeating this exercise, when first completing it in week 1. Again it was stressed to them that it did not form part of the assessment procedures for the subject, that there were no right or wrong answers and they were to answer according to how they genuinely felt at the time. Again the completion was supervised so no discussions were possible. The second part asked them to reassess their learning styles and evaluate the training methods as regards the ethics topics (see Appendix 3 for an abridged version).

The first lecture in the subject Audit and Assurance consisted of a 1-h introduction to the topic of auditing and then a 1-h lecture discussing the impact of ethics on the practice of auditing. The latter included an introduction to the Code of Ethics (the APESB 2010 statements) of the major professional accounting bodies in Australia namely the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAA) and CPA Australia, a discussion of ethical theory and examples of unethical accounting practices. The students were set readings from their text and questions on ethics to be answered in the following week’s tutorial. This lecture comprised the first teaching method on the ethics topic and was the traditional passive teaching technique.

In the second week of the course, the students were given a 1-h lecture on how to solve an ethical dilemma using a six-step model explained in their textbook. Their tutorials for the following week were then split. Half were run actively and half were run passively. The students assigned to active tutorials had to work through an interactive computer-based ethics (CBE) training case study, formerly used as an instruction instrument by the ICAA as part of their training program. The CBE tool involves providing the user with the details of an audit partner receiving an ‘opinion shopping’ request. The user then has to work through the following six-step model to solve the dilemma:
  1. 1.

    Obtain the relevant facts;

     
  2. 2.

    Identify the ethical issues from the facts;

     
  3. 3.

    Determine all stakeholders and how they are affected;

     
  4. 4.

    Identify the alternatives available;

     
  5. 5.

    Identify the consequences of each alternative and

     
  6. 6.

    Decide the appropriate action.

     

Each screen pops up in turn with a list of factors to be considered at each stage. The user is therefore forced to work through the full ethical decision-making model before being directed to the appropriate action as stated in the accountants’ code of professional conduct. The model in the CBE program was almost identical to the six-step model referred to above from the text. The exercise finished with the completion of a brief memo as to the student’s recommended solution to the problem, referring to ethical pronouncements as appropriate.

The active group were given no support whatsoever. The case study was loaded in the laboratories and the students had 1 week to access it and go through it themselves, before their following week’s tutorial. It was their week’s homework and they had to arrive at the tutorial with the summary memo as to their recommended solution fully prepared. They were encouraged to collaborate if they wished during the week but each student had to hand up an individual completed memo.

Whereas students in the active group were given no support, in contrast, those assigned to passive tutorials were given full support. This time the tutors took their students through the step-by-step completion of the dilemma in the computer laboratories. This the students did as individuals, guided by their tutor. As they were taken through step by step, in the computer laboratory, it seems valid to refer to this as a passive learning technique. The students were told not to look at the case study before the tutorial or attempt it in any way. Whereas this could not be verified, as mentioned previously, assessment procedures for this subject are such that any week’s tutorial work can be collected for marking. Weeks are chosen at random. Students assigned to passive tutorials this week were told this would be the only week they would not have their tutorial work collected. Effectively, they got a week off study in a subject with a heavy work load. So, it is highly unlikely they reviewed the case study prior to the tutorial. Hence, this second instruction method, the tutorial, was either an active or passive technique for the students, depending upon the tutorial group to which they were assigned.

In the third week of the course, all students were given a group assignment. They were instructed to form groups of three to four students and present a full written assignment answer (six pages approximately) to two ethical dilemmas, a confidentiality dilemma and an independence issue. They were given 2 weeks to complete the assignment. Hence, this third ethical instruction method was a totally active method as the students had to form groups, debate the issues with peers and construct a reported answer.

Hence, over a 3–4-week period the students were exposed to three different ethical training methods, some active and some passive. There was then a 2-week “cooling off” period in which ethics was not touched upon before the second version of the survey instrument was given to them. Other audit topics (planning and risk assessment) were discussed in these weeks.

Results

Preferred Learning Style

The first goal of this paper was to evaluate preferred student learning styles in the accounting discipline, specifically in relation to ethical instruction. Recall, H1 predicts that there will be a preference for active learning, based upon the results of previous studies. These studies have noted how accountancy students appear to change their learning styles as their experience levels progress. Based upon these prior findings, it was assumed that a preference for active learning would prevail in this study given that participants were final year students. However, as can be seen from Table 1, this was not the case.
Table 1

Analysis of students’ learning style

Learning style

Pre-instruction methods

Post-instruction methods

# (137)

%

# (134)

%

I am an experiential (active) learner. I like to research a topic such as ethics, with or without colleagues, and then come up with an answer, to have it reviewed.

48

34.5

41

30.6

I am a non-experiential (passive) learner. I like to be informed about a topic such as ethics, by a lecturer/tutor, and then reflect on it.

64

46.0

85

63.4

I don’t know which type of learning style describes me.

25

18.0

8

6.0

These results are possibly due to the nature of the subject area, and the fact that students recognised that they had no prior knowledge of ethics in an accounting environment. In the pre-instruction phase, only 35 % of students classified themselves as active learners, while 46 % considered themselves to be passive learners. Interestingly, 18 % of students, even though in their final year, were unsure about their learning with respect to studying ethics.

The students were then asked to re-evaluate their preferred learning styles after being subject to three teachings methods covering ethics in accounting. Table 1 lists the post-instruction assessments beside the pre-instruction ones. When it came to the nebulous topic of ethical instruction the proportion of students who described themselves as active, pre-instruction (35 %) actually fell to 31 % post-instruction. Passive learners jumped significantly3 from 46 to 63 %. Those who were undecided pre-instruction fell from 18 to just 6 % post-instruction. It appears as if the undecided students now considered themselves passive learners and some of the active students considered they had made the wrong assumption about themselves initially and changed their categorisation. Table 2 provides more data about the changes in categorisations.
Table 2

Analysis of changes in student learning styles

 

# (134)

%

I think my answer, as to the type of learning style that suits me, has changed since I looked at this topic the first time.

47

35.1

I think my answer, as to the type of learning style that suits me, has not changed since I looked at {this topic} the first time.

86

64.2

I am unsure if my answer, as to the type of learning style that suits me, has changed since I looked at {this topic} the first time.

1

.7

With respect to studying ethics in accounting, up to 35 % of final year accounting students considered they may have changed their preferred learning style, from their initial assessment. Recall, the students had a 6-week gap between the two completions to hopefully stop them focusing exclusively on learning styles for ethics. The gap may or may not have been sufficient and is mentioned subsequently as a limitation. The majority of students (64 % in Table 2) considered their learning style preference had not changed but a significant proportion, the 35 % mentioned above, considered it may have. Reviewing the movement, as mentioned above, noted the shifts resulted in less active but more passive learners. H1 must therefore be rejected. When it comes to studying ethics, these accounting students, even though in their final year, do not appear to be predominantly active learners. On the contrary, a passive style appears to be preferred and many students indicated their preference may have changed, having been exposed to differing teaching methods.

Interaction of Teaching Methods and Learning Styles

The interaction of teaching methods on learning styles was then examined. Recall, H2 predicted active learners would respond more positively to active teaching methods and H3 predicted passive learners would respond more positively to passive methods. Initially, consider the participants’ own evaluations of the differing teaching methods. As per the second version of the survey instrument (Appendix 3), the students ranked the usefulness of all three ethics teaching techniques they encountered on a 9-point scale, with 1 designating the technique as not useful, 5 as fairly useful and 9 as very useful. Finally, they evaluated the overall usefulness of the three techniques in combination.

To analyse the interaction between teaching methods and learning styles, we first divided students’ responses into active and passive as per their post-instruction self-classification. A between group comparison was then made of each individual teaching method and the overall combined effect. Table 3 presents this data.
Table 3

Between groups assessment of effectiveness of teaching methods

Teaching method

Students

N

Mean

SD

SE mean

Significance

Lecture

Active

41

5.683

2.030

.317

.006***

Passive

84

6.547

1.383

.150

 

Tutorial

Active

41

5.561

1.988

.310

.322

Passive

84

5.143

2.303

.251

 

Assignment

Active

41

6.098

2.107

.329

.591

Passive

84

6.309

2.041

.222

 

Combined overall

Active

41

6.780

1.525

.238

.838

Passive

84

6.726

1.3

.144

 

*** Significant @ .01

A within group comparison was then performed. This comprised a matched pair comparison of each teaching method with the other methods and the overall combined evaluation. This was done separately for both groups, active and passive and is reported in Table 4.
Table 4

Within groups assessment of effectiveness of teaching methods

 

Active students

Passive students

Mean

N

SD

Sig

Mean

N

SD

Significance

Pair 1

 Rate lecture

5.682

41

2.030

.757

6.547

84

1.383

.000****

 Rate tutorial

5.561

41

1.988

 

5.142

84

2.303

 

Pair 2

 Rate lecture

5.682

41

2.030

.367

6.547

84

1.383

.353

 Rate assignment

6.097

41

2.107

 

6.309

84

2.041

 

Pair 3

 Rate lecture

5.682

41

2.030

.001***

6.547

84

1.383

.311

 Rate overall

6.780

41

1.525

 

6.726

84

1.320

 

Pair 4

 Rate tutorial

5.561

41

1.988

.041**

5.142

84

2.303

.000****

 Rate assignment

6.097

41

2.107

 

6.309

84

2.041

 

Pair 5

 Rate tutorial

5.561

41

1.988

.000****

5.142

84

2.303

.000****

 Rate overall

6.780

41

1.525

 

6.726

84

1.320

 

Pair 6

 Rate assignment

6.097

41

2.107

.027**

6.309

84

2.041

.062*

 Rate overall

6.780

41

1.525

 

6.726

84

1.320

 

**** Significant @ .001, *** Significant @ .01, ** Significant @ .05, * Significant @ .10

The effectiveness of each teaching method and the overall effect were then analysed in turn, commencing with the lecture.

As anticipated by traditional theory, passive learners considered the first teaching method, the lecture on the topic—a passive technique—far more useful than the active learners. The between group difference in means (6.55 as opposed to 5.68, Table 3) was statistically significant (at the .01 level). The active learners considered the lecture useful (mean > 5.00), but not as effective as their passive counterparts. The within group assessments, comparing tutorial and lecture ratings, strongly support the assumption of learning style impacting on teaching method effectiveness. Table 4 demonstrates a highly significant drop in teaching method effectiveness from lecture to tutorial for the passive students (6.55–5.14, pair 1 Table 4). This would appear intuitively correct. Passive learners derived maximum benefit from the traditional lecture. As per Table 4, they rated its effectiveness as greater than the assignment and especially the tutorial (means of 6.54, 6.31 and 5.14, respectively). When compared to the overall effectiveness of the combination of methods (mean of 6.73, pair 3 in Table 4), the lecture was not significantly different. For the passive learners, it can be concluded the traditional lecture method dominated overall combined effectiveness of the three separate ethical training methods.

Considering the second teaching method, tutorial instruction, there was no significant difference in the between group assessments (means of 5.56 and 5.14, Table 3) when viewed as a whole. Active students considered the tutorial more effective than passive students but not significantly so. However, further analysis of the tutorial assessment provides more evidence of its effectiveness being stronger for active students. Recall, the tutorial was experienced in two formats (active for some and passive for others). As the students identified their tutorial and their learning style in the second version of the survey instrument, we can compare their assessment of each tutorial’s effectiveness by learning type. The results were the same for both forms of tutorial, with active learners considering the tutorial format more effective as a learning tool in both cases. Table 5 summarises the findings.
Table 5

Assessment of tutorial effectiveness based on tutorial type and learning style

Tutorial type

Student learning style

#

Mean

Significance

Active

Active

24

5.501

.787

Active

Passive

35

5.342

Passive

Active

17

5.642

.311

Passive

Passive

49

5.000

Active students, when assigned to an active tutorial considered the tutorial method of instruction more effective than their passive colleagues assigned to the same method of instruction (mean of 5.50 as opposed to 5.34, Table 5). Similarly active students assigned to a passive tutorial rated the tutorials’ effectiveness more highly than passive colleagues assigned to the same tutorial type (mean of 5.64 as opposed to 5.00, Table 5). Whereas the differences in means are not statistically significant, a consistent pattern emerged in both instances. As mentioned above in discussing the lecture’s effectiveness, passive students found the tutorial significantly less effective than the lecture. Active students, on the other hand, considered both methods to be of similar effectiveness (means of 5.68 and 5.56 pair 1, Table 4).

This would possibly suggest a misallocation of a student to a non-preferred teaching method may even prove counterproductive to improving ethical awareness. As hinted at previously in studies such as Spence and Wadsworth (2002), students may become hostile to a non-preferred teaching approach and withdraw their interest.

Evaluation of the effectiveness of the group assignment, the third teaching method for audit ethics, revealed no significant difference between the two groups (means of 6.10 and 6.31, Table 3). Referring to the literature review one might have assumed that a group assignment, being an active teaching technique, would have resulted in active learners considering it more effective than passive learners. However, other research into groupwork may explain this apparent anomaly. When it comes to tasks with considerable intentional depth, such as ethical decision making, groups are typically outperformed by their most capable members (Hall et al. 1963; Holloman and Hendrick 1971; Hill 1982). Hence, a dominant member may have led the group, effectively rendering the remainder of the group as passive learners. Groups may also arrive at a compromise decision, a phenomenon known as groupthink (Sniezek and Henry 1989; Rohrbaugh 1979). Here, again this effectively leaves some group members as passive learners who simply listen and agree with whatever is proposed. Finally, ethicists such as Sie (2005) note how individuals, if they make the wrong moral decision, often try to justify it by blaming others for their error. Passive learners may have been comforted by this ability within a group to share the blame, if the wrong decision was reached. The current study has no method of evaluating group dynamics, so these propositions cannot be tested. However, based on the extant literature, they must be considered a possibility and may explain why this prima facie active technique was not evaluated as more effective by the active learners, when compared to their passive learner colleagues.

The within group comparison demonstrates how effective the active group found this teaching method. They evaluated it as more effective than both the lecture and tutorial (means of 6.10, 5.68 and 5.56, respectively, Table 4). The assignment was more effective than the tutorial at a statistically significant level (pair 4, Table 4). In reviewing the pairwise comparisons for the active group, it appears that they considered the combination of the three teaching methods to have influenced their ethical thinking, but the individual methods impacted at different levels of effectiveness. Reviewing pairs 3, 5 and 6 as per Table 4, each individual method was considered less effective than the overall combination, but at different levels of significance, with the assignment (pair 6) demonstrating the least significant difference. Hence, the assignment appears to have been the most influential individual technique for the active group.

Evaluation of the overall combined effectiveness of the three teaching methods for accounting ethics, revealed no significant difference between the two groups (means of 6.78 and 6.73 as per Table 3). Both active and passive learners considered the overall impact of the three methods to have been effective (>5.0). As each participant received a mix of some active methods and some passive methods in the three teaching methods to which they were exposed, it was to be expected there would not be a difference between the groups in their overall evaluation of the mix of teaching methods. Significantly, the total student cohort evaluated the overall impact as greater than any one individual method. This was true for both active and passive learners.

It is considered the above analyses offers considerable support for the interaction hypotheses. First, considering the passive students, the between group analysis demonstrates how they evaluated the lecture as considerably more effective than their active learner colleagues. The within group analysis then demonstrated how effectiveness deteriorated for passive learners when the teaching methods changed to include more active components. The pairwise comparisons of methods with overall effectiveness demonstrated how the lecture effectively dominated their overall assessment of effectiveness. For the active students, the passive learning technique of the traditional lecture was evaluated as significantly less effective than the more active technique of the assignment. They considered tutorials (of two different types) more effective than their passive learner colleagues. Finally, they considered the assignment added more to the overall combined effectiveness of teaching methods than the other techniques.

Impact of Teaching Methods on Ethical Decisions

The above analysis has concentrated on how the participants subjectively evaluated their learning styles and effectiveness of teaching methods. We can now consider an objective assessment of effectiveness of the teaching methods. The ultimate aim of teaching ethics in auditing is to improve the ethical awareness and decision making of trainee auditors. In the current study, participants made an ethical decision as to a course of action in five different situations. This was before any discussion about ethics in auditing. They were then subject to three separate ethical teaching methods and, after a cooling off period, re-evaluated the five scenarios. Table 6 summarises the results for the whole group.
Table 6

Comparison of means pre- and post-ethics teaching methods

 

N

Mean

SD

t

Significance (two-tailed)

Scenario 1

 Pre

139

4.050

1.187

.10073

.196

 Post

134

4.224

1.015

.08777

.195

Scenario 2

 Pre

139

3.669

.966

.08194

.030**

 Post

134

3.925

.970

.08383

.030**

Scenario 3

 Pre

139

2.763

.856

.07262

.026**

 Post

134

3.015

1.003

.08670

.027**

Scenario 4

 Pre

139

3.179

1.174

.09966

.025**

 Post

134

3.507

1.230

.10633

.025**

Scenario 5

 Pre

138

3.797

1.190

.10138

.111

 Post

134

4.015

1.047

.09050

.110

** Significant @ .05

The table presents statistical support for the notion of improved perceived ethical decision making. All five pre-/post-scores improved, three at the statistically significant level of .05. This would tend to suggest that the series of active/passive teaching methods had a positive impact on students’ perceived ethical decision making. These results support the findings of many studies mentioned in the literature review which conclude that ethical instruction is beneficial. Cronbach’s Alpha tests were then run to support the reliability of the overall results, before continuing with additional analysis. The results on all three tests, pre-instruction group, post-instruction group and combined group,4 provided scores greater than .7, a cut-off point identified by Nunnaly (1978) as satisfactory.

When the results are split by learning style, more revealing outcomes are discovered. Table 7 summarises the results for the active learners and Table 8 summarises the results for the passive learners.
Table 7

Comparison of means pre- and post-ethics teaching methods—active learners

 

N

Mean

SD

t

Significance (two-tailed)

Scenario 1

 Pre

48

4.063

1.060

.15300

.117

 Post

41

4.390

.862

.13470

.112

Scenario 2

 Pre

48

3.667

.974

.14071

.215

 Post

41

3.927

.984

.15377

.215

Scenario 3

 Pre

48

2.708

.898

.12964

.038**

 Post

41

3.098

.830

.12975

.037**

Scenario 4

 Pre

48

3.208

1.009

.14574

.027**

 Post

41

3.707

1.078

.16836

.028**

Scenario 5

 Pre

48

3.687

1.034

.14934

.023**

 Post

41

4.171

.919

.14357

.022**

** Significant @ .05

Table 8

Comparison of means pre- and post-ethics teaching methods—passive learners

 

N

Mean

SD

t

Significance (two-tailed)

Scenario 1

 Pre

64

4.047

1.290

.16127

.496

 Post

85

4.176

1.025

.11124

.510

Scenario 2

 Pre

64

3.625

1.015

.12697

.067*

 Post

85

3.929

.985

.10689

.069*

Scenario 3

 Pre

64

2.719

.844

.10557

.156

 Post

85

2.953

1.090

.11823

.142

Scenario 4

 Pre

64

3.156

1.287

.16094

.207

 Post

85

3.423

1.266

.13738

.209

Scenario 5

 Pre

63

3.794

1.220

.15374

.407

 Post

85

3.953

1.100

.11941

.415

* Significant @ .10

For the active learners, the mean response to each scenario improved post-instruction. Three of these improvements were significant at the .05 level (Table 7). Hence, active learners appear to have significantly improved their perceived ethical decision making, after receiving ethical instruction. For the passive learners all five mean responses also improved. However, only one of them was statistically significant, and even then it was at the weaker .10 level (Table 8).

This is considered to be a crucial result. It appears that the overall effectiveness of the combined ethical instruction methods used in this study was influenced to some extent by the learning style of the students. Active learners improved their perceived ethical decision making more than passive learners, even though exposed to the same three instruction methods (a lecture, a tutorial—albeit mixed design5—and a group assignment). Irrespective of whatever labels were put on the three instruction methods (active or passive), those students who considered themselves active learners, as regards ethical instruction, were more impacted upon by this combination of three teaching methods, than those who described themselves as passive learners. Hence, learning style appears to have impacted upon the effectiveness of the teaching methods, thus supporting H2 and H3.

Finally, ANOVAs (untabulated) were performed on the movement in decision-making scores of all five scenarios, using pre-/post-instruction state and active/passive learning style as two independent variables. No statistically significant6 results were achieved. These results, however, have been compounded by the active/passive classification the participants gave before and after they had been subject to the training methods. As mentioned in Table 2, 35 % of the students consider they may have changed their classification from before to after instruction and as discussed previously, individual students’ responses could not be matched pre- and post-instruction as this would have necessitated some type of identification on the survey instruments. It was therefore considered more prudent to analyse the results as per final learning style, as indicated on the second version of the questionnaire. Hence, the findings from Tables 6, 7 and 8, discussed above, appear to offer a firmer basis for statistical analysis than the univariate ANOVA discussed here.

Summary and Implications

Conclusion

The following comment summarises the critical state of ethics in accounting:

… despite the attention in recent years to the importance of ethics and social responsibility in the accounting curriculum and the profession …. the ethical reasoning scores of those attracted to public accounting seems to have actually deteriorated over the past 15 years. (Abdolmohammadi et al. 2009, p. 192).

It also serves to highlight the importance of getting ethics education for trainee accountants right. A preponderance of literature exists in the area and varying teaching methods have been proposed and discussed. Yet the critical role of student learning styles and how this might impact on instruction methodology, in a complex area such as accounting ethics, has not been addressed.

The current study firstly attempts to evaluate what is the preferred student learning style for a topic as involved as ethics in accounting. In most accountancy courses, Auditing is taught in the final year due to its complexity. By the final year of a business/accounting degree, many studies have shown students to have evolved from passive recipients into active learners. Most university courses recognise this change and incorporate active teaching methods and assessment procedures more and more into a degree program as it progresses. It was anticipated in this study that final year students would indeed prefer an active learning style in a topic such as ethics in Auditing but results suggest otherwise. It appears that students considered themselves predominantly passive learners as regards ethics in accounting. Indeed one in three students considered they had changed their preference after being subjected to three separate teaching methods (a mix of active and passive). It is of course conceivable that these students are passive learners for all topics. Without assessing their learning style in other subject areas, we cannot compare specifically their preferred learning style for ethics with other accounting areas. But to do so was beyond the scope of the current study. It is noted as a limitation and area for future research, in subsequent sections.

The explanation for a preference for passive learning may lie in the literature review, if viewed from a different perspective. Certainly, auditing students are older and more worldly wise by the third year of their degree, but the topic of ethics and how it relates to auditing is very new to them. They may be in the final year of their accounting degree, but are in the first semester of their studying of ethical issues in auditing and hence may revert to preferring the assimilator learning style prevalent in the earlier years of their degree. Also, as mentioned above, studies by Hill (1982) and Sniezek and Henry (1989) demonstrate how topics with considerable intentional depth sometimes impact on teamwork and group decision making in an abnormal manner. Ethics is certainly such a topic. So, if teaching should be designed with students learning styles in mind, it appears as if some passive techniques should be used in an accounting ethics environment, as this appears to be the students’ preference.

However, before just selecting a particular teaching method for ethics in accounting, it appears critical to ensure that the method matches the appropriate learning style. The second aim of the current study is to analyse the interaction of teaching methods and learning styles in the accounting ethics environment. Evidence was found that supports the concept of learning styles impacting on teaching effectiveness. In the current study, the impact of a series of ethical training methods on the perceived ethical decision making of active learners was more significant than on passive learners. Both groups were subject to three ethical training techniques (lecture, tutorial and group assignment) but the active group responded more positively by improving their perceived ethical decision making across the five vignettes to a more significant extent.

This objective measure of an interaction impact was supported by the students’ subjective assessments of the interaction of teaching methodologies and learning styles. Passive learners considered the traditional passive ethics teaching method of the lecture, significantly more effective than active learners. They viewed group assignments and tutorial work (two different formats) as less effective learning tools. In contrast, active learners found group assignments to be more effective than lectures or tutorials. For both groups, the combination of within group and between group comparisons supported the notion of more effective results being obtained if teaching methods matched learning styles. When they did not match, students assessed the impact of the teaching method as less effective.

The implications for teaching ethics in accounting are significant. To achieve optimal results, students should really have their learning style assessed prior to commencing their ethical studies. The teaching methods applied should then match the learning styles of that particular class. This will of course necessitate more time and resources, but not necessarily excessively so. For instance, individual students’ learning styles could be assessed by reviewing how they have performed in the assessment procedures they have undertaken in previous subjects before they commence Auditing. Most university systems now record electronically how students have performed in exams, assignments, tutorial presentations, etc., on an assessment piece-by-piece basis. Hence, there is already data in the system to assist in analysing active learners (those who perform better in active assessment pieces as opposed to passive ones) and passive learners. If this information is unavailable, a simple questionnaire appropriately designed could perform the assessment at the commencement of a final year course. Irrespective of cost, if criticism of the ethical performance of accountants/auditors continues, it would appear a highly justifiable exercise.

Limitations

The major limitation of this study relates to the evaluation of participants’ learning styles. These were self-assessed and not subject to any validated instrument which could have more accurately determined their actual style. Also, their learning style in other accounting subjects was not evaluated for comparison with the specific area of ethics. To attempt to do so was considered beyond the scope of the current study and is referred to below as an area for future research. Furthermore, the authors have no reason to think the participants would misstate their actual learning style as there was no benefit to them in doing so. It must still be regarded, however, as a possible limitation.

A further limitation, as with most other studies of this nature, relates to the possibility of a demand effect. When evaluating the vignettes a second time, the students may have recalled well the responses they gave to each vignette the first time they completed them, and so simply given what they considered a more appropriate answer second time around. The time gap between the two completions (6 weeks) may not have been adequate and a different gap may have given a different result. The research design section of this paper highlights steps taken to minimise any possible demand effects but their potential influence on final results should still be recognised.

Third, to maximise participation, confidentiality was assured and there was nothing on any survey instrument to permit individual student matching of pre- and post-evaluations. The statistical analysis is, as a result, not as robust as with other experimental designs. However, this was considered far more preferable than risking lesser quantity and quality of responses, by inserting some item whereby responses could be individually identified. As mentioned previously, some studies have shown how any attempt, or even perceived attempt, to identify participants, has resulted in withdrawal from the participation or reduced interest therein. Even standard demographic details were not collected. It is considered factors such as age, gender, etc., and their impact on ethical decisions, have been thoroughly tested and commented upon, so this study focussed exclusively on the teaching/learning concepts. This of course results in an inability to use such factors as control variables, but it was decided not to do so, in order to focus on the topic at hand.

A final limitation is that we required participants to select from one of five options to indicate their ethical behaviour with respect to each vignette. These options are not exhaustive and may not fully reflect how a participant would choose to behave in the given situation.

Future Research

To more accurately assess participants’ learning styles, a validated instrument to test these styles could be applied to students prior to exposing them to varying teaching methods and the results then assessed. Learning styles across subjects could also be evaluated and compared. Similarly, more rigorously defined teaching methods could be set up, those which are definitively active or passive. For example, teaching tools such as group assignments could be monitored more closely, to ensure they are exclusively active and not impacted upon by dominant members or phenomena such as blame-sharing, groupthink, etc. Interactions of teaching methods and learning styles could then be more accurately measured. Specific one on one matching of pre- and post-evaluations could also be pursued to allow for more robust effect analysis.

Footnotes
1

For the remainder of this paper, they will be referred to simply as active and passive.

 
2

139 students attended the first lecture and 134 attended the sixth lecture. These attendance rates (50 %) are standard for subjects at this final year level at this university, so there was no reason to assume non-attendees would be any different from attendees in their responses.

 
3

Comparison of two binomial proportions test (SISA 2011). p < .005 (t = −2.18). The movement in ‘undecided’ was also significant (p < .001, t = 3.16), but for ‘active’ it was not (p > .400, t = .779).

 
4

Cronbach’s Alpha scores of .702, .802 and .761, respectively.

 
5

Analysis of the allocation of students to tutorials (Table 5) reveals no significant bias in students of a particular learning type dominating a particular tutorial type, in relation to the overall ratio of active to passive students.

 
6

For scenarios 1–5, respectively, Fscores with significance levels in brackets: .459 (.499), .027 (.869), .276 (.600), 1.090 (.298) and 1.206 (.273).

 
7

A full copy of the survey instrument available from authors on request.

 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012