How Accounting Professors Can Inspire Their Students in the Classroom


The keynote speaker for the 2017 Teachers of Accounting at Two-Year Colleges (TACTYC) Conference, held in Austin, Texas, was Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh. Dr. Cavanagh is on the faculty at Assumption College as an Associate Professor of Psychology and an Associate Director for Grants and Research. She’s authored a book entitled, “The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. ” Part of her current research, funded by a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, evaluates whether giving students some tools from emotion science at the start of class benefits their learning.

Roger CPA Review held professor focus groups during the TACTCY conference. From these focus groups, we received feedback from professors indicating that there are challenges to inspiring, engaging and motivating accounting students to successfully pass and continue studies within the accounting field. We sat down with Dr. Cavanagh after learning about these professor pain points to discuss how her research might further mitigate some of these classroom challenges.

ROGER CPA REVIEW: How can professors encourage their students to stay motivated in their course studies? Through accounting professor focus groups, we learned that sometimes when students leave the actual classroom, they’re no longer engaged with their course materials. For example, they don’t interact with their homework until it’s due and/or last minute. Is there a better way to encourage course engagement while outside of the classroom? 

SARAH CAVANAGH: This question is a tough one! All of the techniques I discuss in the book for maximizing initial motivation (highlighting relevance of the material for student lives, giving students autonomy, providing something Kentina Smith calls “emotional hooks” to grab their attention) should have downstream effects on longer-term motivation. At the same time, students have many competing priorities – multiple courses, sometimes athletics and family pressures and part-time or even full-time employment. Even if they’re engaged and motivated, they may have trouble mobilizing their efforts until right before the deadline. So, one technique I’d suggest is more frequent deadlines! You can break big assignments into multiple sequential pieces. Doing so should also model good project management techniques for the students.  

RCPAR: How can accounting professors inspire their non-accounting students to embrace accounting as a course and possibly a major? Are there innovative ways professors can demonstrate the benefits of accounting and the exciting career paths, opportunities and possibilities that come with majoring in the accounting field?

SC: Teller of Penn and Teller gave a great interview in The Atlantic in which he says, “The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject…. you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds.” The more you display enthusiasm for your subject, the more enthusiastic the students will be. Displaying enthusiasm can take all sorts of forms – from immediacy cues (eye contact, varying vocal tone, leaning forward, etc.), to emotional displays of excitement, to through simple statements of interest. I also think also making those career paths concrete by bringing in guest speakers and previous students to discuss their own trajectories through college and into the wider world of employment can be very impactful. I know on my own campus, an accounting professor takes her students into the community and has them work with older adults in active living communities with their taxes – students report finding this extremely rewarding, seeing their skills at work.

RCPAR: What advice would you give to accounting professors teaching “online courses”? Some professors we interviewed in our focus groups felt a disconnect with their online students, especially with everything being digital with no face-to-face interaction time. What do you recommend professors do to create a more human connection with their online students?

SC: Online learning environments definitely present their own challenges. Martha Cleveland-Innes has done some great work on the topic. She discusses the concept of emotional presence in online learning environments, which she defines as “the outward expression of emotion, affect, and feeling by individuals and among individuals in a community of inquiry, as they relate to and interact with the learning technology, course content, students, and the instructor.” Even though digital interactions may be emotionally impoverished compared to what is possible face-to-face, you can still be mindful of conveying information through lectures, assignments, discussions and one-on-one interactions in ways that will support positive, activating emotions (e.g., being warm, supportive, humorous, using self-disclosure) and minimize negative, deactivating emotions (e.g., being abrupt, unclear, or unsupportive). Some of the hallmarks of great teaching – giving students autonomy, illustrating the value of their assignments for their careers or for the broader world, crafting assignments that engender interest – are applicable whether you are in a traditional classroom or an online one. 

RCPAR: How important do you think it is for the accounting professors to incorporate “real world scenarios” into the classroom setting? Do you think seeing real world application elevates engagement in the classroom?

SC: I do believe real world applications elevates engagement in the classroom. Nothing deadens motivation like the perception that you’re being asked to do “busywork.” Illustrating how the material you’re learning in the class can impact your personal life, your career, or the world as a whole is a fantastic way to get students interested and motivated.

RCPAR:  There were two main pain points that continued to be brought up during our accounting professor focus groups:  accountability and retention issues.  What recommendations would you give to professors to address these major pain points?

SC: In terms of accountability, everything we have just been discussing about purpose and relevance will not just enhance student motivation, but will also bolster the extent to which you are training students in skills that will help them succeed in their careers, that will amplify their success in employment. In terms of retention, I’ll refer you to Dan Chambliss’ excellent book, “How College Works,” which provides ample evidence that the best predictors of student satisfaction with their college experiences are the extent to which they develop close relationships with mentors and fellow students, the extent to which they feel like they belong and are part of a community. Paying attention to the emotional dynamics in your classroom may thus benefit both accountability and retention.

About Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh:


Dr. Cavanagh is currently on the faculty at Assumption College, where she directs the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science and serves as Associate Director for Grants and Research in the Center for Teaching Excellence. Her teaching focuses on emotion, motivation, and neuroscience.

Sarah’s research considers whether the strategies people choose to regulate their emotions and the degree to which they successfully accomplish this regulation can predict trajectories of psychological functioning over time.

Most recently, she is pursuing a study funded by a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation with evaluates whether giving students some tools from emotion science at the start of class benefits their learning. Sarah’s book, “The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotions,” is part of James Lang’s series on teaching and learning in higher education at West Virginia University Press.


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