Starting Students on the Path to Lifelong Learning

One simple activity can inspire students to take charge of their own long-term educational development.

Hand with pencil drawing path for learners against blue sky

AS BUSINESS EVOLVES at an ever-increasing pace, business schools must design programs that go far beyond traditional subjects. As faculty, we must do more than help students master the technologies and skills they will need immediately upon graduation. We also must help them become agile, lifelong learners who will be able to acquire the new skills they will need throughout their long careers.

But we see a problem, particularly in technical fields such as accounting. A typical accounting curriculum will no doubt prepare students to meet the requirements of an entry-level accounting job. But it might not directly address the skills they’ll need for career advancement.

When we are working within the limited credit hours required for a degree, how can we also work in activities that will prepare our students to become lifelong learners?

Below, we describe one simple approach we use at all three of our universities, in which we present our students with competency frameworks created by industry organizations. Using these frameworks as a starting point, we help students not only understand the scope of professional skills they will need in their careers, but also develop explicit short- and long-term plans to acquire them. We apply this approach in our accounting courses, but it could be adapted to any discipline.


The objective of the activity is threefold. First, we want students to become aware of the skills they will need. Second, we want them to assess the state of their current skill set. Finally, we want them to create plans to strengthen the skills they develop in their programs.

Step one—Build awareness. Before students can create formal plans for lifelong learning, they first must understand the scope of skills they’ll need for their chosen careers. For this, we turn to competency frameworks developed by relevant professional organizations that highlight both the technical and the soft skills that accounting professionals will need to remain proficient and agile throughout their careers. For our courses, we use those created by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

The IMA framework encompasses competencies across six domains, which include both technical skills such as data analytics and interpersonal skills such as motivating others and managing change. Each domain is then defined in terms of a particular persona. These include strategy, planning, and performance (visionary); reporting and control (steward); technology and analytics (catalyst); business acumen and operations (partner); leadership (champion); and professional ethics and values (guide).

For those of us in technically driven fields, adding nontechnical components to our teaching can be challenging for two reasons. First, most of us can’t simply add time to our courses or academic credits to the degree to make room for additional instruction. Second, our students may not assign the same value to certain soft skills as potential employers do.

That’s why using a competency framework developed by a professional organization can be helpful. It can be easily integrated into our existing class time, and it lends immediate credibility to the material presented.

For example, in our classes, we assign students to research—individually or in groups—a selected competency framework. Then, we ask them to state in their own words what they believe each element means. In management-oriented courses, we typically use the IMA framework; in finance-oriented courses, we use the AICPA framework.


Faculty who teach courses in other subjects can select the professional frameworks that best fit their students’ career objectives. For example, in introductory and MBA courses, students might use the “Building Blocks” model, which was developed in 2018 by the Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration in collaboration with industry partners

This activity is highly adaptable. Faculty can ask students to explore the competency frameworks entirely outside of class and devote minimal class time to discussion. In introductory classes, we might simply ask students to explore the core competencies, if our sole objective is to build their awareness.

After completing this initial portion of the activity, many students, especially those early in their academic careers, express surprise that many of the skills and abilities expected of them aren’t required as part of courses in their degree plans.

Step 2Conduct a self-assessment. After students have a basic understanding of the selected competency framework, their next step is to assess the state of their own skills (see a sample student worksheet below). Effective self-assessment is an essential step in becoming a self-regulated learner—which, in turn, is an essential part of becoming a lifelong learner. In addition, effective self-assessment is associated with increased achievement on the part of both students and professionals.

That said, effective self-assessment is no easy task, and instructors utilizing this portion of the activity should proceed with caution. First, some evidence suggests that if students are overly optimistic in their skill assessments, that optimism can actually be associated with worsening performance. Second, the well-known Dunning-Kruger effect holds that the least competent individuals are often the most confident in their abilities. Unfortunately, business students often “don’t know what they don’t know,” so they might be even more likely to inflate their performance.


Student skills self-assessment worksheet 

Adapted excerpts from our student self-assessments, in which we ask students to rate their skill levels from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent).



That’s why it’s so important for instructors to have honest conversations with students—it can be especially helpful if instructors admit their own shortcomings as a way to show that we can’t all be experts in every area. We can model the fact that admitting our weaknesses often is first step to more profound growth.

The IMA provides guidance for different levels of skill attainment that can be used to aid students in self-assessment. For example, while an expert communicator might be capable of handling complex tasks and coaching others, someone with basic abilities might be capable of only communicating on a limited level. (See below for the IMA’s breakdown in skill levels for communication.)


IMA skill levels for communication

The IMA competency framework outlines five skill levels that professionals can cultivate across six domains. Above are
competencies that the organization has identified at each skill level for communication, a critical competency in the
leadership (or champion) domain.


If faculty are utilizing another framework, we recommend providing students with an explicit rating scale and insight into what each level on the scale represents.

Younger students, especially, are used to simply satisfying requirements laid out by professors, so they might find it difficult to accept the idea that they will need to start directing their own learning journeys and essentially grading themselves. While the use of a professional competency framework alone might not help students become self-regulated learners, it can start the conversation about what effective self-assessment looks like and why it is critical to future success.

Step 3Make a professional development plan. Once students have developed a reasonable self-assessment, their final step is to develop near- and long-term plans to improve their proficiency in a set of skills that they prioritize. We use the worksheet below to aid them in this process. At this stage of the activity, it is key for instructors to help students consider what training is appropriate to their current level of development.


Student skill development plan worksheet

Our worksheet to help students create short-term and long-term skill development plans.


For example, students will not develop their skills nearly as effectively by reading a book on a topic as they will by enrolling in a course or working with a mentor. Regardless of their level, students should be challenged to think beyond required courses and academic content.

Students also benefit when faculty expose them to—and challenge them to use—the professional resources that will be available to them throughout their careers. For example, the IMA has developed its Career Driver platform, which enables students and professionals to both self-assess and plan a path to develop their skills.

We know our students will need skills beyond those typically taught in technically focused curricula. Few of us have the luxury of extra class time or credit hours, but we still make time for our students to analyze their skill sets and develop appropriate skill development plans. By acquainting our students with professional frameworks relevant to their career objectives, we can help them take their first steps on the path to becoming lifelong learners. 

Kimberly Swanson Church is the director of the School of Accountancy at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. Gail Hoover King is a visiting professor at the School of Business at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Angela Wheeler Spencer holds the Haskell Cudd Professorship and Lanny G. Chasteen Chair in Accounting at the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.