Improve your students’ critical-thinking abilities

By Cheryl Meyer

Try these nine tips for helping your students learn to think more deeply.

Today, accounting graduates are not just crunching numbers; instead, they are thrust into jobs where they must be prepared to solve problems, make thoughtful decisions, and think critically.

Students “need to become aware that the world is messy”, said Susan Wolcott, CPA, Ph.D., co-founder of WolcottLynch, a research and consulting firm that develops educational resources for critical-thinking development.

In other words, she said, in order to satisfy the needs of employers and help future clients improve their processes, accounting students need to learn that there can be multiple answers to one question or various outcomes to different scenarios. Students must learn how to analyse and see the big picture. Whether they go into management accounting, audit, tax, or consulting, they need to examine the data at hand and figure out the best solutions.

Academics face several hurdles when teaching critical thinking. Many students are still learning online, creating a challenge for professors who try to incorporate critical thinking into their classes. In addition, most accounting curriculums are jam-packed and skills such as critical thinking can be “squeezed out”, said Ralph Kober, FCPA (Australia), CA ANZ, Ph.D., an associate professor of accounting at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

What’s more, students struggle to grapple with the concept of critical thinking, and often don't understand the value of it, said Matthew Walsh, a senior teaching fellow in accountancy at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.

Yet, despite these obstacles, creative faculty members have found many ways to incorporate critical-thinking development into their accounting courses. Wolcott, Walsh, and Kober offer the following advice:

  • Encourage participation. Some students can be shy, but it's vital “to create a learning environment that encourages students to talk and be willing to put themselves out there and ask questions”, said Kober, who won a CIMA Teaching Excellence Award in 2020. In addition, he noted, let students know that by speaking up they’re helping not only themselves but their peers learn as well.

  • Be realistic but steadfast. Accounting students, particularly undergraduates, may take years to become good critical thinkers, but maturity, experience, and trial and error generally lead to improvement in analysis, reflection, and decision-making. “Accounting students generally aren't prepared for the messiness of accounting,” Walsh said. “Don't expect that to change overnight.”
  • Set high standards. Having high standards will help students excel. Kober suggested providing students with examples of professional reports and excellent past assignments to “highlight to them the level of analysis and rigour expected”. This helps them to see that their analysis needs to be well thought out and well structured, he said. “Do this and students will embrace the challenge and rise to the standards you set,” he noted.

  • Weave in critical thinking throughout each course. Find ways to help students realise there are numerous sides to an issue and several potential conclusions one can arrive at, advised Wolcott, who has taught accounting and/or critical thinking at universities in the US, Europe, and India. “You're helping them learn the existence of uncertainty, which is really a small part of critical thinking but a central piece,” she said.

In addition, she said, critical thinking should “progress methodically across the curriculum. The approach should consider the students' stages of cognitive development.” Early courses “should focus on uncertainties and the need to form conclusions on fairly simple open-ended problems”, she added. “Intermediate courses should focus more on expanded analyses involving conflicting information and viewpoints. Advanced courses should focus on prioritising issues/arguments to reach well-supported conclusions that best meet the needs of a complex business situation.”

  • Use case studies. Case studies “are great at enhancing critical thinking as students need to filter out the relevant information from the nonrelevant”, Kober said. Wolcott noted that undergraduates are “often surprised to learn that their peers hold different views on accounting cases. This surprise improves critical thinking by making them more open to alternative viewpoints.”

Case studies are available on almost any accounting topic, and can be found on the CGMA Academic Partners site, the AICPA’s Academic Resource Hub, in textbooks and accounting education journals, on major firms’ websites, and other places.

When possible, use real-life cases that will interest students. For example, Kober suggested discussing Jaipur Rugs, “a social enterprise that   employs underprivileged rural women in India to weave rugs that it sells in the US”, or Lincoln Electric’s handling of the 2008 recession.

  • Encourage students to be “accounting doctors”. One problem Kober often sees in case-study analysis “is that students initially try to solve each issue separately without holistically considering the underlying causes”. To address this problem, he explains to students that they should think like a physician when analysing a case study.

“When you visit a doctor, you list your symptoms; the doctor then makes a diagnosis as to the cause of the symptoms and recommends a treatment/course of action,” he said. “The doctor does not try to treat each symptom separately but makes an overall analysis.” Likewise, students should first identify what is going wrong in their case study, and then use the knowledge they gained to determine the cause and finally make recommendations that “address the causes and not the symptoms”, he said.

  • Emphasise multiple perspectives. Require group work, discussions, and class feedback so that students realise that there isn't always a right or wrong answer, said Walsh, who also won a CIMA Teaching Excellence Award last year. For instance, in discussions he gives each group of students a different stakeholder group to consider; some students may spend time thinking and discussing an investor's perspective, but later on hear an internal stakeholder’s perspective. At that point, they “can immediately see an example of two answers that are different but simultaneously correct”, he said.

Active learning methods such as these foster critical thinking, Wolcott said. “One of the secrets is to get away from the traditional lecture mode,” she said. “Students need to be engaged.”

Show that accounting is not as concrete as it first seems. Walsh encourages students to see the accounting process as a story, showing them how it includes not only key facts but also “the narrative around them, and the interpretation of the big picture”. He pushes students to think about what accounting actually is: “a process of collecting data (which will be more than just financial) and summarising, analysing, and crucially interpreting that data in order to produce useful information for users”, he said.

  • Allow students time to reflect. Once students receive feedback from you or their peers, give them time to “critically reflect” on how they could have improved their assignment or presentation, Kober advised. He gives students an additional week to ponder suggestions and comments, and to determine how they could improve their analysis, including deciding which feedback they will use and which they won’t. At the end of the week, and after speaking with their peers, the students need to resubmit the revised report. “I find this greatly enhances students' critical thinking,” he said.

View resources on teaching critical thinking, including articles and a faculty guide by Susan Wolcott, at

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at