Why is Man Acc in CTA like a screwdriver?

Management Accounting is probably the subject in UNISA CTA that most students struggle with. Understanding why this is, can be the first step in figuring out how to approach it and get through it successfully.

For those of you who know me, you know that Man Acc wasn’t my strong point in CTA. I sympathise with my students often. I genuinely do feel their pain! I wrote an article on my CTA experience just before the Man Acc CTA exam this year, and judging by the response and the amount of people who read it… I am CLEARLY not alone ūüôā¬†

I’ve often questioned why I battled so much with Man Acc, and discussed this a lot with my students as well. My work experience since CTA, and my chats with others have given me some more insight into where a lot of the challenge lies for students… and it definitely explains why I struggled with it.

So, why is CTA like a screwdriver?

Imagine that you’ve never worked with or seen tools before. Now read this description of a few tools: There’s a hammer, it has a handle and a piece of heavy metal on the top that’s rounded at the one end and curved into a point at the other. There’s a screwdriver, it has a long handle, and the end is flattened.

If I described tools to you like this… how comfortable would you be that you could picture the correct image of what a hammer or a screwdriver looks like?

Now, I tell you that I need you to solve a problem: take a small, pointed piece of metal that has a round end, with a groove cut into it on one end, and a spiral shape down the rest of it… and put it into a piece of wood… using one of these tools I’ve described.

Can you see how tricky that is? Can you see why? You can’t picture the shape of the tools if you’ve never seen them, and you can’t picture the shape of the problem if you’ve never seen that. More importantly… you can’t match the tool to the problem, because you can’t see how they’d fit together!!

How could we make this easier?

Instead of describing the tools like I did above… let me show you a picture of them:

 It's a whole lot easier to see the 'shape' of the tool. But the purpose of them, and their uses may still be tricky. Using them to solve the problem is still tricky.

So, let’s show you a picture of the problem. You need to get the screw into the wood:

Here's the screw, and a piece of wood. Now, without more information, can you eliminate any of the tools in the picture above? Can you spot that any of them won't be able to 'get' the screw into the wood? Still a little tricky, right?

Let’s show you what we want the result to look like:

 Now you can see what you're supposed to finish with, does that help you identify the right tool for the job? It definitely helps you 'visualise' the shape of the problem, the desired outcome, and will help you to choose the right tool. But what's missing?

What do the tools do? What’s their purpose?

Here’s what’s missing. Just by looking at the tools, you can’t always tell what you can use them for. You need to see examples of how they’re used, what they can do, in order to match the right tool to the right problem.

So, I tell you that you use a screwdriver to get the screw in the wood. You learn the following: If I need to get a screw into a piece of wood, then I use a screwdriver. So, the mental pictures you have are these:

This, however, can be a little dangerous. If you've never worked with the tool yourself, used it, 'felt' it, and understood how the tool and the problem 'fit' together... then you're just learning off by heart. Screw and wood = Screwdriver. And the images you have are these ones. BUT, you don't know HOW they WORK TOGETHER.

What do we do in exams?

If you’re anything like I was… in your exams you’d land up with something like this:

skew screw¬†You used whatever tool you¬†could find close at hand and did your best to FORCE that to work. (In this case, you’ve used a hammer to try get the screw into the wood). It ALMOST works, but you know it’s not right. You just weren’t able to figure out what tool you were supposed to be using!

How many times have you said this(or something like it) after¬†a question: “If they wanted me to use Activity Based Costing, why didn’t they just SAY so?! I CAN do it… I just didn’t know they wanted it!!!”

It’s because you don’t fully understand the purpose of the tools (ie: the formulae) you’ve learnt, and you’re not really comfortable with the ‘shape’ of the problem. Once you really understand both of these… the solution to the problem becomes more ‘obvious’.


So, what can you do?

We need to understand the problem, and understand HOW the tools work, how they interact with the problem.

Now you can see how the problem and solution work together. How the tool is meant to be used. Make sure you spend time TRULY understanding WHY that formula exists. What it will help you achieve, why you'd use it.

Your Man Acc formulae and processes are tools in a toolbox. In an exam, you’ll be given a problem, and you’ll have to search through that toolbox to find the right tool for the job. If you’ve only learnt: Screw + Wood = Screwdriver… then any small change to the problem is going to freak you out.

BEWARE… earlier levels of studies

We get blindsided by this problem, because in earlier levels of studies, we were able to get away with learning the problem and solution off-by-heart

You can see that although there's a small change in the one element (the screw's a little different), you could quite comfortably pass the exam without actually knowing how to use a screwdriver. The problem? You THINK you know about tools. BUT, if I gave you a screwdriver and asked you to use it, you'd have NO idea what to do with it.

Then… later levels of studies come along

Now, the type of problem changes completely. They don’t ask you anything related to theory anymore, they just want to know if you know how to use your tools, and when the different tools would be appropriate for different jobs.

Now, they'll simply ask you to MAKE something. And in doing so, you'll need to use wood, screws and a number of other materials. In order to complete the task, you'll need to know how to use your screwdriver, and when it would be good to use. Your earlier levels of knowledge will NOT help here

What should you do?

You have to do questions really early. Notice what you’re really struggling with. Sure, you’ll have forgotten some of the details of the formulae etc, but this is not the biggest issue. Mostly, there’s a sense of “I have no idea where to start”.
When this happens… don’t go back to theory. Remember the screw and wood above! Learning more screws and pieces of wood won’t help.¬†

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I REALLY understand what this formulae is supposed to do?
  • Why would a business use this thing? What is it intended to do?
  • If I had a business that made and sold xxx (insert your favourite gadget / possession), what would be happening in my business that I’d need to use this topic / piece of information?

Honestly, for me? The textbooks never helped me. I felt like they assumed that I had a good grasp of the problem, and they seemed to START explaining from the ‘HOW TO’ of the calculation.

If you have access to a lecturer… make an appointment ASAP, and go ask them to help you with this. Take your little example of your business, so that you can use something that interests you as your base. Forget all the fancy industries and big corporations that case studies use… we don’t relate to all that! “If I baked and sold cupcakes, when and why would I need standard costing?”

Go back to go forwards

Yup, this may FEEL like you’re going backwards, I get that. However, every SINGLE question you ever do is going to be totally different. Understanding and being able to solve them yourself, instead of hoping desperately that the exam will be a copy of something you’ve seen before… much smarter! You may go back a tiny bit, but trust me, you’ll see yourself leaping ahead really quickly!

Dedicated to Nizaam Baker CA(SA)

This post is dedicated to Nizaam, who passed away tragically in Jan 2021. Nizaam taught me MAC in third year and CTA. He was far more patient with me than I could've hoped for. I could, however, never understand how he found the stuff so 'obvious'! His favourite saying: "Come on guys, it's just MATHS!" I worked with him as a lecturer after I qualified and spent many hours debating how we could better help MAC and AUE students to understand and pass. Our favourite complaint was "WHY won't they just come ask for help!?" There are thousands of students out there who appreciated his teaching, and he'll be missed by all.

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  1. Excellent analogy. There is unfortunately a large discrepancy between the theory that we are studying and application of that theory to the real world.

  2. Thanks Yvonne!

    Really interesting and well put. It’s quite amazing to know that we actually think this way when someone else (AKA yourself) highlights this “view” and shows us how we actually look when studying and prepping for examinations.

    Thank you for this post! It was extremely valuable!

    Kind Regards,


  3. Hi! Thank you for the enlightening article;

    I have completed my BCom in Supply chain management with only FAC1601 and FIN 2601 (passed, but not great), but due to work possibilities changing I am looking at more Finance/Accounting-related courses for post grad. Would you say this course is a bit much for someone with a non-Accounting background (it sounds daunting! ) ?

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