Maintaining student engagement—particularly in technical subjects such as accounting—presents a challenge to educators under the best of circumstances. Achieving high levels of student engagement has become even more difficult during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which has forced colleges and universities to transition to an online delivery method. Instructors are now faced with the simultaneous challenges of keeping students engaged and adopting an instructional model that is very different from the one that they have already mastered.

Student engagement is a necessary component in maintaining academic rigor and fostering active learning. Before making recommendations about how best to deliver engaging online content, instructors must carefully consider students’ motivation as well as their relationship with technology.

Reflections on Student Motivation in the Online Environment

The authors have found that students who were motivated to achieve success in a traditional setting are also the most adaptable to the virtual environment. These students are inclined to seek out support and use the new resources at their disposal. Perhaps this is because of their predisposition to do well or because they are more engaged or fulfilled by the new environment. Many new tools have been introduced that might capture students’ imaginations, including video chats, discussion forums, and the ability to do work at their own pace. During this period of transition, students seem to perform best in the online setting when traditional class methods are simulated. Exhibit 1 shows some traditional methodologies and the means by which they can be simulated:

Students who had been unfamiliar with the virtual course environment may prefer the new approaches to learning and the dissemination of material. Through online discussion forums, students can work with peers and their instructor to address concerns, furthering engagement. With regard to note taking, the posting of all notes can raise the standards for the class, and students can look to the best notes for further learning. Homework, group assignments, and research assignments may also be enhanced in the online environment if the course is built with careful attention directed towards desired outcomes.

Reflections on Students and Technology

There is a widespread perception that the younger generation is universally attracted to technology and that its preferences for socialization make it naturally suited for virtual learning. In the authors’ experience, however, some students have expressed their dissatisfaction with the online delivery method because of the isolation that it produces.

Although most students are able to assess the online learning systems and function with a reasonable modicum of confidence, many seek social interaction in their college courses that cannot be simulated in the online environment. Recently, several seniors expressed that they had looked forward to participating in capstone course presentations with business executives in attendance since their freshman year. Although executives could attend virtually, students felt they missed out on the social component of the activity, a dynamic that perhaps had been taken for granted.

Furthermore, students miss the social experience of dorming and being on campus, what they consider to be the “college experience.” A lack of satisfaction in the social component of college life does not necessarily mean that students are not putting forth the effort to succeed academically. While attending social events and fostering interpersonal connections are a big draw to college life, many students realize that academic success can provide an avenue to a meaningful professional career.

It is encouraging to observe that, despite being somewhat disgruntled, accounting students do not seem to be as distracted as might be expected by working from home.

Perhaps due to this mindset, many accounting students are still engaged in the online format. An advantage of teaching at a smaller institution is that instructors get to know their students and see them in different classes. Through online assessments, the authors have seen grades for students in the online forum that are consistent with grades earned previously in traditional sections. It is encouraging to observe that, despite being somewhat disgruntled, accounting students do not seem to be as distracted as might be expected by working from home.

For online assessment, instructors can set up online exams with timed sessions that shuffle multiple-choice questions from a question pool. Thus far, the authors have not observed “collaborations,” or academic dishonesty; these might be a concern, especially when students in an online section know one another from traditional classes.

Technology can also be used to proctor online exams. For example, Respondus is an online testing application that students can access using a webcam so that their activities while testing are monitored and recorded. It can confirm a student’s identity using keyboard stroke technology and can verify that the student taking the exam is alone and not using unauthorized notes or materials. The browser also restricts students’ access to other webpages and applications while testing is underway. Instructors can also proctor online exams themselves by requesting that students access a virtual Zoom or WebEx session using a webcam so that they can be observed while taking the exam.

Recommendations for Greater Student Engagement

Effective collaborative learning, or learning interactively from the work and feedback of classmates, should be an objective of an online course and generate a high level of student engagement. Overall, students appreciate and benefit from interactive assignments that are designed to promote collaborative learning. The following sections present examples on how to achieve higher levels of student engagement drawn from the authors’ experience.

Fraud Examination and Forensic Accounting Case Study

For this assignment, the instructor posted fraud case studies for students to choose from that included research links and short answer/question discussion items for students to address. To avoid the duplication of case assignments, students posted their case selections on a public forum accessible by the class.

Students were asked to prepare an audio PowerPoint with a minimum number of slides that presented the facts of the case, an analysis of the fraud incorporating class content, and responses to the short answer questions. Students narrated their presentations by recording their lectures to each PowerPoint slide using the “Record Narration” function. After posting their files on a class forum, students were required to view all presentations and generate a dialogue with any two classmates regarding their cases. Students could access comments and post responses on a class-accessible online forum.

This type of assignment engages students on many levels. Students are embracing their research topics and preparing presentations for others to view. They are benefitting by being privy to the work of others, which not only provides factual information but also a basis of comparison as to how others completed a similar task. Students learn how they can improve their work by viewing the presentations of their peers. They also further develop their written and verbal soft skills through a virtual format.

Other Recommendations: Love Is an Answer

Although instructors are still digesting virtual resources and teaching methods, many dynamics of a traditional offering hold true in an online setting. Just like in a traditional class, students will thrive if an online offering is organized, well-designed, and balanced. In addition, relationships with students transcend course formats. Although students may at times be distracted by personal concerns, it is often the interest that instructors take in students that can have the most significant impact on their level of engagement.

In a classroom, instructors have many opportunities to build a rapport with students and, in some cases, to form bonding relationships that may endure for years. When students feel welcomed and connected, they are more likely to remain motivated and engaged. Few things bring greater satisfaction to an educator than to observe weaker students transform when they feel that an instructor expects something more from them.

Excellent instructors possess subject-matter knowledge, as well as effective classroom management and communication skills. Exceptional instructors take an interest in their students; they try to treat their students the way they would want their child to be treated. Love is an answer. An instructor who has a personal interest in his or her students finds ways to make meaningful connections in any setting—traditional or virtual. Having love and respect for students has an enormous impact on student engagement.

Time to Reflect

COVID-19 has challenged instructors and students to adjust their strategies for teaching and learning. Teachers were thrust into the online environment so unexpectedly that many were not afforded the opportunity to consider pedagogy critically. Nevertheless, the authors are confident that this online transition now presents the opportunity to address progressive learning styles and techniques that will provide valuable avenues for student growth and engagement.

Traditional Class Methodology Online Equivalent Possible Benefits of Online Instruction Face-to-Face Lecture: Conveyance of Information Recorded lectures using software on computer or phone Audio PowerPoints Discussion forums Virtual class (Zoom) meetings Students can review lectures and read over posts multiple times to increase their understanding of content. Students can review material prepared by the instructor without having to rely on solely student notes. Class Notes PDF, Word, or PowerPoint files with outlines and supplemental materials can be posted on the class website. Faculty can upload files or write notes while conducting virtual meetings using Zoom or WebEx. Students may be more engaged if technology is integrated to make class notes more interactive with Voice Thread or audio PowerPoint lessons. Homework Students can post homework assignments on collaborative forums and deliver recorded responses to their classmates by posting audio PowerPoint files or using Voice Thread. Students are made aware of their classmates' work and can learn from it. Group Assignments Online group meetings and collaborative assignments are facilitated using a discussion board, Voice Thread, Google Slack, YouTube posts, or Zoom Breakout. Face-to-face meetings are difficult to arrange for students. Online sessions are a convenient option. Tools to collaborate group writing are also included in online programs. Research Assignments and Papers Information can be accessed and stored on the online site. Students can access library research databases. Colleges can assist student research by providing class subscriptions to the FASB Codification, or AAA article database. Students have many informational tools presented to them in an orderly fashion. Class Interaction such as asking and answering questions Students can encourage students to post feedback and questions during a virtual Zoom session or use audio to ask a question. Faculty can keep students engaged by using polls to gauge whether the material is understood before moving on. Students can become engaged in the online class; faculty can offer more individualized feedback. The poll feature provides anonymity, encouraging students to indicate if they need additional reinforcement of the material.
Moira Tolan, PhD, is a professor of business at Mount Saint Mary College, Newburgh, N.Y.
Tracey Niemotko, JD, CPA, CFE, is a professor of accounting at Mount Saint Mary College, Newburgh, N.Y.
Kathleen Carey, MSEd, is a research assistant.