Why do I believe that Mindset is as important as Accounting Classes?

My experience is that accounting students generally lean towards a Fixed Mindset, and shifting this to a Growth Mindset will be as valuable to their studying and work as accounting lectures themselves!

Seriously Short and Sweet Summary:

Students who do well at school are advised to study accounting

So, most accounting students are used to excelling, not failing, getting things right quickly. (Learning is like a SWITCH. It’s fast, and easy)

This often creates a Fixed Mindset – The belief that being smart is about being right.

When Fixed’ers hit a point where the work takes longer to learn, where skills are more important than knowledge, they’re uncomfortable because they’re not able to ‘get it right quickly’ anymore. (They’re not used to the JOURNEY of learning)

They haven’t experienced the ‘struggle’ of learning, built resilience for failure, and the value of learning through mistakes and experiencing. They’re used to simply ‘getting it right’.

At higher levels in studies they’re more likely to struggle. They believe something’s gone wrong. That their smartness has reached its’ ceiling. That they’re not smart enough for this. Their Fixed Mindset requires fast, correct results.

Thus… their Fixed Mindset gets in the way of their learning. Regardless of how many lectures you have, you cannot master skills. or get them ‘right’ instantly, and thus, Fixed’ers are highly uncomfortable.

You’ve read the Seriously Short and Sweet Summary… obviously, it’s hugely simplified for the sake of brevity. Here’s a slightly longer explanation of this.

Imagine you're giving career advice to high school students...

Which types of students would you advise to follow a career in accounting?

First, let’s acknowledge that most people have some idea of the ‘types’ of people who should and shouldn’t be advised to follow accounting careers. What does this mean?

Stereotypes, generalisations and expectations of specific ‘types’ are VERY prevalent in the accounting profession and society. 

Most people believe that they know the types of personalities, traits and interests that an accounting student or professional would / should have.

What types of students?

  • Students who get good marks, mostly for maths, sciences and accounting (if they’re studying it)
  • Students who learn concepts quickly, work well with theory, detail and have good memories
  • Students who get things right, and get them right quickly
  • Students who are good with ‘numbers‘, formulae etc

So what? 

This means that the SAME types of people are fielded towards the accounting profession. If we’re sitting in a room of accounting students, we can be pretty sure that most of them did well at school, learnt quickly, didn’t fail much, work well with theory and detail and have good memories.

Similar strengths = Similar weaknesses?

What we don’t really consider, is that everyone has strengths AND weaknesses. If we’re dealing with people with similar strengths, it’s reasonable to expect that they share similar weaknesses.

What weaknesses are generally shared by this group?

  • Fear of failure. These students won’t have a lot of experience with getting things wrong and struggling to master topics. This means they haven’t built resilience, and when they get to a level where they struggle, or start failing questions and tests, they’re more likely to disengage, deregister, or be paralysed by fear.
  • Discomfort with topics that take longer to master. They’re used to learning concepts quickly. If something takes more time, this feels ‘wrong’ to them
  • Problem Matching as opposed to Problem Solving. They’re used to arriving at the answer by ‘knowing’ it, from the details and theory they’ve learnt and memorised. This is how most of their school work and exams have worked, so the expectation is that you look at a question and ‘know’ the answer. You pull it from a database of answers you’ve memorised. ie: You ‘match’ the solution to problems you’ve seen in the past. This is very different from trying to solve a totally new problem for which you have NO pre-defined answer, and have to build a solution from scratch.
  • Communication skills. Students who are great with numbers, tend not to be great at, nor focus on, communication skills. Often, communication is seen as a ‘soft’ skill that’s nowhere near as important as the calculation and theory content. 
  • Perfectionism. This used to be seen as a strength, but it’s more of a double-edged sword. The desire to get things ‘just right’ and not mess up, often means that students will do less. It’s never the ‘right time’ to do something uncomfortable. Perfectionists will cling to comfort zones where they know they’re competent. 

(I refer to these students as Fixed’ers, based on Prof Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset)

Why / How does this affect their studying?

When Fixed’er students are studying towards assessments that match their strengths, they’ll do very well. It will seem like they’re great students, learning a lot, and are destined for success. These assessments (especially in earlier levels of studies), focus on the following: 

  • Calculations / formulae-driven questions
  • Theory-based questions which require memory
  • Remembering detail
  • Rule-based questions (ie: If this… Then that…). 
  • Questions that have clear ‘right / wrong’ answers. 

All of these feed into the strengths of our Fixed’er students. The fact that they may not be great at communication isn’t even on the radar. It’s not needed, required nor prioritised. 

At later stages in their studying, assessments start shifting their focus. This is when the weaknesses become problematic.
These changes are even more prevalent because of changes in technology and society. This is creating assessment shifts earlier and earlier in the professional qualification journeys. 

Assessments start focussing more on:

  • Communication. Discussing, explaining, advising, critiquing etc
  • Solving unseen problems. Using the same theoretical concepts, but required to solve problems they haven’t seen before
  • Process over answer. Examining the appropriateness and coherence of the thought process that the student uses to build their answer, as opposed to assessing JUST the ‘flat’ answer
  • Interpreting guidelines for less ‘black and white’ problems as opposed to applying ‘hard’ rules

The impact on the student and their learning?

The subjects remain the same. The theory, knowledge and topics may be exactly the same, but the change in assessment focus and skills often means the following:

  • They’re used to excelling, and now start struggling… this is HIGHLY uncomfortable
  • They’re used to arriving at answers quickly, and now they can’t get the ‘right’ answer, or can’t figure out how to ‘build’ the answer they’re supposed to arrive at… which feels HORRIBLE for someone who’s used to getting answers right easily
  • They’re used to being able to ‘learn’ the theory, and then get questions right. Now, even though they know the theory, the questions look nothing like the theory, so nothing seems to work… which feels frustrating
  • They’re not used to struggling with concepts, they’re used to hearing and understanding very quickly. Complex concepts and skills that take time to master leave them with a fear that they’ll ‘never get it right’. If it doesn’t come right immediately, will it EVER come right?
  • They’ve never needed to ask for ‘help’ before. They’ve never been in a vulnerable position where they have to admit that they have no idea what’s going on. They feel stupid, uncomfortable and are very worried about other people thinking that they’re not smart. Which means they’re far less likely to ask for help. 
  • They feel like something’s changed… and that ‘something’ is that they ‘used to be smart’ and have now reached a level in their studies for which they’re ‘not smart enough’

Imagine the Fixed’er student at this stage. Someone who’s used to doing well is now struggling. Someone who always did well is now failing, or close to failing. Someone who’s always felt like they’re good students are now not coping and their studying doesn’t seem to be preparing them for their exams. Someone who’s been told how smart they are for most of their lives, and obviously prioritises this trait, is now clearly ‘not smart’. 

Is there any way this WON’T impact their studying and performance?!

Will more Accounting lessons help?

If we understand the Fixed’er student and their challenges, can we help them with more Accounting lessons? Can we fix these problems with more theory? More calculations? More formulae? More lectures and explanations?

No!

As a professional, we are required to solve problems that are NOT in the textbook. We will be expected to explain, advise, recommend, critique and discuss concepts for our clients that are not theory-based. Knowing our theory off-by-heart won’t help your client. They want to know how it all affects THEIR unique situation. Repeating theory is not going to help them. (Besides, they could simply Google the theory, if that was all they needed!)

Professional qualification assessments attempt to simulate this. The idea of the exam is: “Can you help your client with their unique problem?”

No matter how amazing the lecturers, material and teaching, nothing replaces the need for students to sit by themselves and practice USING the knowledge in different ways and learning to communicate their thoughts. You may know 100% of your theory, but this will NOT automatically turn into a beautifully communicated and appropriately applied solution.

What’s the problem?

The studying that’s required in order to learn how to USE the knowledge, is inherently uncomfortable… and Fixed’ers are not ok with this type of discomfort. 

When we start learning a skill, we WILL get it wrong, we build skills slowly. It’s not a ‘right / wrong’ answer, it’s a process. None of this feeds into the strengths of a Fixed’er.

Result?

The TYPE of studying required makes a Fixed’er student uncomfortable. They will avoid, procrastinate, disengage with the process, they’re unlikely to ask for help. They’ll cling to their comfort zone… which is whatever makes them FEEL smart. 
This is theory. Knowledge. Summaries, memory and calculations. While this is PART of their skill requirements, it will not get them through assessments. They’re effectively ignoring the skills that they’re uncomfortable with.

Why will Mindset work help?

For the purposes of this article, I’m simplifying the concept of ‘Mindset’ to the process of helping students shift out of a Fixed’er mindset, into a Growth’er mindset

We need to help them understand the importance of shifting their beliefs and habits around their learning and studying. This will help them engage with ALL the skills and components of their studying that they need for their assessments and career. 

Let’s consider the type of student that a Growth’er would be:

  • A student who focusses equally on knowledge, application and communication
  • Someone who understands that learning is a journey from not knowing, to building and developing skills, to eventual competency
  • Someone who has resilience in the face of failure, or not doing well
  • Someone who will ask for help
  • Someone who is able to use their knowledge in different and new situations, to build an appropriate solution to new problems
  • Someone who is able to manage and work with the discomfort of ‘not knowing’ the answer. Who has the skill and ability to ‘sit with’ a new problem and try build a solution to it (ie: instead of giving up if it’s not in the textbook or theory)
  • Someone who understands that being smart isn’t about getting things right instantly. That being smart is the willingness to learn NEW things (by default, this is uncomfortable!), change their thinking, adapt, adjust, relearn and develop PROCESSES to arrive at solutions

Can you see the value of a mindset shift? Can you imagine how much more effective the learning of a Growth’er will be? How much more prepared they will be for their professional career?

So… Mindset vs Accounting classes?!

Let’s consider again… if you had to choose which of these would have more of an impact on the effectiveness and success of a professional accounting student… which would you choose?

Accounting classes will help their knowledge. 

Mindset will help them engage with the content, learn and build skills differently. A student with a Growth Mindset will be comfortable to LOOK for content, information and learning. They’re more pro-active about their learning, because they’re not afraid of what it means to ‘not know the answer’.

I believe that a growth mindset is a pervasive trait that will ensure the success of ANY learning.

“Give a man a fish…”

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you feed him for life.”

I’ll put an ‘accounting’ spin on that…

“Teach someone accounting and you equip them for that subject, and that Standard. Teach someone how to learn, and you equip them to learn any subject, and any Standard.”

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