In today’s ever-changing world, how we learn is just as important as what we learn. Cristina Bailey, an assistant professor of accounting at the UNM Anderson School of Management, has found a way to help college-level accounting students efficiently grow their knowledge and skill level in Microsoft Excel.

Cristina Bailey
Assistant Professor Cristina Bailey

Why accounting students need advanced Excel skills
Bailey chose Excel as the focus of her study, as it’s one of the accounting industry’s most commonly used technology tools. This means hiring managers expect new graduates to be able to use Excel’s advanced analysis tools such as pivot tables from the start.

Her research looks at the gap between accounting firms' needs in new hires and accounting professors' concerns with an already full syllabus, crowded with numerous core concepts that need to be taught quickly.

In Bailey’s 2022 research article, “Developing Students’ Skills-Based Competencies: A Strategic Learning Approach,” she offers a practical way to use repeated, structured assignments with little in-class time to bolster students' data analysis skills, giving them an edge in the job market.

“Researching ways to enhance students’ technical skills in Excel is important, as it helps educators meet the needs of accounting employers,” she said. “This means we’re preparing our students for success after graduation, creating a win-win scenario.”

The study
The study involved 63 students enrolled in an upper-level undergraduate accounting course. First, students completed a survey and pre-test that measured their perceived and actual starting skill levels in using Excel. Over the semester, the students completed strategically assigned tasks and were surveyed again at toward the end of the semester to assess progress in their Excel skills.

The in-class portion involved one class period focused on different Excel functions. After brief instruction, students practiced exercises using the discussed functions during the remaining class time. The exercises started off simple and grew in difficulty with each problem. Students were encouraged to talk with each other and ask questions, giving them a low-stress learning environment.

Over the second half of the semester, students completed an advanced data analysis project, using the same concepts and format from the in-class exercises, with each step increasing in difficulty. This project taught them the process and desired outcomes of working with large data sets, giving them a practical example to learn from.

Bailey_Graph_Perceived and Tested Skills_branded
The Bailey Graph with perceived and tested skills illustrated.

Outcomes and impact
This study showed that repeated assignments improve students' perceived and actual Excel skills. Both basic and advanced skills improved over the semester through the carefully designed assignments, with advanced skills showing the biggest improvement.

“At the end of the experiment, students had increased their skill confidence an average of 46%,” said Bailey. “This suggests that combining repetitive and increasingly challenging assignments throughout the semester is a key factor in developing new tech skills.”  

The study’s findings can be applied to diverse fields that use information technology systems including engineering, economics and math