What people aren't telling us about our studying...
Why do I focus on Study Skills?
When I talk about mindset and accounting students, I’m not referring to ‘positivity’ or ‘motivation’ or ‘feeling good’ about studies. Our mindset impacts every decision we make, every day. This will include what students do when they sit at their desk to study.
As a Chartered Accountant myself, I understand the study levels, content and challenges that students face. I’ve been lecturing Auditing and Accounting at all levels for over a decade, so I also have a lot of experience with the challenges of thousands of students at various levels.
I always focussed my lectures and teaching on simplification of concepts, and zero-basing topics to ensure that I reach students at their level and help them really understand and work with their knowledge.
Over time, I realised that more and more of my work was focussed on underlying skills, and that the topics were not actually the problem. After teaching face-to-face and online and dealing with both large classes and individual students for so many years, I started focussing my work with students on these skills, and have found them resonate very strongly with the students I’ve worked with, as well as lecturers and professionals who’ve felt the frustration of students not ‘getting it’, but not sure why they’re not.
Mindsets and Accounting students
When I read Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset’, I felt like I was reading a textbook of my brain. I instantly recognised the practical impact that my fixed mindset (as opposed to a growth mindset) had on my own qualification journey, which was long and tough.
I can see the same challenges and traits in most accounting students I’ve lectured. As I started unpacking the practical implications of this mindset on my habits, decisions, fears and life choices, I realised how important it was to ensure that students are aware of this. So much of my stress and anxiety was as a result of my mindset and beliefs about how learning ‘worked’ and how I needed to ‘be smart’ all the time.
What is the 'problem' with the Fixed Mindset?
Using an oversimplified explanation for the purposes of brevity here, the premise of the fixed mindset is:
The belief that you’re either ‘smart’ or ‘not smart’ and this can’t really be changed.
While this seems fairly simple and innocuous, it has far-reaching effects on the student:
- “If I’m ‘smart’ at something, then it should come easily and quickly. I should hear it, understand it and get it right quickly and smoothly.”
- “If I was smart, I wouldn’t be struggling with this…”
- I”f I’m STRUGGLING with it, this is an indication that I’m ‘not smart'”
- “Thus, struggling is bad, and should be avoided. It may be a sign that I can’t go further than I am, and I should do something else”
- Being smart becomes a fundamental definition of who they are. When this is threatened by challenging levels of studying, their belief in themselves and who they are is under threat. It’s not just a “I struggle with this”, it’s a “Does this mean I’m not who I thought I was?! Has my whole life been a lie? This means I’ll never succeed at this.”
When students get to higher levels of studying, where building skills is more important than memory learning, the inherent necessity to spend time BUILDING the skill equates to ‘effort’ for the students, which makes them feel that they’re ‘not smart’. This causes anxiety, disengagement and an intense self-doubt that may make them step away from the career they’ve always dreamed of.
What causes a Fixed Mindset?
A very common cause is how students perform at school. Students who do well at school are praised for their results, rather than effort or progress. It’s completely natural.
I call this a ‘smooth learning journey’. It’s not so much about the great marks, as the ‘smooth’ process from hearing to doing and getting right. Some students may have a smooth journey, but they don’t put in a lot of effort to really get great marks, they don’t HAVE to work too much to pass, so they don’t. Other students have a smooth journey, and use this as a base to get really great marks.
The feedback we get at these stages in our lives creates our values and beliefs in ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Thus ‘good results’ = ‘good’, and ‘bad results’ = ‘bad’.
If the result matters more than the process, then the faster and easier you get there, the ‘smarter’ you are. By default, this means that if you learn slowly, struggle with something or have to put more effort in, you’re clearly ‘not smart’.
It’s completely understandable how people who had ‘smooth’ learning journeys at school have developed a value system that says results are good and struggle is bad.
How perfectionism affects Accounting students
For a long time, society has perpetuated the stereotype of ‘The Accountant’. Perfectionist, OCD, A-Type personality, not a people person, and mostly ‘grey’ and boring.
For students, there is a definite feeling that if they want to qualify, then they need to tick off the criteria expected of them. Perfectionism being one of them. Students have prided themselves on their perfectionist traits, as a sign that they’ll make great accountants, and this is clearly a desirable skill for them.
In more recent years, we’ve realised that perfectionism is a double-edged sword, possibly creating more challenges than benefits. Students are still unaware of this, and unaware of what ‘perfectionism’ really is.
Thus, they strive for perfection, and are unaware of how this makes their learning and work tougher and more stressful for themselves.
Students tend to believe that being a perfectionist means that they’ll be great students and great accountants.
Accounting attracts specific types of people
It does seem that I’m overly-generalising about the mindset of accounting students, however, I believe that there’s a very logical reason for this.
Students are generally encouraged to pursue a career in accounting when they do well at school. Especially in maths, sciences and accounting. If they’ve done well at school, they’re more likely to have a fixed mindset (discussed above). People encourage students who are detail-driven, good at ‘numbers (ie: formulaic and pattern-driven work), and learn fast and easily to pursue accounting, because people believe that these are the traits of good accountants.
It is not common for a struggling school-leaver who’s not numbers-driven and isn’t good with memory-learning and lots of theory to be encouraged to pursue accounting. Although these students are more likely to have developed a growth mindset over the years.
Thus, fixed mindset students are generally ‘funnelled’ into the accounting and finance streams. In the years I’ve lectured, less than 10% of the students I’ve taught are not perfectionists and fixed mindsetters.
When I work with accounting students from all qualifications, from CPA, to ACCA or CA, and I can be fairly certain of their mindset and their perfectionism traits.
The world changes, accountants need to change
I don’t want to go into details here about the changes that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has on society, and accountants in general, and the impact of technology, financial scandals etc, but we can all accept that these, among other things have, and will continue to significantly impact accounting professionals.
A simple, but far-reaching, example of this is that accounting systems are so much more sophisticated than ever. These systems ‘crunch the numbers’ far more effectively than humans do. This alone has a huge impact on students.
Most accounting syllabii are still heavily focussed on ‘numbers’, calculations, formulae and technical knowledge. This, along with society’s continued stereotype of ‘The Accountant’, students are under the impression that their biggest skill value is their ability to ‘crunch numbers’.
Since systems are dealing with these more and more, the value of the accountant is increasingly the interpretation of information, communication, advising, and building systems. Innovation and communication are far more valuable in the future than technical ‘number crunching’. Students are not aware of this when they’re studying, since their exams are still so heavily technical and numbers-based. Not only that, because of the stereotyping around accountants, they don’t value communication or people-skills. ‘Soft skills’ are considered unnecessary and second-rate to their ability to deal with complex calculations.
Students currently in the system are caught in this transition. They only become aware of this shift when it affects them in higher levels of studies, and in their work, generally when things go wrong. It blind-sides them badly. The mindset of accounting students is going to be crucial to adapt, relearn, and realign to this new world.
In ten years, this may no longer be such an issue because education is adjusting to match these changes. This is still a way off though.
Impact on the student's career
A lot of students believe that their problems and anxieties will be over once they finish studying. This is largely because they feel that knowledge and technical abilities are the most important component of their career. Since they’re done with their studying, they’ll HAVE the knowledge, and thus the rest of the journey will be easier.
This, again, is a bit of a rude awakening, when they realise that their dealings with performance anxiety, comfort zones, communication and application, problem-solving and new, uncertain situations have only just begun.
Understanding and having tools to deal with mindset, perfectionism, communication and professional skills that were developed during their studies, will have a huge impact on their careers.
At the moment, I work with accounting students individually. In most cases, they find me once things have gone ‘wrong’, and they’re looking for other solutions because what they’re doing is no longer working for them.
I am working on partnering with professional and educational institutions, as well as lecturers. These are the organisations and people who set the priorities, learning and skill requirements for students, and if these concepts and skills are introduced seamlessly in their learning, they are aware of the importance of them, and will prioritise them more.
I believe that this will help develop the type of accountant that society is needing in the future. It well also improve the stress and anxiety students deal with as they work through their studies, and improve their efficiency and performance