Teaching introductory management accounting principles using LEGO® bricks
Posted by Helen Brain. Last updated: July 18, 2023
Helen Brain describes her experiences setting up a Lego challenge for students in her introductory management accounting class.
Like you, I’ve pondered long and hard about the best way to teach basic accounting principles. I’ve often encountered final-year students who struggle to apply more complex techniques or tackle advanced problems. It’s because they never quite grasped the fundamentals. Rather, they learned what steps to follow so they could pass assessments.
So, while considering different ways to teach basic costing principles, I turned to LEGO® bricks. Could the use of LEGO® make basic management accounting more accessible and interesting for our students? Could LEGO® help concepts ‘stick’?
I’m not suggesting this is new or radical. The advantages of active learning and using LEGO® have been widely discussed. But my experiences of its use in some introductory seminars on management accounting might be helpful. For context, I used this activity in a year-one module. It aims to provide a basic introduction to accounting while developing professional skills and enhancing employability. So, from an accounting perspective, this module is a first-semester introduction. In semester two, the students go on to study Introduction to Management Accounting and Introduction to Financial Accounting.
Let’s get building!
The traditional approach to teaching cost classification and cost behaviour is to give a lecture, set a problem and get students to apply what they were told. That’s how I was taught (many years ago!), and it remains a widely used approach.
In this seminar activity, we place students in small groups and give each group a pile of LEGO® bricks. Their task? To construct a bridge.
It’s essential to provide precise specifications for this bridge. For example, require it to be a certain size and be able to hold a particular object. Otherwise, some groups build a bridge with three bricks and then sit on their phones saying they’re finished!
The completed bridge is their group’s product, which they proceed to cost.
Introducing the concept of ‘cost objects’
We introduce the concept of a cost object. Students can see this in front of them, built out of LEGO® bricks. We provide a set of fictional information about the cost of each type of brick. Students use this to calculate the total cost of all the bricks they have used in their bridge.
Only then do we introduce terminology, such as direct costs and material costs. Students start filling in a cost card template with their calculated cost of direct materials.
Using fictional information we provide about wages, each group adds their direct labour cost. Finally, fictional rent information is provided for the room. We tell students the room has other uses, so they must determine how much rent to include as an indirect cost.
By the end, each group has a bridge, which they have costed by classifying their costs and applying some basic management accounting principles. Importantly, they can see and touch the direct materials in their product. The concept of direct labour is clearer (because it is them!). And they see the room they are sitting in is an indirect cost.
Introducing the concept of cost behaviours
We move on to look at cost behaviour. Again, rather than lecture students on fixed costs, variable costs etc., we start by focusing on the bridges. Each group thinks about the costs included in their bridges. What might happen to those costs if they increase the number of bridges they build? This way, students determine the meanings of fixed and variable costs for themselves.
They may not know the terminology, but they can see that if they double their output, they will double their direct material costs — the LEGO® bricks. We reinforce this with the concepts and definitions, so students can relate theory to their actions.
Students move on to calculate total and unit costs for their bridges at different levels of output and use the high-low method to identify semi-variable costs.
Although I stopped here with this activity, it has the potential to be expanded to form a larger element of the module. You might incorporate a range of other concepts and issues, such as inventory management, target costing and tackling inefficiencies.
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Remembering that this module aims to build professional skills, we emphasise the teamworking skills students develop throughout this activity. I asked students to reflect afterwards on whether they played an active part and contributed ideas to solve problems.
- Did they have a positive attitude and listen to others without talking over them?
- Did they take responsibility for the outcome?
- Would a recruiter be impressed if they observed them in an assessment centre?
These reflections are essential for skills development. I want to encourage students to develop reflective practices as early as possible in their university journey.
We can’t force friendships, but perhaps we can give new students opportunities to mix and build relationships by thinking about how we teach in those all-important early weeks.
By the end, every student in the room knew and had worked closely with some of their peers. Seeing the students talking to each other and making connections in the seminars was very pleasing. I think this is so important in that crucial first semester.
Trying something new in teaching is never without its challenges.
LEGO® brick logistics: it takes planning to ensure there’s enough Lego in the right rooms at the right times for a module of 500 students and a large teaching team.
Student responses: some students groaned at having to do something other than what they’ve been conditioned to expect. They say they prefer sitting passively and being told what they need to know. But success is partly based on how you ‘sell’ to the students. Explain the purpose and facilitate the session with enthusiasm.
I don’t have any cold, hard data on the success of this activity, and I’ve only run it once. It was not part of a formal research project. But from my experience, I felt I had lively classrooms and the students seemed to grasp the concepts easily. Whether they will still remember them in a year’s time remains to be seen!
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