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NextGen Magazine


Study Upgrade! How Technology Is Changing the Face of Exam Prep

Zach Simeone
Published Date:
Apr 18, 2017

NextGen Technology Exam Prep

CPA firm owners are integrating—and even reorganizing—their practices around advances in big data and artificial intelligence (AI). Using these technologies, firms can automate data collection and analytics and, ultimately, transform auditing itself, as AI can discover data patterns and identify red flags that only humans had the ability to recognize before.

These benefits aren’t limited to client services. In fact, a number of exam review providers are harnessing the power of AI to incorporate adaptive learning into CPA exam prep, along with gamification. Some of the most recognized names in the business talked to NextGen about how their companies are implementing these new technologies.

Game-Based Learning

“The concept of game-based learning has been around for quite some time,” said Ramin Nadaf, vice president of course development at CPA exam prep firm Becker Professional Education. “It has been adopted fairly widely in K-12 education, but higher education has been a little slower to adopt it.”

But would it work for a professional-level exam? To find out, Becker’s parent company, DeVry Education Group, began by conducting a pilot test through its program at Chamberlain College of Nursing in Downers Grove, Ill. Pharmacology candidates used the game “Pharma College” to learn about medications by answering multiple-choice questions on which drugs, and in what doses, should be administered to virtual patients at a hospital, based on their height, weight, age and other factors. The ultimate goal is to get their patients healthy enough to send home, sometimes with a prescription in hand.

“During our pilot, we saw a lot of positive student outcome,” Nadaf said. “Seven out of 10 of our students who participated and used the game said it helped their learning; almost half of them said that it made the class more fun.” The game was also named as a finalist in the 2015 Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) CODiE Awards.

As a result of its success, DeVry decided to form a company for internal game development: DeVry Play. And in the fall of 2016, DeVry Play produced “Accounting for Empires.” Accounting Today has since named the game as one of the top new products of 2017.

Through the traditional top-down, bird’s-eye view perspective found in most real-time strategy games (think “Civilization” or “Warcraft”), players answer increasingly difficult accounting-related questions to gain the points necessary to build banks, universities and markets. As they progress through nearly 140 hours of gameplay, the construction process becomes faster and more efficient, allowing their empire and accounting knowledge to grow, until the candidate’s ultimate moment of glory: passing the exam.

According to Becker, the game is set to be updated on May 2 to match the company’s course for the 2017 CPA exam, and the answering of multiple-choice questions in the game will count toward the completion of homework.

AccountingForEmpires_ScreeninHand CROP 2Becker's "Accounting for Empires" game

Minimizing Isolation

Game participation is optional for Becker enrollees, but course leaders encourage candidates as a means of connecting with other students by challenging other players within the game, or even forming alliances. This was intended to help students overcome common feelings of isolation among those who use the self-study modality to prepare for the CPA exam. According to Angeline Brown, director of accounting curriculum for Becker, alleviating isolation was a motivating factor in the creation of the game. Only students enrolled in Becker’s program can access the full game; a free demo version is accessible to everyone, but it does not include the multiplayer component.

“Part of the point of the game was to help them out of that dark place, and since so many of them are isolated, the idea behind a real-time strategy game where students could choose to team up with each other … was a way for our students to minimize that isolation,” Brown said. “The linkage was really the idea that accumulating resources, or the drive to accumulate resources, would help drive our students to work through the questions. Real-time strategy also gave us that form where students could team up, or challenge other students.”

Nadaf noted that choosing the genre for each game is a fairly intensive process at DeVry.

“Our game designers meet frequently with the curriculum team, the faculty and, in the case of the CPA game, our program management team,” he said. “And they try to understand, ‘What are the challenges we’re trying to solve with a game?’ And then, they provide some options for gameplay mechanics, and there’s a discussion among stakeholders, and a final decision is made on the game mechanics.”

Meanwhile, Yaeger CPA Review’s adaptive-learning platform, AdaptaPASS, offers its own gaming component, albeit one a bit less strategy-focused than “Accounting for Empires.”

By signing into AdaptaPASS from a Web browser and accessing the Gaming Network, “Students earn points for answering questions correctly, and are awarded trophies for various categories—time, speed, accuracy, etc.,” said Sonny Cox, director of support at Yaeger.

Individualized Learning

Surgent CPA Review and other review providers are using adaptive algorithms to produce tailored curricula for individualized learning. In order for these algorithms to work, customers take a multiple-choice assessment test, wherein they demonstrate their current body of knowledge by answering accounting-related questions.

“The software figures out what they need to learn next, based on how they answered on that assessment test,” said Sean Mullen, vice president of sales for Surgent. “Then, we know which videos they need to watch, and which parts of the book they need to read. More importantly, we know which videos we can eliminate, and which parts of the book we need to eliminate. So, we’re cutting down on that time.”

Surgent saw the development of this technology, which it has branded A.S.A.P. (Adaptive Study and Accelerated Performance), as an essential means of improving efficiency.

“Surgent is flooded with customers who have used one course or another to pass an exam section, only to lose that conditional credit later because they could not get through the additional exam sections within 18 months,” Mullen said. Mullen bought a continuing-education company called MicroMash in 1993 and built it into ExamMatrix, which was later acquired by Surgent. “So, we had to adapt a learning algorithm, and now, we use adaptive learning and course mapping.”

Following the assessment, the program continues to adapt, based on a student’s progress.

“So, with this new exam, and increased emphasis on task-based simulations, studying for the exam is going to take even longer,” Mullen said. He believes that Surgent’s approach will be more widely adopted by other exam review providers.

Indeed, Yaeger and Becker have adopted similar methods, using adaptive learning for a “one-size-fits-one” approach. After students take an assessment test, Yaeger’s AdaptaPASS software customizes their curricula with questions focusing on the areas where they need work, supported by more than 100 hours of video and audio lectures. Should students prefer to identify their own problem areas, Yaeger’s TestBank exam simulator allows them to create their own test, right down to the number of questions and the specific topics covered.

Becker’s new platform, which includes its cutting-edge Adapt2U software, is the product of a near $3 million investment and more than a year’s worth of work.

“We built a really top-class analytics engine, and we introduced new features like pre-assessments to gain an understanding of each student,” Nadaf said. It’s “highly engaging, highly interactive technology. Taking this one-dimensional study and making it multidimensional and interactive is really among our major advances in our courses.”

Nadaf, who has been with Becker for nearly three decades and working, specifically, with course technology since 1992, called the new program “our most advanced and sophisticated course we will have ever produced so far. Interactive environments, leveraging touchscreen technology.” And, “with the modular design and data analytics, we are well on our way to real individualized learning. It has the voice of the student, from the ground up.”