A Research Note on Accounting Students' Epistemological Beliefs, Study Strategies, and Unstructured Problem-Solving Performance

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: In a previous study, Phillips (1998) observed that accounting students possess several dimensions of beliefs about the nature of knowledge, and provided evidence that one of the belief dimensions (i.e., that knowledge is uncertain) was related to a component of unstructured problem-solving performance (i.e., evaluating the relevance of case facts). Phillips (1998) also proposed that the relationship between students' beliefs and unstructured problem solving was mediated by their study strategies, but did not test this proposition. The current study replicates the belief dimensions observed by Phillips (1998) and examines the empirical relationship among students' beliefs, study strategies, GPAs, and unstructured problem-solving performance. Results indicate that one dimension of beliefs (i.e., that knowledge is complex) was associated with a dimension of study strategies (i.e., consolidating knowledge) and that these two dimensions were related to cumulative GPA and, after controlling for GPA, with a component of unstructured problem-solving performance (i.e., consolidating analyses). These findings, in conjunction with the results reported by Phillips (1998), are consistent with the theory that performance on an unstructured problem depends, in part, on the degree to which student beliefs and study strategies match the features of an "ideal" solution for the problem. This theory helps to explain how two equally knowledgeable students can differ in how they cope with unstructured problem solving, with one insisting on simple answers and the other remaining open to complex and integrative solutions.


For many years, academics and practitioners have agreed that one of the hallmark competencies of highly successful accounting graduates is the ability to solve unstructured problems (e.g., AECO 1990; Amernic and Beechy 1984; Perspectives 1989). This ability is needed to make financial-reporting decisions, resolve contentious audit issues, and exploit tax opportunities. As the profession moves outside these traditional areas of practice into the uncharted territories in which many of our graduates will work, unstructured problem-solving ability is expected to become even more important (AICPA 1999; Baril et al. 1998; CICA 2000).

Commensurate with the growing importance of unstructured problem solving in accounting is our need to better understand it. To develop this understanding, accounting researchers have begun to identify many of the key components of unstructured problem solving. These key components include the need to comprehend available information, recognize problems and constraints, identify applicable data and tools, evaluate relevant data, consolidate analyses, and assess the suitability of proposed solutions (Baril et al. 1998; Bedard and Biggs 1991; Bierstaker and Wright 2001; Davidson 1998; Johnstone and Biggs 1998).

In addition to identifying these key components of unstructured problem-solving processes, researchers have identified several problem-solver characteristics that are associated with superior performance on unstructured problems. Much of this research has focused on students' mental abilities: Shute (1979) and Jones and Davidson (1995) found that, on unstructured problems, successful problem solvers tend to use higher levels of reasoning; Amernic and Beechy (1984) observed a statistically significant relationship between unstructured problem-solving performance and "conceptual complexity;" Davidson (1996) noted a similar relationship between unstructured problem-solving performance and "cognitive complexity;" and Awasthi and Pratt (1990) reported an association between unstructured problem solving and "perceptual differentiation." [1]

In another study, Phillips (1998) also examined problem-solver characteristics and their relationship with unstructured problem-solving performance, but his study differed from previous research in two ways. …