Developing transferable skills in final year students using authentic assessment

This article is based on a presentation that Sara Saynor, Senior Teaching Fellow at Aston University. Sara presented this case study about using authentic assessment at the Accounting Cafe Pop-up Symposium in March 2023.

A high street store showing the Boots brand and blurry images of people walking past.
© The Boots Company PLC

Rationale and aims

I often reflect (lose sleep!) on the challenge of developing a well-rounded graduate with a critical mindset, commercial awareness and the ability to apply their knowledge to a “real world” context.

When designing the curriculum for undergraduate Management Accounting, we embed core terminology, tools and techniques in year one and then seek to develop a more critical mindset in year two. We introduce students to academic literature which considers the diffusion of such tools into the workplace and explores factors that lead to adopting some tools and rejecting others. In the final year, students are preparing for graduate role applications.

Due to the compulsory placement year at Aston, our students develop a range of workplace skills that they are ready to apply to their studies. I capitalise on this and have built a module that balances more strategic and technical Management Accounting tools with the reality of complex decision-making in the workplace.

I have identified an obsession among students with finding the “right answer”. Who can blame them? They are typically products of the modern school exam system — textbooks, examples and model answers. I break this pattern and aim to develop a growth mindset and awareness that workplaces are rarely so neat and tidy. This is no easy feat and needs careful planning, scaffolding and fine-tuning each year as the external environment changes. Recent examples include Brexit, Covid and international conflict.

The solution — using authentic assessment?

I have designed an open-ended piece of coursework worth 40% of the module. This requires students to explore how a large retailer makes a complex investment decision. It allows students to get creative and better understand how to make real-world business investment decisions.

I am keen to promote an inclusive curriculum, particularly for my students who join directly into the final year from China. They need to hit the ground running and Boots is a company that my diverse student population can relate to.

A colleague who teaches an executive education programme for business professionals has developed a case study in conjunction with Boots’ finance department and senior managers. This includes information about forecast investment costs, potential store revenues and typical store running cost data, as well as information on the proposed location, customer demographics and likely retail competition.

I have adapted this for an undergraduate audience. The premise is that Boots requires a professional business report of approximately 3,000 words. The report analyses one of two potential investment opportunities and provides a justified recommendation:

Option 1 — Premium Beauty

Invest in physical retail and open a new out-of-town store with the addition of a Premium Beauty offering. This requires students to produce a ten-year net present value (NPV) investment appraisal and internal rate of return (IRR) calculations.

Option 2 — Online sales

Invest in anything to enhance online sales at Boots. No specific data is needed unless the students wish to create something based on their research.

I introduced Option 2 during Covid due to the lockdown situation. I felt the coursework should clearly reflect the reality of the outside world. Still, it has actually been a fantastic opportunity for students to be creative and share their ideas. They identify an idea that is ethical and fits with the brand and strategy of Boots. Equally important, they must accept that there is no particular right answer.

My approach

I launch the coursework at the start of term and record an introductory video that sets the scene. I encourage students to visit a Boots store, make notes about product lines, and identify and visit competitors. In the early weeks, we workshop a strategic review of Boots, retail and competitors. This is followed by technical aspects (net present value, internal rate of return and sensitivity analysis). The students can then start their investment appraisal analysis.

Students are provided with store opening costs, basic sales and cost forecasts. However, they must justify how to flex these to reflect the future potential of the store. This creates anxiety for students who are looking for the “answer”. So, I scaffold this with support from our Library team and Academic Learning and Development colleagues.

A key message is that this is only the start of the business decision. Consequently, I allocate only five percent of the marks to calculations. I want students to realise that, although they have a range of forecast data, there is no single right answer. They must also delve into library databases and research the sector and its potential.

For Premium Beauty, they are very much left to their own devices. I only provide a range of sales data and profit margins. They must research physical retail — just because online beauty is booming does not mean customers will purchase in this store in this location! And then they extrapolate across the ten years. They can delay the introduction of a product line, but they must justify their decision to do so.

Students start to realise that this is an open-ended assignment that will be judged on the quality of their research and the robustness of their arguments. Yes, the numbers matter, but it is a ten-year forecast. As we have seen recently, anything may happen. So students need to build an understanding of the current and future retail and economic environments.

Development of critical skills

Students spend the term working on their chosen option. They must then consider a macro factor that impacts their decision. This makes the point that you cannot only focus internally but must also take a step back to assess options in the light of the external environment. I frame this as “what keeps the CEO awake at night?”.

Students also engage with business news to build their commercial and current affairs knowledge. As a lecturer, this has been enlightening for me. I have learned from students about the impact of Brexit on the pharmaceutical supply chain and future NHS prescription funding.

The students decide whether to add sensitivity analysis to their calculation or include macro factor discussions. Invariably, stronger students do which adds depth to their arguments. I explain that introducing a potential problem to the model, make sure the materiality of its impact is clear. Students reflect on their macro factor findings when drawing to a clear and justified conclusion (Option 1) or in light of the current state of the high street and retail in general (Option 2).

External engagement

I set up a session with Visiting Professor James Timpson, the CEO of Timpson Group, who has extensive retail experience. The students use this opportunity to debate the state of the high street and online retail. The students were keen to hear how James might invest the funds available. This provided the students with another valuable real-world perspective.

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Academic perspective

I am always keen to get students “thinking beyond the numbers” so we introduce the need for that critical mindset. Boots use these NPV and IRR tools to make investment decisions. Justification requires consideration of the academic research into how these tools are adopted. 

This makes for an excellent seminar activity and I allocate research reports from Rwanda, to Eastern Europe to Italy and the USA plus a piece of research that looks across the decades and the evolution of these tools. Students analyse their report and present key findings in class and we theme and discuss the relevance as a group. Students then supplement this with their own reading and produce a critique of the tools and may decide to introduce Boots to alternative tools and new developments. This is the biggest challenge for students and I typically allocate 20 percent of the marks as this is big differentiator in the cohort.

My conclusion

Is this a lot of work? Yes, undeniably this form of assessment is time-consuming for both lecturer and student, but it is extremely rewarding and they are building transferable workplace skills.

Students give favourable feedback and grow in confidence as they take an interest in retail, the economy and in particular their chosen alternative investment area. I remind students that they are the next generation so look at Boots and reflect on new markets, product lines and what they could sell to you in the future. 

Students explore enhancements of the website and app buying capability. They look at developing areas such as male grooming, LGBTQ+ audiences and beauty subscription packages supplemented by enhanced online customer and sales advisor interaction. 

I feel hugely rewarded to discuss ideas with the cohort and to read their well-researched plans. There are more than 200 students so presenting their report is not feasible, but this would be the icing on the cake. I plan to invite the top students to present to the cohort and to Boots.

Impact on employability

Students have fed back on how much they enjoyed engaging with this assessment and the skills they developed in researching business sectors and formulating robust recommendations. 

“The use of commercial knowledge is very important for assessment activities. I was able to apply what I knew about the current economic crisis, cost of living, high inflation, and interest rates.”

I have had feedback that this assessment has helped them perform well in assessment centres, directly leading to job offers. One assessment centre asked the applicants to assess whether a high street retailer should open a new store. This was perfect timing for the student who drew on their knowledge and skills and, yes, they got the job!

“ . . . evaluating the risks and rewards helped me in my assessment centre as I used this knowledge in a report I had to write . . . where the scenario was similar to the Boots coursework. I applied my analytical skills and commercial knowledge to my answer.”

“At interview . . . I was able to show my understanding of big data changes . . . the fact that I was talking about these other factors . . . allowed me to stand out amongst others because it shows I had developed wider knowledge.”

What next?

For the next academic year, I will be asking the students to embed their sustainability knowledge and demonstrate awareness of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals into their investment options. This will be a further opportunity to learn from each other and I am looking forward to hearing from this generation and their perspective on the future of retail.


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One thought on "Developing transferable skills in final year students using authentic assessment"

  1. Interesting article, perhaps we can exchange valuable experience. I teach Managerial accounting and I found myself very close to your methods. The ground line is students to be able after graduation to be plug and work, creating businesses and jobs, and make profit certainly.

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