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Erase Knowledge Gaps in Online Classes by Adding Peer Support

Online courses make it easy to work solo, but Dr. Susan Wright found that solo study inhibits success in accounting, so she added teams and TAs.

Online courses make it easy to work solo, but Dr. Susan Wright found that solo study inhibits success in accounting, so she added teams and TAs.

Susan Wright, PhD


Associate Professor of Accounting,
State University of New York at Oswego

PhD in Management Finance, MBA in Accounting, BS in Accounting and Finance, CPA and CMA

Getting undergraduates engaged in accounting is difficult enough face-to-face, Dr. Susan Wright admits. “It’s especially tough with my business students who aren’t accounting majors,” she says. “Right-brained, creative types have a hard time with it, because it’s really structured and really black-and-white.”

Then Wright faced another wrinkle: SUNY Oswego asked the associate professor to teach Accounting as a Management Tool to a broad spectrum of undergrads—entirely online. While she had found success in on-campus courses through direct observation and face-to-face discussion, she now needed to find an effective way to coach and inspire students from a distance.

Interestingly, while online learning is popular in part because of the individual flexibility it offers, Wright found a solution to enhance student learning by bucking the trend of letting them fly solo. Instead, she carefully designed a strategy of online collaboration that encourages students to support each other throughout the semester, while drawing on the expertise of a dedicated teaching assistant.

Through this collaborative online approach, Wright has seen sharp improvements in exam and assignment scores throughout the semester. Further, her methods have nearly eliminated the end-of-semester gaps she had once observed in students’ acquired knowledge. Below, she shares some specifics on how she fosters the connections that produce these results.


Too many gaps in critical knowledge

Wright observed that too many students were managing to complete their introductory accounting requirements without mastering fundamental concepts. This was especially true of those who are not accounting majors. Too often, she found, “their acquired knowledge was like Swiss cheese. There were huge holes—places where they threw up their hands and said, ‘I don’t get it.’” Further, they were working in a vacuum. Without face-to-face time with them, Wright could not know when they needed help until their scores took a dip.


Build team learning into distance courses

Wright has reversed the conventional pedagogic model that emphasizes individual learning over group work. To foster collaboration, she created a dedicated space in the Blackboard educational software platform, where groups of her students work together on assignments that emphasize foundational understanding and competency in areas where students have struggled in the past. Though it emphasizes teamwork, it does not eliminate individual projects but rather prepares students more fully with the skills they will need to tackle challenging work on their own.


“Before I set up these collaborative groups and this workspace, I couldn’t see where gaps in their knowledge were developing or why, and when we got to the fourth or fifth week, they looked so unenthused and lost. Now I can see when they hit the wall, and I’m there to help get them back on course—before the class moves on and we’ve lost the moment.”
-Susan Wright, PhD

Course: ACC 321 Accounting as a Management Tool

Course description: This course includes basic accounting and financial concepts from the development of accounting information to uses of this information; in planning, controlling, and evaluating the performance of a business. Emphasis is on the corporate form of business.

See materials

Lesson: Use teamwork to ensure that students learn the basics

Wright has found that distance learners make the most progress in her accounting course through a system of collaboration, in which groups of four or five students work together on an assignment, documenting their weekly efforts on the Blackboard discussion board space.

She has seized on these key elements to optimize the potential for online learning:

Put a TA in charge of each team

Wright assigns each group a teaching assistant recruited from her upper-level Cost Accounting class. They are not paid, but they earn elective credit for helping out. “A lot of them have no real work experience,” says Wright. “So this is a great way for them to get experience managing a team—and reinforce their own mastery of the core material.”

The TA guides the group discussion, helps them build consensus and make informed decisions, and verifies that everyone is contributing equally. The TA coaches students individually, helps them manage their time, and tracks their uploads of exercises to the discussion board—which is where the dialogue and collaboration take off.

Let dialogue drive learning

In each group, students look at each other’s solutions for each assignment and carry on digital discussions, comparing their approaches to the problem. They also help each other refine their work.

“I can see learning taking place by reading these discussion threads,” Wright explains. “I wouldn’t get that opportunity by looking at students’ completed assignments on a homework management system.”

And “work the problem” they certainly do. “Last semester, I had over 1,500 posts in these forums before we even had the midterm. It was just dialogue, with encouragement from the TAs,” says Wright. “I jump in occasionally, but I don’t have to very often, because they figure the problem out amongst themselves. They wind up submitting to me a really nice product.”

Make students do homework by hand

Students must complete assignments the old-fashioned way—with paper and pencil. “In a lot of classes, students submit work through an electronic homework management system,” Wright observes. That gives students only a few chances to “get it right,” she says. “I don’t believe that allows the student to develop the depth of understanding they get when they have to figure it out without the aid of digital accounting systems—even though I know they will use them in the real world.”

Working problems out by hand “creates a deep appreciation for the organizational and methodical skill set that accounting requires,” one student commented in a recent course evaluation.

Students submit their work on Blackboard in the form of a PDF file, which they scan with a printer or take with a smartphone, using an app called Genius Scan.

Have them collaborate on the final product

Once the group has worked through all of the pieces of the assignment, they submit a single work product for their group. They must decide, collaboratively, whose end product looks strongest and best meets the requirements in the grading rubric, or whether they want to piece together everyone’s best work. “That happens over a period of about 48 hours,” Wright notes. “That is the assignment I grade, and they share the credit for it.” This method, adds Wright, has benefits for her, too: “It helps that, in a class of 45, I have only nine assignments to grade.”

Teach that, even online, neatness counts

Wright’s rubric for grading accounting assignments stresses mathematical accuracy—but also proper formatting, labeling of data, legibility, and neatness of presentation. These may seem to be anachronistically formal qualities in an era where quantitative tasks generally involve electronic spreadsheets and where students frequently attend class in pajamas. Wright disagrees. “The TAs and I can’t see how you arrived at your results if we can’t read them,” she asserts. “And a rigorous approach is what managers will be looking for when these students are interviewing for accounting jobs.”

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