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Innovative Pedagogy Interview Series

A Conversation with Professor of Accountancy and Taxation, Tom Dalton

Tom Dalton

Last fall, Tom Dalton and a group of his students participated in and won a regional tax competition hosted by Deloitte, one of the Big 4 Accounting firms. I caught up with Tom and asked him not only about his success in the competition, but the long road that ultimately lead to his success in the classroom. By changing the way he taught his Acct 492 course, Tom was able to significantly impact the way his students gained, retained, and practiced tax and accounting concepts and procedures, an innovative teaching and learning process which ultimately led his students to winning the Deloitte tax competition.

Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Tom. Would you mind sharing with the readers and me some information about yourself? How long have you been teaching at USD, where did you receive your education, which classes do you teach, and what are some of your general interests in teaching and in research?

Happy to be here. I’ve been at USD for 24 years. USD was my first position after graduating from the University of Houston. I’ve mostly taught tax courses - individual tax, corporate tax, partnership tax, and retirement planning. I’ve also taught financial statement analysis in the MBA program. Much of my research has involved analysis of tax strategies using computer simulations. Currently I’m running experimental economic auctions examining the behavioral effects of a flat tax system on U.S. taxpayers.

Congratulations to you and your team for winning the Deloitte competition this past fall! Could you tell me about the competition?

USD has participated in the competition for five years now. There are nine regions around the U.S., and each region hosts a number of schools in the preliminary round. The winning team of each region went to the final round at Deloitte University in Dallas in January. The competition this past fall for our region was held both at the Deloitte San Diego office and in the Los Angeles office. Our two teams, SDSU, and UNLV were in San Diego and the two USC teams, University of Missouri and University of Northern Colorado were in Los Angeles. 

 

That’s quite a list of competitors, it truly speaks to the academic quality of the USD School of Business. How many teams does USD sponsor in the competition, and what type of students are the teams composed of?

USD has sponsored two teams of accounting students each year for the last five years. Each team has five members. Two members must be sophomores. There can be no more than one graduate student on a team. The rest can be juniors and seniors. This year, all of our team members are sophomores and juniors. None of them had taken even one tax course before signing up for the competition. 

Wow, that’s amazing! Since none of the students have taken a tax course before, how do you prepare your students to take part in this competition?

I prepare the teams by enrolling them in Acct 492, Tax Consulting Simulation course (10 students maximum). In that class, we learn on a prior year competition case, which helps the students learn tax law applicable to the competition. The actual case comes out about three weeks before the competition (this year it was Saturday, Nov 7). Teams work furiously for five weeks practicing on a prior year’s case, then three weeks to learn and prepare the actual case for the current year.

What exactly do the teams do during the competition?

In the competition, students make a presentation by role playing as Deloitte tax consultants. Two Deloitte partners role play as clients by listening to the presentation and then ask detailed questions about the students’ recommendations for the mythical company.

 

I could imagine presenting to two Deloitte partners as quite intimidating, but I’m sure the experience is beneficial in so many ways. What do the teams win, and how does this competition help students for when they graduate from USD?

Students on regional winning teams receive a minimum of $200 scholarships each from Deloitte. Participation is a terrific way for students to get noticed by a Big 4 accounting firm and provides a realistic look into what tax consultants actually do in practice. The case is a realistic scenario with contemporary tax issues that students must understand and discuss.

 

You mentioned that USD has participated in the competition for five years now. How long have you been involved?

I have been the teams’ faculty advisor since we began participation in the competition and I teach the Acct 492 class that prepares students for the competition. Each team is also assigned an advisor by Deloitte (someone on the local tax staff).

 

Can you talk to me a little about your course? Do you employ any high impact practices while teaching, such as flipping any part of the class, etc.?

The class itself is highly interactive. Students learn tax law outside of class through videos and reading, and then students take turns role playing as a tax consultant during class by making presentations to the rest of the class. The rest of the class role plays as tax clients by asking questions to the presenter about the “consultant’s" presentation. Students do this back and forth in each class for the 8 weeks before the tax competition. It teaches them to learn complex tax laws quickly, how to apply the laws to real life situations, and how to explain their recommendations effectively. Further, they learn to think on their feet by fielding detailed questions about what they’ve learned.

 

That’s great! It appears the high interaction of your students in a group setting must serve to really distill the working basics of tax law into your students. Through trial and error, how has your course changed since you began teaching it in conjunction with the tax competition?

The first two years we participated in the competition, I just gave student volunteers the Deloitte case and lightly advised them on how to approach it. That didn’t work very well because the students had too little understanding of tax law and too little practice in making their presentations.

The third year I created a class to prepare students for the competition. At first, I approached it more like a traditional lecture course as far as teaching the tax topics. The class approach was better, but the students still weren’t learning the necessary tax laws quickly enough. Students would zone out during my lectures and not retain enough knowledge to be effective in the competition.

The fourth year I flipped the class and created about 40 short tax instructional videos that students watch outside of class. I don't lecture, but I do quiz students on the videos at the beginning of each class. The rest of each class consists of role playing presentations and question and answers. The presentations are all on the tax subjects from the videos. My input evolved into answering student’s questions about tax issues throughout the class - formal lecture is almost non-existent. 

So it seems you combated the effectiveness – or lack thereof – of a traditional lecture course by flipping the content. What changes did you see in your course by having students review lecture/content prior to class?

Instead of me putting students to sleep with a lecture, now students are asking me questions about the course material throughout the class and are interested in the answers. They learn more quickly that way and retain the material much better. That year (the fourth year) the student teams made a huge improvement in the impression they made at the competition (according to the Deloitte tax staff). But we still did not win.

This year (the fifth year) we followed the same approach as in the fourth year with some minor refinements and placed first in the competition. So it’s taken me five years to figure out what works.

Five years of refinement has really paid off, congratulation Dr. Dalton! What skills have you noticed your students leaving this course and competition with?

Not only do students learn a wide range of complex tax laws very quickly, but they are able to apply the law to a realistic case and communicate their recommendations effectively in an interactive session with Big 4 accounting firm tax partners. Remember, none of our students this year has even had one tax course prior to this class and they are completing against other schools who, in many cases, have senior level accounting students as well as a masters of tax level student on their teams. 

The event leads to some pretty attractive career opportunities in public accounting for these students, which is an added bonus.

Lastly, do you have any advice for other faculty members who may be considering either flipping their courses or integrating innovative learning practices into their classrooms?

Don’t be afraid to experiment and make mistakes. Every class is different and what works for my class may not work for other courses. So don’t give up and keep trying until you find the right formula. It’s worth the effort. Students are the best source of information for evaluating each idea. It’s good to solicit their advice throughout the course, but sometimes the best and most accurate advice from students comes after the course is over.

 

Thank you for your time, Dr. Dalton. Please keep us up-to-date with your work and the competition, we would love to highlight more of your great work in the future.

-Johnny Bobé II

Congratulations to Tom and his students!

Winning Students

From left to right: Dennis Pudjarminta, Tyler (TJ) Hodges, Matlyuba (Mattie) Nurova, Alexis Hilson, Bailey Donnelly, and Dr. Dalton

Do you use an innovative pedagogy in the classroom or practice the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL)? If you would like your work highlighted on our website and in the next issue of the CEE newsletter, contact CEE Director, Dr. Sandra Sgoutas-Emch (emch@sandiego.edu ), with your ideas today!

 

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