What’s a “conflict of interest”?: Explaining abstract concepts

An eternal challenge: how to explain an abstract concept that makes it real and understandable to students.

In the business law course I am teaching this semester to accounting students, I have a few minutes to explain the abstract legal concept of “conflict of interest”.  Since this phrase is used quite often in the news (usually about crooked politicians), most people think they know what a conflict of interest is.  However, if you actually ask most people to explain a conflict of interest, I bet that you will  get many totally erroneous answers.

In past semesters, I have explained that a conflict of interest for an accountant is when the accountant is in a position where the accountant’s personal interests may potentially conflict with the client’s best interests.  I also usually provide an example where an accountant is asked by a client to provide advice about obtaining financing from a finance company that is partly owned by the accountant.  After that, my students would usually shake their heads in a positive fashion to indicate that they understood what I was saying.  Then, come test time, I was often dismayed by my students’ utter lack of understanding of the concept.

This semester, I decided to tackle this a little differently.  I decided to engage students’ thinking to work out concrete examples of conflict of interest. I still explained the general concept of a conflict of interest, but then I asked my students to create examples of their own.  I had the students form groups of three or four.  Each group discussed and formulated an example.

Each group typed their answer into Socrative (socrative.com) (see my post “Part 2 – A Few More New Things I Am Trying”).  I set up a short answer question on Socrative which allowed my students to input their written answers.  Everyone’s answers were compiled on my laptop screen which was projected for everyone to see.  We then, as a class,  discussed and critiqued the answers.

Some of the answers posted by my students were surprisingly insightful, creative and even entertaining.  There were also answers that missed the mark totally or were just too short on detail.  Regardless of the quality of the answers, the learning opportunities arose from the formulation, discussion and critique of the answers.

As well, by having the students put their answers into written words,  it forced them to express their ideas clearly in a manner similar to what would be required on a test or exam.

I have a good feeling about how this approach went over with my students.  Let’s see how well they do on the next test.



About Wayland Chau

Post-secondary educator involved in teaching and course design for face-to-face and online learning.
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