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No debating it: Business prof shows students that accounting is more than number-crunching

June 5, 2013
Tim West

Tim West

Ordinarily, the topic of accounting wouldn’t stimulate an exciting discussion for most.

However, the way that professor Tim West teaches his Accounting 679 class makes it a topic worthy of debate.

In an effort to “better help students develop an ability to think on their feet,” West created a learning experience that simulates the climate of a business meeting in which students are expected to “present and defend their ideas.”

West’s uncommon collaboration with the NIU debate team generated a practical yet exciting educational environment that combines two seemingly dissimilar topics to encourage learning that happens almost visibly.

Inspired after implementing a debate project and working with a former debate coach, Jennifer Butler Ellis, West reached out to Judy Santacaterina, acting director of NIU Forensics (the university’s speech and debate program). Santacaterina put together a team with debate coach Lisa Roth and NIU Trustee John Butler to help incorporate debate into West’s course. Butler created “a 90-minute debate boot camp” for the accountancy students to teach them about argumentation while Roth and Santacaterina worked with NIU’s debate team on an accounting topic involving tax policy.

“The debates are one of those rare times when you can almost physically see light bulbs going on above students’ heads,” West said. “You could see the learning in the classroom – both for my students and the NIU debate team.”

Benjamin Donovan, Chris Michels, Yanelly Villegas and Kyle Larson

Benjamin Donovan, Chris Michels, Yanelly Villegas and Kyle Larson

Joe Petitti, one of the accountancy students who participated that day, said “the whole debate process was exceptional.”

“I liked how my group worked well together and how we complemented our weaknesses with each other’s strengths,” Petitti said. “The debates are an essential part of Dr. West’s class and probably the most rewarding and beneficial for student development.”

“The debates created a stressful, unpredictable environment that forced you to think on your feet. The experience helped me learn to research, construct an argument, and defend that argument,” Ilya Goldman added. “Most importantly, the debates taught me to see both sides of an argument.”

As for debate student Yanelly Villegas, “the opportunity to take part in such a new and exciting collaboration was by far one of the most unique experiences I have had as a debater. The opportunity to apply our skills and present them to an entirely different type of audience was not only fun but also informative. I didn’t think I would ever have this much fun with taxes!”

Judy Santacaterina and John Butler

Judy Santacaterina and John Butler

The link between debate and accounting, West said, is the ability to communicate effectively in the changing business world where accounting professionals are valued according to their ability to communicate and their critical thinking skills.

Through this project, West hopes to prepare his students by combining traditional education with innovative methods that have practical use in their future careers.

Butler calls West “a trailblazer, seeking to prepare students for a professional environment that involves making and supporting specialized arguments.”

West, however, gives the bulk of the credit to his collaborators.

“Without Judy, John, and Lisa, the collaboration would not have been possible. They were willing to help a struggling faculty member take a decent initial idea to the next level. Their effort was clearly above and beyond the call of duty and demonstrated a commitment to student learning that spans the traditional boundaries that exist on most college campuses.”

by Jodie Butler