Understanding students' learning : a study of prospective professional accountants in Ireland
This study is concerned with developing an understanding of students' learning as they prepare for the final qualifying examination of a professional accountancy body in Ireland. It explores, from the perspectives of students, approaches to learning for the examination, the factors which influence those approaches and perceptions of the outcomes of the learning process. The research is conducted within an interpretive framework and it employs both qualitative and quantitative research methods. In-depth interviews examine students' motivations as they prepare for the examination and their intentions to. seek understanding in their learning. The interviews also provide rich descriptions of students' detailed study activities, the key factors which influence their learning and their perceptions of learning outcomes. Quantitative data concerning students' learning approaches as they prepared for the final qualifying examination were gathered using the Approaches and Studies Skills Inventoiyfor Students (ASSIST, 1997), which was conceptually and statistically validated for use in the particular learning context. The findings of this study depict students' learning as they prepare for the final qualifying examination as highly contextualised. Students are intent on achieving examination success, primarily for the purposes of progressing their careers as professional accountants. They perceive the qualifying examination to be a hurdle and they plan and engage in their study in order to overcome it and to access the perceived career benefits that lie beyond. Thus, students' preparation is generally framed by strategic motivation rather than by intrinsic interest in the syllabus material or the accounting discipline. They perceive that the examination requires the understanding of material as opposed to simple regurgitation of facts, so they undertake their study with the intention of seeking understanding. While variation is revealed in the ways in which students operationalise this intention in their detailed study activities, deep/strategic learning approaches were primarily found to dominate surface learning approaches. The study reveals that the key aspects of the professional accounting education environment which influence students' learning are the nature of the final qualifying examination itself (case-based papers, open-book examination environinent) and the context in which they work. It also identifies that students' perceptions of the outcomes of the learning process rest firmly on whether they achieve examination success. There is little evidence that students associate the final qualifying examination with developing professional competence or with fostering the knowledge, skills and values required to support lifelong learning. This study is novel in its combination of the subject matter (students' learning) and the setting (pre-qualification professional accounting education) and it thus contributes to the professional education and accounting education literatures. The findings of the study benefit a range of stakeholders and they particularly contribute to any review of the pre-qualification education system of the particular professional accountancy body.