How I Used To Ace Accounting Courses; And What It Means for How People Learn

When I first decided to go back to grad school I decided to pursue a Master’s in Accounting.

Why?

Well, one of my main reasons is that I thought accounting would be really freaking easy.

And, it was.

I signed up for some accounting courses at the local university and I would ace them. In Financial Accounting the professor announced to the class that I was the first student to ever make a 100 on one of her tests. In the other courses it was much of the same. I took 5 accounting courses over the course of two semesters (and one statistics course) and then later in business school I would take two more. They were always easy. Granted, I learned new things… but they were always super easy.

Why?

Simple stuff.

Simple stuff.

 

Context

One of the students in one of my classes approached me to tutor her. She was really struggling. She claimed she was doing the homework and doing the readings, but then during test time her mind would just go blank.

I tried to walk her through one of the problems in the book to see her thought processes. And I saw her problem.

She was too rigid. Too structured. Trying to remember what the book had said earlier. “Naw, forget about all of that,” was my advice, “just think about how a business works. Everything in accounting can be figured out fairly simply if you just think of how a business would need to do it. So just try to think like a business. Think of how a business works.”

She looked at me blankly.

Then I realized she didn’t know “how a business works.”

And why should she? This is an undergraduate accounting course (I was taking it because I needed the pre-reqs. I had never taken any accounting courses before). She probably hadn’t done much else besides school and studying. Maybe a part-time job or two doing menial tasks that she never thought twice about. But, she’d never run a business or thought much about “how business works.”

Basically, she wasn’t me.

My Previous Accounting Experience

I’ve mentioned it before on this blog. When I was in college, I ran a music business. A record label. We were in the business of recording CDs, pressing CDs, and selling CDs.

This included me driving all over the state of Texas (and occasionally to Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Florida) establishing relationships with music stores and putting product on their shelves. In order to keep track of it all I had a big white binder with a page in it for each store I had products in. I kept track of things like: how much inventory is on their shelves and how much money they owe me. I summed up all of that information up and put into Microsoft Excel and where I kept track of how much money I made every week, what my expenses were, and how much I owed to my artists.

I did all of this before I ever knew anything about accounting or took an accounting course. I did it without researching accounting at all. I wasn’t using definitions like debits and credits. I didn’t know what those were. I wasn’t using a double-entry booking system. I was just doing it to keep track of everything. It was a very rudimentary system. It wasn’t perfect. But it helped me keep track of everything. Which was necessary.

A few years later, when sitting in accounting courses and learning about the double-entry accounting system codified by Luca Pacioli in the 15th century it all made so much sense. Instantly it made sense. I was learning better methods, better systems that I could instantly apply to what I had previously done. It made perfect sense that a system codified 500 years ago and built upon since then would be more solid and be able to handle the different intricacies of different businesses much better than the rudimentary system one guy created on his own while driving across the Southeastern USA in his pick-up truck (hint: that’s me). It was easy for me to understand and comprehend, because it so easily fit into my worldview of how things work. My system would have surely fallen apart or at least need a lot of adjusting for new things as the business grew – but learning commonly practiced accounting standards just meant learning systems that had already taken all of these things into account already. Because the businesses that practiced these standards had already been through things my business hadn’t. It interested me because it was applicable to me. It was easy, because in some sense I already done some of it.

I barely even needed to study. All I had to do was just show up. “God-given talent.”

"Boobie, you didn't lift."

“Boobie, you didn’t lift.”

What This Means for How We Learn

What this all means is something that may already be painfully obvious for most of us: we learn from mostly from doing, not from reading or memorizing things in a book.

This has a lot to do with the current disconnect of the education system. College students cram for tests, take the tests, then forget the shit. Nobody really learns much because nobody really did much. Learning for a test isn’t really learning because it isn’t really doing.

This is why businesses are clamoring, saying they have to re-train grads because they didn’t really learn anything in school. This why internet pundits the world over are having a love affair with STEM – they see students are getting more practice actually doing things in STEM courses than they are in other courses.

We learn best through doing, through repetitive practice, through habits built over time.

Once we have enough context of doing something to understand it on a basic level then adding new information to it becomes easy. The context to apply the new information is already there. I already had a context for accounting, simplified in my mind as “how a business works”. It really is that simple.

 

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