Addressing a ‘Preconceptual Threshold’: A transformation in student preconceptions of introductory accounting

Nicholas McGuigan and Sidney Weil
Vol 30, Number 2, p.91
The study of introductory accounting can be challenging for students for many reasons, one of which is the formation of negative preconceptions about the discipline. These preconceptions are often reinforced by a university environment in which introductory accounting programmes are positioned as mandatory components of many business degrees and taught to large cohorts of students using traditional methods of curriculum design, instruction and assessment (Zeff, 1989; Mladenovic, 2000; Lucas, 2002). Students’ negative preconceptions are further entrenched through commonly found stereotypes in the popular media (Cory, 1992; Unerman & O’Dwyer, 2004), with the accounting profession currently experiencing “a widely perceived ethical breakdown of a trusted fiduciary institution that has been at the epicenter of a number of financial scandals” (Strier, 2006: 67). Drawing on threshold concept theory (Meyer & Land, 2006a, 2006b), this paper argues that students’ preconceptions of the accounting discipline form a major preconceptual threshold in their learning. Through an analysis of phenomenographic data collected from six student cohorts over a three-year period, the project examines students’ experiences in a first year accounting course to identify the types of negative preconceptions that exist in an introductory accounting course; followed by a review of students’ reflective work using the threshold concepts’ paradigm to analyse individual student learning journal entries and summative reflective essays; and a consideration of the role of accounting educators in redesigning aspects of the accounting curriculum to address key thresholds, such as student preconceptions, in order to better assist learners to deal with these barriers and ultimately to enable them to achieve a heightened epistemological understanding of the discipline.