Integrating Project Based Learning in the Business and Economics Curriculum: A Case Study from the Universitat de Girona
This case study presents a teaching innovation project which is currently being developed at the Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences of the Universitat de Girona, in Catalonia. The project is the outcome of deep reflection on the current problems of higher education. One of the main innovative aspects of the project is that it involves teamwork and coordination of a group of instructors from different areas and departments that teach in the degree of Business Administration and Management. The project is scheduled over the period of four years that the degree lasts. There is the possibility that student assessment is carried out not only for each of the subjects involved, but also globally at the end of the degree if students meet certain conditions. With the development of this project we aim to meet the challenge of improving the quality of our teaching and student learning at our university and, ultimately, reduce academic failure, measured in terms of reduced absenteeism, the increase in the number of students who pass the examinations and improved grades.
This case study presents a teaching innovation project which is currently being developed at the Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences of the Universitat de Girona in Catalonia. The innovation project is being implemented in the undergraduate degree of Business Administration and Management. This degree lasts for four academic years. The first two years of the degree are shared with the degree of Economics.
The project presented in this case study has its origin in the concern regarding the rate of academic failure in many academic subjects, specifically in the field of accounting, as measured by the level of absenteeism and fail grades compared to the number of students who pass the courses.
The project described here is the result of research conducted over the past eight years with the aim of increasing the motivation and participation of students, while improving their academic performance. In the early years, different teaching methods were applied at our Faculty to motivate the students. However, we did not get particularly good results. We then realized that these methods were not adequate because the type of students that were in our classrooms had changed with respect to the past. Therefore, teaching methods should be thoroughly revamped to catch students’ attention and interest.
By following the progress of students in several degree courses over the years, we have realized that only the knowledge built by the students themselves endures. According to this experience, we believe that teaching methods must be based on constructivist learning theories. That is, students must build their own knowledge.
From that moment, and by means of reflection on the results obtained so far, some members of the Accounting Department at our Faculty decided to implement a curriculum centred on project based learning. A number of experiences that rely on this methodology already exist. However, the design adopted at our Faculty has one particularity: it is vertical. That is, the project is not developed independently for each subject in the curriculum but throughout the entire degree of Business Administration and Management.
The new approach to teaching was developed initially by the Accounting Department. Thus, originally, the project was to be developed vertically throughout the accounting module taught in the degree. This module is composed of four subjects: Introduction to Accounting (second year), Financial Accounting and Interpretation of Financial Statements (third year), and Cost Accounting (fourth year). However, the initial proposal developed by the Accounting department was presented to the other Faculty members. It was apparent that it was desirable to expand the project by including additional subjects. Thus, the current project was born. It currently integrates subjects in the fields of business economics, financial management, strategic management, human resources management and microeconomics.
The project on which the curriculum is based is creative and complex, connected to the current economic situation and allows different approaches. Thus, it requires analysis, discussion and decision making by students in an environment of teamwork. The project is complex because it includes two activities shared among different nsubjects. The first one involves a diagnosis and evaluation of a feasibility plan for a company by relying on the financial statements of a particular company located in the geographical environment of the university. The second one involves designing an entrepreneurship project. The project pursues the following aims:
- Reduce absenteeism
- Motivate students to learn to learn
- Promote the development of students’ talent
- Develop students’ creative and entrepreneurial business abilities
- Encourage students to learn independently
- Encourage students to study beyond the necessary hours to merely pass the exam
- Encourage students to see the connection between their field of study and the real world
- Develop students’ critical sense and decision making abilities
- Improve students’ academic performance
As mentioned above, the methodology on which the curriculum at our Faculty is built is not new. It consists of a model in which students plan, implement and evaluate projects that have application in the real world beyond the classrooms. This methodology is already being employed successfully in the universities of McMaster (Canada), Maastricht (Netherlands), Aalborg (Denmark) and TEC Monterrey (Mexico), among others. The main benefits anticipated from the implementation of this methodology are (Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 2002):
- Prepare students for the workplace
- Increase the motivation of students
- Connect learning at the university and in the professional life
- Provide opportunities for collaboration to build knowledge
- Increase social skills and communication
- Increase problem-solving skills
- Allow students to see and make connections between different disciplines
- Increase self-esteem in students
- Learn to use technology using real-world problems
3. Design and implementation
The European Area for Higher Education provides the incentives for implementing this method of project-based learning, which, at our faculty, consists of working with both a real firm and a fictitious one throughout all the four years of the degree in Business Administration. In addition, the introduction of the European Area for Higher Education requires restructuring the syllabi of all subjects and the creation of new subjects. This solves a problem that had been identified for the implementation of new teaching methodologies: an excessive structural rigidity that prevented the university system to allocate more or less time to a particular topic in a particular subject.
In order to design the project embedded in the new curriculum, the instructors asked ourselves: What does a student really need to know to do her job correctly? We realized that a set of skills were relevant, such as the ability to work in groups and problem-solving. We believe that the best way to provide students with these skills is that, under the guidance of the instructor, students take charge of their own learning. Thus, they must make decisions in different scenarios, as if they were in front of their own business. In order to make their decisions correctly, students have to realise that they need to acquire some knowledge and skills.
It follows that one of the keys of this methodological change is that it is necessary to bring students close to the real world. That is, the distance that they believe exists between what they learn and the reality of the economic and business world must be shortened. In turn, instructors must consider in detail what students should learn and how they should learn.
The project implemented at our Faculty is extensive, since it lasts for more than 7 semesters. The project includes the whole accounting module, which develops the first activity of the project. This module is composed of the following subjects: Introduction to Accounting, Financial Accounting, Interpretation of Financial Statements and Cost Accounting. Besides, other subjects related to specific areas of the firm will be developed in the second part of the project. They include: Principles of the Firm, Business Economics, Human Resources Management, Financial Management, Strategic Management and Microeconomics. Table 1 shows the distribution of subjects throughout the four years of the degree.
Table 1: Distribution of subjects
Principles of the firm
Introduction to Accounting
Human Resources Management
Interpretation of Financial Statements
The project is divided into four phases that correspond with the fourth years of undergraduate studies.
The project begins with the Principles of the Firm course, which takes place in the first year. This course offers an introductory and global outlook of the firm from the perspective of general management and the management of the main functional areas. From the approaches presented in the course, students have to work on the proposal of a new firm, structure its general and marketing strategies and make an initial estimate of the investment and financial requirements necessary for its development.
In the second phase, students proceed with the project proposed in the previous phase by developing areas such as: the governance of the firm according to both its ownership and financial structure; defining the architecture of the organization of the firm through the allocation of responsibilities, decisions and tasks; defining its internal structure; and defining growth strategies such as diversification and internationalization. The ultimate goal is for students to have an integrated view of how the different aspects mentioned above interact and adjust to allow the firm to adapt to its competitive environment.
Also in this second phase students must become familiar with basic accounting concepts and be able to understand the full accounting cycle. So at this point students must plan the assets that the firm created in the previous phase has and begin to record the most significant business operations, developing the full accounting cycle for a fiscal year.
In addition, students begin to work on the second part of the project: “Diagnosis and evaluation of a feasibility plan for a firm”. At this stage students only need to develop an understanding of the financial statements of a company chosen by the instructor.
This third phase introduces students to accounting standards and their development according to the current Spanish General Accounting Plan. Here students have to adapt the work done in previous to the current accounting rules. In addition, they will deal with more complex accounting operations typical of the development of firms.
This approach should allow students to study in depth the financial statements provided in the previous phase. Here students continue to work with those statements. Specifically, they analyse three key aspects in the development: solvency, value creation and profitability. At the same time, students have normalise the accounts and analyse the accounting information of the firm they have created.
In this phase students will also work on business strategy. Specifically, students have to deal with the human and organizational architectures. Besides, they are introduced to the human resources management and business organization.
Also, in this phase students work on evaluating investment projects and analysing the funding of the firm. Starting from the firm they have created, students analyse the feasibility of an investment project by choosing either to proceed with the projection of their proposed firm or to create a project of expansion or a complementary business.
In this last phase, students will continue to work on accounting aspects, but from a different point of view, oriented towards production centres. Thus, they will need to compute the cost of a product or service.
Evaluation of student achievement
The project developed by the students throughout their studies is evaluated in several stages. First for each course where the project is developed (see Table 1), the marks obtained in the part of the project linked to the course constitute a substantial part of the overall grade of the course. Second, at the final year of the degree the project is defended before a committee formed by academic and business members which awards an overall grade.
Evaluation of the programme
The evaluation of the effects of the programme with respect to motivation, learning abilities and academic success of students will be based on both quantitative and qualitative methods. Quantitative methods will be used to analyse the academic results, to measure the change in academic failure (number of passes) and capture improved performance (distribution of grades) of students. The data obtained from students who participate in the project will be comparable with the data corresponding to students who graduated together but that did not take part in the project and with data from previous years when this teaching methodology was not in place.
Qualitative data will be gathered from surveys. Before starting the project, students are asked a series of personal information, such as age, previous studies, entrance grade, whether they work or not, whether they chose to study Business Administration and Management as a first option, their ability with computers, or their hours of study a day. At the end of the project, students will have to answer a new survey with identical questions.
Finally, it is possible that some of the projects are suitable to be acknowledged as a final degree dissertation. Since this dissertation needs to be defended before a committee, the grade awarded to the project will provide an additional source to evaluate our goals when compared to the grade obtained by students who did not participate in the project.
5. Final remarks
This experience was launched in the 2010/11 academic year, when the new curriculum adapted to the European Area for Higher Education was in place. Therefore, we have no conclusive data regarding the achievement by students of the goals set. However, by taking into account that previous similar initiatives have been put in place in individual courses at our Faculty, we can present the following considerations:
- The project presented here is based on students learning through the combination of traditional courses together with a vertical project which should strengthen the relationship between academic theory and professional practice.
- We intend that students learn to approach and solve real problems and to combine knowledge of different academic fields in order to fulfil their project.
- We hope that the project will encourage creativity and innovation, since the solutions to the project undertaken by the students are not written in the manuals.
- Students will learn to work and present both the project and its results in a given timeframe and to write a report or a scientific paper of their work.
- As a conclusion, with these changes we hope to achieve improved academic performance, reduced failure rates and, ultimately, improve the quality of the education we offer at our faculty.
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