Ep. 125: Steve Orpurt - Spruce Up Your Learning

May 31, 2021 | 18 Minutes

Steven Orpurt, Ph.D. joins Count Me In to talk about "sprucing up your learning". Professor Orpurt is a Clinical Professor of Accounting in the School of Accountancy in the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. At Arizona State University, he teaches corporate governance, ethics, and sustainability reporting and was previously the Associate Director of the School of Accountancy. His recent research focuses on the Statement of Cash Flows with top-tier publications and presentations to the International Accounting Standards Board. Professor Orpurt earned his MBA and Ph.D. at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. His dissertation garnered the 2004 American Accounting Association International Section dissertation of the year award. In this episode, he talks about how individuals can learn about learning to upskill and stay relevant. Download and listen now!

Contact Professor Orpurt: https://www.linkedin.com/in/steven-orpurt-phd/

"Spruce Up Your Learning", Strategic Finance (January 2021): https://sfmagazine.com/post-entry/january-2021-spruce-up-your-learning-skills/

Telling Ain't Training by Harold D. Stolovitch  and Erica J. Keeps: https://www.amazon.com/Telling-Aint-Training-Expanded-Enhanced/dp/1562867016

Adam: (00:05)
 Hey everyone! Welcome back to Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host, Adam Larson and this is episode 125 of our series. How can you spruce up your learning skills and why should you? Well, Steve Orpurt, Clinical Professor of Accountancy at Arizona State University joins our show to talk about how you can become a better learner and the benefits of doing so. Professor Orpurt teaches corporate governance, ethics, and sustainability reporting. His recent research focuses on the statement of cash flows with top tier publications and presentations to the international accounting standards board. His conversation here with Mitch was inspired by a recent article he wrote in IMA’s strategic finance magazine titled, Spruce Up Your Learning. Whether you're a seasoned professional, a young professional just starting out, or a student preparing to embark on an accounting and finance career, keeping current on your learning is imperative. So let's keep listening to learn how.

Mitch: (01:08)
So we started talking based on your article, Spruce Up Your Learning, in IMA’s strategic finance magazine. My first question for today is how did you really become interested in learning about learning?

Steve: (01:20)
That's an interesting question. I had an opportunity quite a long time ago 20-25 years ago to work at a startup company that worked with Stanford University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, London School of Economics, called younext.com. And when I joined that, they were trying to build an online MBA program and they hired a number of instructional designers. I had never heard of an instructional designer and I ended up working elbow to elbow with them and they taught me a lot about their profession, which is learning. So I've always had an interest since then. And as you know, I'm an academic accountant so I had no background in that area and I've just kept reading and one of the more influential books that I read over the years was a book entitled, Telling Ain't Training by Stolovitch and Keeps. The title kind of undersells the book because it really focuses on learner centered learning, not the teaching. And so that's been a substantial influence on what I do in a classroom. And so from there I just started reading all the research on learning and just kept going. So that article that I wrote was more to help students and others who are interested in improving their learning, most of that material is actually written to a teacher or an instructor to use to help students learn, but I thought it should be put in the hands of the students themselves to improve their abilities to learn.

Mitch: (03:05)
Following up on that and making a connection to our listeners. Why is it so important? Why do you think it's so important for someone to improve their own learning skills? And like I said, particularly for the management accountant?

Steve: (03:17)
Well I think learning, which is a skill, is just becoming much more valuable today than perhaps even a decade ago. If you stop and think about the management accounting role, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, it would be fair to say that it was kind of a departmental role, but now it's an enterprise wide role. And you can think of some reasons for that. We can look at things like artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, process mining, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, enterprise risk management, cloud computing, mobile computing, sustainability reporting, sustainability reporting standards. These are all topics that we didn't talk about much 10 years ago or so, and now they're front and central for our management accounting and they require substantial learning. So I think that the role of a management accountant has really moved from kind of a departmental role into an enterprise wide role. And it just requires a lot more learning and learning well, so it's just a more valuable skill. So one of the reasons I wanted to write that article was simply to say, we can learn faster and better.

Mitch: (04:38)
It's a great point. And, you know, particularly from the IMA perspective, all those topics you just addressed are things that we are certainly pushing out there and are very interested in upscaling or rescaling in order to learn the necessary skills on the job and for the profession, the industry at large. For our listeners who, whether they're familiar with the article or not, when it comes to improving your learning, do you have any recommendations or what's an important learning strategy that you advocate for?

Steve: (05:11)
Well there are a number of them. I think the, one of the most valuable and one of the easiest to implement, because you can do it right now is to ask yourself questions before you start looking at the learning material. Most of us will pick up an article or something we're learning from, we just start reading and a better approach is to take a minute or so and think through what questions you have about that material. Because when you ask questions, you engage your mind and you read more actively to try and answer those questions. Continuing with that then as you read, you create more questions that you are looking for answers for and so it just creates a more active involvement with the learning and obviously that means you'll learn better, but as it turns out, most of us that have tried this would say you learn not only better, but faster because you remember material, you can apply it better, and if you want more extensive material, you know what you're looking for. So I think this notion of asking questions before you start reading something, and then actually while you're reading it, is easy to implement and extremely valuable habit to build. Ironically, I've had really good success by asking questions before I read articles, because it's led me to actually set aside many articles that once I start questioning, I realized I'm not going to get that much out of it and I'm not that interested in it. So it's actually been a time saver just in terms of organizing material that is valuable to me. And, so again, I think even at the most basic level, this is really easy to implement this idea of asking questions and, very, very valuable in terms of time management, but also in terms of just improving your learning.

Mitch: (07:18)
So I know myself as a learner, one of my go-to strategies, and I think this goes for many people is, as you said, you just start reading and you start highlighting, you start taking your own notes. How does asking questions in advance and really engaging your brain? What are the benefits above and beyond taking notes and highlighting and simple learning strategies that I'm sure many of our listeners frequently do?

Steve: (07:46)
Something that almost all of my students do. It's extremely passive. How many of you go back and actually look at your highlights? Almost none of them. And of course I teach intermediate accounting so the whole textbook is highlighted. You're far better off, for example, if you come to a bolded word in an article that you think is valuable, rather than highlight it, write a question about it. What's the definition of this bolded term? What does it refer to in terms of research gap? Anything else? Just any question that makes sense relative to that bolded term and then what I encourage my students to do is actually write those questions on a separate sheet of paper. Have a learning session, maybe in the evening, maybe as they're sitting down to watch a TV show, go through those questions and see if you can answer them. And if you come to that question and you cannot remember the bolded term, go look it up, but almost always you'll find, you'll never forget it, done, you've learned well, and you've learned fast.

Mitch: (08:59)
So as far as active learning, right, and we had a conversation leading up to our recording here, and I said, for the learner, when we try and offer education through these episodes, we try to scaffold the questions and scaffold the information so that it continues to build. So from your perspective, and for our listeners, can you tell us a little bit about scaffolding and what that means in terms of their learning? How is it beneficial? How does it fit into this active learning opportunity for the students or the professionals who are interested in learning more about a certain topic?

Steve: (09:35)
It's a good question. One of the active learning strategies that can be very, very helpful, particularly with complicated material is after you've read something and maybe asked a bunch of questions about it, sit down and take a blank sheet of paper, write the concept across the top of the paper, and then think about the various chunks of information that support that concept that helps you to organize the material, supporting that concept. It helps you to think about that concept and all many of the details, support that concept. So you're organizing the material, you'll remember it and be able to use it better. And then what you want to try and do with scaffolding is grow the size of the concept and grow the size of the chunks of material that you're remembering. So let me give you a quick example. If you ask me about ratio analysis, something I've done for 30 years. I would say the concept ratio analysis, I'd write that across the top and I would personally have two chunks of supporting information. I'd say analysis of profitability ratios and analysis of risk ratios. That brings everything back for me. And I could talk about ratio analysis for the next 24 hours with no notes. But if you ask my students, they're going to say ratio analysis is a million details. And so they've got a concept there, ratio analysis, but they may not really understand what it's used for. And then they certainly, because they're just beginning to learn it, they don't have it organized. So if you say return on assets, they're going to grind down through a definition of return on assets. Whereas for me, that's a profitability ratio, one of the many. So the idea then is to actively look at the knowledge that you're gaining and chunk it into bigger and bigger chunks and perhaps bigger concepts. As another quick example, I teach pension accounting. That's a concept to me. And maybe there's one chunk of information under that, pension accounting. But I thought about it the other day and I was like, maybe I have two chunks there too. Defined contribution accounting and defined benefit plan accounting, brings it all back. Ask my students how many chunks they have and they'll say millions. And so they have a hard time remembering it. And I do have some students who will ask me how I organize the material and it's an interesting question to think about, and I try to show them, this is how I think about this topic area. And I don't think it's coincidental that those are the students who tend to do very well on the exams because they're well-organized with their thinking when they go into an exam and they're under a little stress, but still they've got the material organized.

Mitch: (12:57)
It really is fascinating and, you know, just like I said, being a lifelong learner myself and my job, really focusing on delivering education, identifying these buckets, right? These chunks of information and supporting them, throughout the design, we were talking about instructional design earlier, it's really all part of it. And just building this framework for you to truly understand the components of something, it's really valuable. And from a listener perspective, a learner perspective for this podcast, I'm sure there may be questions as far as, how can I apply this on the job, or we have individuals who I'm sure are studying for the CMA exam, right. And they're interested in getting their certification, maybe it's their continuing education to maintain their certification. So I guess to kind of wrap up our conversation with all this in mind, do you have any other suggestions for our listeners when it comes to sprucing up your learning or learning about learning better practices? What else do you suggest our listeners try to implement?

Steve: (14:04)
Well I mean, with this notion of scaffolding, one of the best questions that learners can ask is, oftentimes, they're learning with a professional, somebody who's an expert and has been doing, working in whatever area they're learning, ask them how they organize their material. How do you think about cryptocurrency? How should I think about cryptocurrency? And you'll discover how an expert has organized their concepts and their chunks that can help you tremendously. There are a couple of other really easy to implement ideas that my students find successful and I've found successful. One of them is, you know there are clearly times when it's a little hard to get going. You know, you open your learning material, maybe a book that's pretty dense, and it just takes you a while to get going. You're just not in the mood or distractions, things like that. One strategy to get you going is to just read cumulatively. What that means is you'll read literally the first sentence in a, maybe a textbook, then read the second sentence and ask yourself, how does that second sentence relate to the first sentence? Answer that question, go to the third. It gets you going and pretty soon you're reading a paragraph and asking how this paragraph relates to prior paragraphs. Then you're reading a section, how does this section relate to prior sections? And you're starting to really organize the material, but it also is just an important way to get your mind activated and get going and get learning fast. And then as you well know Mitch, a lot of habits, and this is a habit and a skill. It helps to just start small. And so what you might do is say today, I'm going to find an article three to five pages, something that I'm interested in, and I'm going to ask questions about what I hope to learn from that article. Then go read it to try and answer those questions. Ask yourself a few more questions as you go through it, no highlighting start your habit. And my students, a lot of them have adopted these strategies and they'll come back and say, yeah, that's a two thumbs up. It's helpful.

Closing: (16:44)
This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.