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Deep Learning in a Professional Ethics Course

Aug 7, 2018

Many CPAs—especially those with considerable work experience—mistakenly believe they are fully prepared to address ethical dilemmas.

It is probably safe to assume most CPAs want to behave ethically, have learned the Code of Professional Conduct, and might have practiced an ethical decision-making process. Isn’t that enough? Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to respond ethically in the moment when confronted with an ambiguous ethical problem.

When I first started teaching ethics, I mimicked what I had experienced in my own college and professional education: I focused on the rules. After a while, however, I realized this was not an effective teaching method for today’s business environment. So I changed my approach.

In this article, I explain the three-step process based on learning theory that I now use to develop impactful learning experiences for students and practitioners—including the online ethics course I recently developed for the CPA Center of Excellence®. Read on to find out how this process more effectively equips CPAs to serve their companies and clients.

1. Ethics Compliance Versus Ethical Reasoning

Surprisingly, I have found many students in undergraduate and Master’s accounting courses demonstrate less complex thinking on ethics case assignments compared to other case assignments within the same course.

Given the importance of ethics to the accounting profession, why would this happen

Poor ethical reasoning occurs in part because students have been taught to focus on ethics rules but have not learned how to more fully identify and analyze ethical situations. Accordingly, accounting students (and even CPAs) might fail to recognize that they face an ethical situation and may inappropriately look for a simple solution even in highly ambiguous situations.

One approach for developing more appropriate ethical reasoning skills is to learn and practice applying an ethical decision-making model. The model used in the CPA Center of Excellence® ethics course consists of the following three steps (adapted from Gino, 2015):

  • Ethical Awareness: Recognize situations that raise ethical concerns
  • Ethical Judgment: Analyze and choose an ethical course of action
  • Ethical Behavior: Implement an ethical course of action

At first glance, this model might seem too obvious. However, I have found that student performance improves considerably when using this type of model. Even highly experienced CPAs can use a simple model to encourage them to delve more deeply into an ethical situation. For example, the ethics course asks participants to consider ways in which ethical failures might occur in each of the three steps.

Through this type of practice, CPAs can more readily recognize when they face an ethical situation and proactively reduce the impact of bias or other factors that might lead to unethical behavior.

2. Motivation to Go Beyond the Surface

Given the time pressures CPAs face today, how can we encourage them to devote the mental energy needed to actively think about and potentially alter their behavior—especially when the benefits of doing so might not be immediately apparent?

According to learning theory (e.g., Marzano & Kendall, 2007), people must be adequately motivated to delve deeply into a problem. Not surprisingly, I have found students and accounting practitioners demonstrate greater motivation to learn about ethics when they are asked to consider ethical situations that are realistic and of interest to them.

The CPA Center of Excellence® ethics course uses the Wells Fargo fake account scandal to illustrate course ideas. This case is of particular interest to CPAs because of the large number of customers affected, the potential roles of performance incentive systems and internal controls, the alleged mistreatment of whistleblowers, and the corporate governance issues involved (e.g., Maxfield 2017). The case provides rich material for exploring the motivations and opportunities for unethical behavior and also for considering the role of CPAs in organizational ethics.

3. Reflection and Continuous Learning

The best ethical preparation is to recognize our own limitations. We need to engage in continuous learning by reflecting on past situations, learning how to recognize new dangers, developing strategies for exploring and resolving ethical problems, and questioning whether our actions are ethical.

The CPA Center of Excellence® ethics course encourages this approach by asking participants to reflect as they proceed through each part of the course and to share parts of their reflection with other participants. The course also describes behaviors for four levels of competency over the span of a CPA’s professional career. Participants can use the behaviors for systematic reflection and to identify specific areas for their own future learning.

The Ethics Course Based on Learning Theory

For CPAs curious about how this type of ethical “deep learning” differs from a traditional class, I encourage you to register for this ethics course. It counts for completion of your Ethics requirement in Indiana for the reporting cycle and also includes an Ethics Checklist you can refer back to as needed. Let us know your feedback so we can continue creating ethics content and learning methods that fits your evolving needs as a CPA.


Gino, F., 2015, Understanding Ordinary Unethical Behavior: Why People Who Value Morality Act Immorally, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 3:107-111.

Marzano, R. J., and J. S. Kendall. 2007. The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Maxfield, J., September 24, 2017, A Timeline of Wells Fargo's Sales Scandal, The Motley Fool. Available at

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Susan Wolcott
About the Author

Susan Wolcott is a member of the CPA Center of Excellence® Advisory Board. This board is comprised of experts who are guiding strategy on the future of learning, competency-based education and emerging technologies. Wolcott is a thought leader and education consultant for WolcottLynch Associates, Bellevue, Wash. Contact her at