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Australasian Accounting Business and Finance Journal
Volume 4 Issue 3 Australasian Accounting Business and Finance Journal Article 4

Accounting Students' Reflections on a Regional Internship Program
Bonnie Cord
Swinburne University of Technology

Graham Bowrey
University of Wollongong, gbowrey@uow.edu.au

Mike Clements
Swinburne University of Technology

Follow this and additional works at: http://ro.uow.edu.au/aabfj Copyright ©2010 Australasian Accounting Business and Finance Journal and Authors. Recommended Citation Cord, Bonnie; Bowrey, Graham; and Clements, Mike, Accounting Students' Reflections on a Regional Internship Program, Australasian Accounting Business and Finance Journal, 4(3), 2010, 47-64. Available at:http://ro.uow.edu.au/aabfj/vol4/iss3/4
Research Online is the open access institutional repository for the University of Wollongong. For further information contact the UOW Library: research-pubs@uow.edu.au

Accounting Students' Reflections on a Regional Internship Program
Abstract

The opportunity to gain professional industry experience for accounting students while undertaking their undergraduate degree provides them with both a competitive edge in the marketplace and an opportunity to experience the activities undertaken in their chosen profession. Structured experiential learning programs provide students with the practical opportunity to apply their knowledge in an industry context and also to reflect on their personal learning journey. This paper explores the learning contribution of students’ reflectionbased assessments in an innovative and flexible internship program based on an e-learning framework. Through a preliminary investigation, it has been identified that after undertaking this internship program, accounting students from an Australian regional university have advanced their learning pertaining to workplace preparedness, understanding and application of accounting principles, generic skill enhancement, and consolidation of accounting as their chosen professional career. The paper suggests that an internship program such as the one examined contributes to the professional accountancy bodies’ and community’s expectations of accounting graduates possessing key cognitive and behavioural skills.
Keywords

Accounting students; Internship programs; Industry experience; Work related learning

This journal article is available in Australasian Accounting Business and Finance Journal: http://ro.uow.edu.au/aabfj/vol4/iss3/4

Accounting Students’ Reflections on a Regional Internship Program
Bonnie Cord a Graham Bowrey b * Mike Clements c

Abstract The opportunity to gain professional industry experience for accounting students while undertaking their undergraduate degree provides them with both a competitive edge in the marketplace and an opportunity to experience the activities undertaken in their chosen profession. Structured experiential learning programs provide students with the practical opportunity to apply their knowledge in an industry context and also to reflect on their personal learning journey. This paper explores the learning contribution of students’ reflection-based assessments in an innovative and flexible internship program based on an e-learning framework. Through a preliminary investigation, it has been identified that after undertaking this internship program, accounting students from an Australian regional university have advanced their learning pertaining to workplace preparedness, understanding and application of accounting principles, generic skill enhancement, and consolidation of accounting as their chosen professional career. The paper suggests that an internship program such as the one examined contributes to the professional accountancy bodies’ and community’s expectations of accounting graduates possessing key cognitive and behavioural skills.

Keywords: Accounting students; Internship programs; Industry experience; Work related learning. JEL Classification: M40, R53, I23.

a PhD candidate, Swinburne University of Technology. b University of Wollongong. * gbowrey@uow.edu.au

c

Swinburne University of Technology. 47

AAFBJ | Volume 4, no. 3, 2010

1.

A Different Way to Learn at University

The concept of undergraduate accounting students gaining professional practical experience while studying at university is not new (Teed & Bhattacharya 2002; Thrope-Dulgarian 2008; Ali, Heang, Mohamad & Ojo 2008): as far back as 1952 “the American Accounting Association (AAA) acknowledged the benefit of a period of practical experience incorporated into the academic preparation of an accountant” (Schmutte 1986, p227). One method used to provide professional practical experience is though internship programs where students have an opportunity to apply the theoretical knowledge gained through formal classroom learning in a structured environment (Swindle & Bailey 1984) which cannot be replicated in a normal class setting (Beard 1998; Beard 2007). In addition Beard identified a number of specific opportunities that an internship program could: “integrate academic knowledge with practical applications, improve job/career opportunities after graduation, create relevance for past and future classroom learning, develop work place social and human relations skills, and provide the opportunity for students to apply communication and problem-solving skills” (Beard 1998, p515). These benefits are consistent with Schmutte’s findings that students undertaking internship programs are able to better “clarify their career objectives before graduating and … can provide students with additional input to allow better informed career decisions before their graduation” (1986, p228). Internship programs allow students to improve their career prospects (Teed & Bhattacharya 2002; Burnett 2003, Thorpe-Dulgarian 2008), take a deeper understanding of the discipline back to the classroom, and develop other profession-relevant skills such as communication and problem solving (Burnett 2003). Inherent in these benefits, – often not afforded the appropriate recognition – is the notion of learning how to learn in the workplace. However, the benefits of internship programs are not just one-sided as there are also benefits to both the industry partner and the university delivering the program (Teed & Bhattacharya 2002; Burnett 2003). The industry partner benefits by having an opportunity to identify possible future employees, develop stronger links with the university coordinating the program and increase the organisation’s image in the community (Beard 1998; Beard 2007, Teed & Bhattacharya 2002; Burnett 2003). This last benefit is becoming increasingly important due to increased expectations in society of an organisation’s social responsibility. The university coordinating the internship program benefits in a number of different areas including strengthening relevance in the industry and with future students, identifying possible research partners and implementing curriculum improvements (Schmutte 1986; Beard 1998; Beard 2007; Burnett 2003). Many accounting internships or work experience opportunities focus on the development of competencies, short-term professional incentives (such as gaining employment) and even an appreciation of lecturers’ experience (Herron & Morozzo 2008). However, traditional work oriented programs can limit the learning to focus on person-job fit. Because changes in the workforce and the demands of industry are ever increasing, higher education must ensure they prepare students to meet these challenges. Work-related learning (WRL), which includes internship programs, is a leading theoretical construct that emphasises the development of the graduate to better fit the changing economic situation and the evolving job market, and equip students to respond to wider societal developments (Moreland 2005). Successful WRL promotes learning across the lifespan (Moreland 2005) and utilises higher order metacognitive skills, such as judgement (Hager 2000) and reflection 48

Cord, Bowrey and Clements: Reflections on a Regional Internship Programme

(Brockbank, McGill & Beech 2002) for self-managed learning rather than curriculuminformed learning. Other work-oriented approaches include work-integrated learning (WIL) and work-based learning, both of which adopt a more vocational approach to work experience (Bohloko & Mahlomaholo 2008), and which can be specifically focused on academic learning outcomes (Moreland 2005) rather than learning which will specifically assist graduate professional development. The focus of WIL approaches on academic learning outcomes is supported by Reeders (2000, p5) who outlines that WIL includes “student learning for credit designed … to emulate key aspects of the workplace”. A popular WIL approach used to simulate professional work activities in a classroom setting is authentic learning (Nicaise, Gibney & Crane 2000) where the aim is to “make the study of often abstract ideas or issues that can seem to be irrelevant to students’ daily lives tangible” (Borthwick et al. 2007, p15). As cited in Herrington, Oliver & Reeves (2003, p62) Jonassen (1991) “defined authentic activities as tasks that have real world relevance and utility, that integrate across the curriculum, that provide appropriate levels of complexity, and that allow students to select appropriate levels of difficulty or involvement”. To structure an authentic learning activity there are a number of key characteristics the activity needs to have in order to achieve academic learning outcomes. Authentic learning activities have real world relevance and provide opportunities for students to examine scenarios from multiple perspectives, to collaborate with other students and to reflect (Herrington & Oliver 2000; Herrington, Oliver & Reeves 2003). The main benefit of an authentic learning activity is that it allows the students to participate in an activity which brings both learning and context together (Herrington & Oliver 2000) and which “help[s] students to become aware of the relevancy and meaningfulness of what they are learning [in the classroom] because the tasks mirror real-life experiences” (Nicaise, Gibney & Crane 2000, p80). Limitations of authentic learning include the “initial reluctance [of students] to willingly immerse in learning scenarios … and the need for the suspension of disbelief before engaging in the task (Herrington, Oliver & Reeves 2003, p60). It is this ‘need for the suspension of disbelief’ which differentiates authentic learning from work-oriented approaches such as the internship program on which this study is based. The primary research question to be addressed in this study is around the level of contribution that student reflective journals have in WRL based activities. That is, (to what extent) do reflective journal assessment tasks contribute to the learning of students undertaking a WRL activity? The context in which this research question is explored is an internship program developed and implemented in an Australian regional university for second and third year commerce students. One of the key objectives of an internship program is to provide students with an opportunity to experience the application of the knowledge learnt in a classroom within a professional setting (Teed & Bhattacharya 2002; Burnett 2003, Thorpe-Dulgarian 2008). Arguably the best method to evaluate the success of such a program is one where the participants reflect on their experiences, and by doing so they gain greater insights from these experiences (Boud, Keough, & Walker 1985). In addition to exploring the contribution of reflective journals this paper introduces a framework which supports the WRL learning approach in an undergraduate internship program. To be prepared for the workforce “students need to develop their own repertoire of assessment-related practices that they will be able to use when confronted with learning challenges throughout their working lives” (Boud & Falchikov 2007, p5). Beyond the constructs of formal education, students need to engage in work and life as active learners, and “they have to determine what is to be learned, how it is to be learned and how to judge whether they have learned it or not” (Boud 2007, p18). The following section explores the role of reflection in assisting students to learn in and from their chosen profession.

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2.

Reflection and Learning

Reflection is the process where students “ponder, carefully and persistently” (Daudelin 1996, p39) their experiences to make sense of them in relation to “their current knowledge and beliefs” (Borthwick et al. 2007, p20). Boud supports this by suggesting that “reflection involves learners processing their experience in a wide range of ways, exploring their understanding of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and the impact it has on themselves and others” (1999, p123), and gaining “new understanding and appreciations” (Boud, Keough, & Walker 1985, p19). A practitioner may discover a new knowledge about themselves or their discipline by engaging in reflective activities – either formally, such as diarising, or informally, such as debriefing. Reflection, as a component of professional development, can be traced to the early works of Kolb (see Kolb 1984) and his principles on experiential learning, as well as through Dewey (1933), who was among the first to promote reflection as a means by which professionals can reflect on their experiences and act with foresight to plan for the future. Schön (1983) furthers this notion by describing two main forms of reflection used by professionals: ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on-action’. Much literature represents the connection between reflection and professional development (Hole & McEntee 1999; Zeichner & Liston 1996; Clark 1995; Osterman & Kottamp, 2004). Behaviours that may stimulate reflective practice include the mental processing of reflection (a critical element), self-development or professional development, emotional involvement, or the sharing of reflection with others (Moon 1999, p64). While reflection is a process intrinsic to learning, which often occurs regardless of whether it is prompted (Boud 1999), in higher education assessing reflection through the written form (such as a journal) can be used to reinforce learning (Beck & Halim 2008) and to meet academic requirements. To achieve the most benefit from a reflective journal students reflect on both their experiences and the level of achievement of their personal objectives (Gray 2007). The use of reflective journals by students allows them to identify the links between theory and practice as well as providing them with an opportunity to identify “learning issues that require further discussion and development” (Gray 2007, p508). This opportunity also allows students to develop an appreciation and understanding of the rationale behind the processes that they learn in the classroom (Leung & Kember 2003, p69). In the absence of teachers, subjects and assessment, students need to know how to learn and reflect on their workplace knowledge and skills (Boud & Falchikov 2006), both for professional growth and development, and also to adapt to an ever-changing workplace environment. This paper presents a unique internship program for commerce students, focusing on their learning beyond the classroom, and also examines what accounting students reveal they have learnt on reflection of their internship experience. 3. Research Context

The Commerce Internship Programme, developed and implemented at the University of Wollongong, a regional Australian university, offers a work-related learning model for enhancing student engagement in learning through practical experience. It embraces an innovative and flexible e-learning framework to foster learning through reflection-based assessments. Since its development and implementation in 2008, the program has competitively placed over 140 Commerce students in 35 regional and national organisations (as at early 2010). While student demand has risen, increasing the competitiveness of the program, industry participation has also increased over each session, which indicates the effectiveness of the model and the level of interest in student and community engagement.

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Cord, Bowrey and Clements: Reflections on a Regional Internship Programme

The Commerce Internship Programme model is designed to meet the needs of its three key stakeholders: the student, the university and the industry partner. In the model, the student receives a valuable real-world learning opportunity to apply their discipline knowledge learnt at university in a dynamic professional environment offered by the industry partner. Driven by the key attributes of quality, flexibility and sustainability, the program consists of an intensive placement by competitive selection, and it is embedded in an undergraduate subject. It is open to second and third year students across commerce disciplines including accounting, finance, human resources, management, marketing and public relations. This paper is specifically interested in insights from accounting students. Participation in the program mirrors the activity of a professional job application: students apply for roles based on their discipline by preparing and submitting a cover letter and resumé, through an online system specifically developed for the program. If shortlisted, the student is invited to attend a brief interview with a member of the industry partner organisation and an academic representative. Based on the role that they have identified, and student suitability, the industry partner makes the final decision on the selection of the student for the placement. Successful students are subsequently enrolled in the program and spend a total of 16 days working with the industry partner during the academic session. The 16 days are spread over eight weeks, in two-day blocks, or by negotiation between the student and industry partner, and are completed concurrently with other subjects in which the student is enrolled. Students participate in projects or perform specific roles as agreed with the industry partner, and these are designed to challenge and develop the intern to undertake real-work tasks that contribute to the organisation. This is in contrast to typical traditional internships, where the focus can be on general clerical duties (Swindle & Bailey 1984). In addition to the work placement, the program is embedded in a third year elective subject and uses a combination of face-to-face and online mediums to prepare and assess students. The structure of the program and its specific assessments are a means for students to ‘learn how to learn’ in the workplace. All assessments are submitted online through an elearning forum, allowing students the flexibility to be away from the campus, and to provide more timely feedback. Assessments include completing a daily e-log and answering specific questions contained in modules covering the workplace environment, teamwork, creative and critical thinking, and a reflective journal. Assessments are graded on a qualitative measurement of satisfactory or unsatisfactory, as used by other internship programs (Beard 2007). Students’ assessments are reviewed and critiqued by the academic coordinators of the program, who are experienced in learning inquiry approaches and reflection principles. The course is designed to aid student development and help them make changes to enhance their learning, practice and contribution to the organisation (Boud & Costley 2007). The daily e-log completed by each intern for each of the 16 days serves several purposes. Firstly, it affords the student a mechanism to self-evaluate their role and capabilities, and while being a historical document of their activities, it also offers daily learning and enlightenment that recognises deeper learning and supports the final reflective piece. For the coordinators of the program, the daily e-log plays a significant role as a formative piece of assessment, in which feedback on their learning journey and reflection techniques can be offered and directed. The daily e-log allows coordinators to monitor a student’s role in the workplace and to intervene if deemed necessary (Boud & Costley 2007). The general modules focus on aspects of the workplace that can enhance students’ awareness of their position, what is happening around them and how they contribute to this dynamic. In each module a case study and e-reading are provided for the students to read and integrate in response to the specific set questions.

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AAFBJ | Volume 4, no. 3, 2010

The final assessment task is a reflective journal which aims to capture the student’s final thoughts and insights, leading to an awareness of workplace learning, which is the focus of this paper. While the e-logs asked students to ‘reflect-in-action’, the reflective journal represents the act of taking a step back and ‘reflect-on-action’ to identify and draw meaning from the experience and to generate new understandings (Schön 1983). Students are provided with prompts in a journal template which includes six questions designed to direct their thoughts to their transferability of skills, knowledge, strengths and weaknesses, learning styles and to how the internship experience may affect their future. This approach is consistent with Borthwick et al. (2007) who found that “a pattern of journal writing is established with guiding questions so that the reflections are directed to specific aspects of content to encourage subjective engagement, not just regurgitation of content” (p20). 4. Method

This study undertook descriptive research in a preliminary investigation into the reflective learning insights of two cohorts of accounting students who participated in the Commerce Internship Programme. It was expected that these insights would provide a greater level of understanding of accounting students’ perceptions and learning in the program as well as add value and feedback on the structure and delivery of the internship program. Descriptive research was selected (a method common in commerce research), to ascertain the characteristics of the sample (Sekaran 2000). The goal of this investigation was to present the data in a meaningful way, to make connections (Churchill & Iacobucci 2005), and to probe and research ideas in further studies. This paper focuses on the sixteen students from the disciplines of accounting and finance who participated in the internship program in the autumn and spring sessions of 2009. Data was collected from the reflective journals of these sixteen students due to its usefulness in gathering rich self-reported insights into the students’ learning experiences (Smith et al. 2007) and into the underlying dimensions of work practices (Clegg 2000). The data was initially analysed using rudimentary content analysis to determine the relationship between word count and the student variables of age, gender and weighted average mark. This rudimentary content analysis allows the researcher to identify any basic trends or relationships without progressing down the path of using descriptive statistical analysis. The intent was to describe and summarise the data and its variables – not to determine a cause-and-effect relationship. The expected results of this analysis would reveal the degree to which students engaged with the six specific questions and any patterns which emerged in the variables. The first question in the reflective journal required students to outline the organisational structure of the industry partner and describe the activities they undertook while on placement. This question did not require students to reflect on their learning and as a result was excluded from the content analysis. The next method used to examine the data was thematic analysis where the students’ responses to Questions 2 through to 6 in the reflective journals were analysed to identify common themes amongst students in their internship learning experiences. The parameters of the analysis were set to separate the individual reflective journal questions and then to code the responses to each question across the dataset for themes, key terms, expressions and phrases. This technique, known as “open coding” (Strauss & Corbin 1998, p32), has been employed in the analysis of open-ended questionnaires to reveal common themes (Yanamandram & Noble 2005). The dataset in this initial study was individually coded to minimise the risk of overlooking important concepts. The codes were then compared collectively and interpreted to identify any shared learning insights.

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Cord, Bowrey and Clements: Reflections on a Regional Internship Programme

Student Profile The profiles of the participating students were based on basic descriptive characteristics including gender, age and academic performance. Of the sixteen students, seven (44%) were female, and nine (56%) were male. The academic performance of the students was assessed by calculating the weighted average mark (WAM) of all subjects completed by each student in their degree. In the study, one student’s WAM was equivalent to a high distinction (>84%), four students’ WAM was equivalent to a distinction (>74%), nine a credit (>64%), and two a pass (

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