March 2002

A Novel Approach to Accounting Education

By Richard E. Brown and Mark J. Myring

Although accounting can be dry and difficult to teach, the subject can hold considerable interest, even excitement, for those already committed to the field. But what about people that may be considering a career choice or change and know little about accounting and its possibilities? Herein lies a dilemma: The practitioner and academic communities both want to attract and retain the “best” students, those that are smart, interesting, imaginative, and creative. Because university programs are an entree to accounting, a key question becomes how universities and their faculties attract and retain accounting students with the traits needed to be successful in the profession.

A wide array of landmark studies and reports have given the search for innovative classroom techniques an added sense of urgency. These include the Accounting Education Commission’s 1990 report “Composite Profile of Capabilities Needed by Accounting Graduates,” the AICPA’s 1990 release of “Education Requirements For entry into the Accounting Profession,” and Albrecht and Sack’s 2000 study, “Accounting Education: Charting the Course Through a Perilous Future.” (See The CPA Journal, March 2001.) To varying degrees, these reports called for greater attention in accounting education to such attributes as values, ethics, analytical and interpersonal skills, and creativity.

The intellectual skill set and attributes identified in these reports suggest that the classroom dialogue encouraged by a novel about accounting may be helpful. Awareness of personal and social values, the process of inquiry and judgment, logical thinking, reasoning, critical analysis, communication skills, ethics: What better way to hone these traits than give-and-take discussion of a relevant (albeit fictional) case study?

Professor Richard E. Brown has already co-authored one such accounting novel, The Rose Engagement (see book review on p. 13), which has been adopted by more than two dozen universities as a supplement to the usual accounting textbooks and also forms the nucleus of a larger continuing education program. The positive student reaction to use of this book in government and nonprofit accounting courses encouraged the authors to develop a second novel in the field of managerial accounting. The manuscript, with the working title The Margin of Safety, was completed in 1998 and over the next two years was used and evaluated in the classroom in several courses.

The novel’s setting is the fictional Clark State University, where three MBA students involved in a group project stumble upon a plot by university officials to manipulate enrollment data (thereby increasing public funding) and to increase endowment funding by murdering individuals currently benefiting from life income trusts (the trusts then reverting to the university).

Evidence suggests that use of the accounting novel in classrooms is fairly widespread and growing in acceptance. Such books are generally designed to supplement course texts, not replace them. One possible exception is Management Accounting: A Road of Discovery (South-Western College Publishing), which offers the content and concepts of a traditional textbook but uses a fictional family business throughout to illustrate and reinforce the concepts.


Four different courses used the completed manuscript of The Margin of Safety to test the reactions of different accounting students to the accounting novel. Although the main purposes of using the book in the courses varied, there was a common interest in determining whether students found the manuscript useful in explaining or reinforcing basic managerial concepts and helpful in making the course more interesting and even enjoyable. Regardless of their major, students were asked whether their appreciation of the accounting profession and ethical issues had been enhanced by using the book.

The evaluation instrument had to differentiate between different student audiences. For example, did use of the novel make students in the principles course (especially the honors section) more interested in selecting accounting as their major? For accounting majors, did the novel reinforce their career choice of accounting? For MBA students, how did the novel change their view of the accounting profession?

To examine the impact of the manuscript on students, the authors developed two variations of the evaluation instrument, one for accounting majors and one for nonaccounting majors. Each form contained 12 objective questions and four open-ended questions. Students responded to the objective questions using a six-point scale: agree strongly (one), agree, tend to agree, tend to disagree, disagree, and disagree strongly (six).

The Exhibit presents the averages for the seven most relevant objective questions for each course where The Margin of Safety was used.

Principles of Managerial Accounting. In general, the students in the honors section of the principles course responded favorably to use of the novel, with a mean for all objective questions just above 2.0. The students responded most favorably to questions about how the novel affected their interest in and enjoyment of the course (means of 2.0 and 1.6), and to issues relating to their perceptions and awareness of the profession (1.8), accounting concepts (1.6), and ethical issues (1.9). Questions about student interest in a major or career in accounting were lower, with means of 2.9 and 3.6. Because many students in a principles course are already interested in majors other than accounting, and others are non-business students, this result may be neither surprising nor disappointing.

The scores in the non-honors section of the principles courses were less positive but still impressive, especially considering that the course was offered as a five-week summer session in which the instructor added extra reading. The mean score dropped to 2.4, largely due to questions about choice of major and career (3.2 and 3.7). However, the question about appreciation of accounting was higher (3.0).

Government and Nonprofit Accounting. This is generally an elective for accounting majors at either the undergraduate or graduate level. The texts and courses in this area of specialization tend to focus on financial accounting and reporting, although increasingly attention is being given to managerial concepts. Thus, the fit of The Margin of Safety to the course was not always clear to students. Nonetheless, the overall mean of 2.3 was a positive result. Students responded positively to questions about whether their choice of major and career was reinforced by use of the novel (mean scores of 2.4 and 2.5). Students also reacted positively to use of the novel to reinforce ethical issues (2.0) and accounting concepts (1.6).

Managerial Accounting for Nonprofit Organizations. This highly specialized course is not offered at many universities. It attracts a variety of students: Both MBA and masters in accounting students choose it as an elective, and students from education, nursing, public administration, and other parts of the university often enroll. Making the subject of accounting appeal to such a wide range of students while conveying difficult course concepts is not easy. The Margin of Safety was used in one section of this course and the overall mean score was a 2.9. The questions about choice of accounting major and career received the relatively low scores of 3.7 and 4.3. This suggests that students were reluctant to change career paths or were satisfied with their current field of study. Students tended to agree that the novel had made them more appreciative of the profession of accounting (2.2), and hought the book helped explain accounting concepts (2.0) and made them more aware of ethical issues (2.1).

Executive MBA Course. Kent State University has operated a successful executive MBA program for well over two decades. The courses are offered on weekends, the program takes about two years, and participants are generally middle managers with at least several years of work experience. Few students are accountants or have a significant accounting background. When The Margin of Safety was used in one of these courses, the mean overall score was a 2.9. Once again, for non-majors the questions receiving the lowest scores were those relating to major and career. When asked about the impact of the book on their appreciation of the profession, the scores improved to a 2.6 and students also responded favorably to questions about use of the novel in the classroom.

A steady stream of research from prestigious circles calls for innovation in the university curriculum that would help produce accounting graduates with a wide array of skills and traits far beyond mere technical accounting knowledge. The accounting novel deserves a place in the classroom to supplement the usual accounting text because it offers one of the most promising avenues for such change.

Using innovative techniques in teaching accounting makes, the classroom experience more enjoyable, which alone could have a positive impact on the quantity and quality of accounting graduates. Such innovation is welcomed and essential at all levels, but it is most urgently needed in introductory accounting courses. While this may be old news, the preceding study indicates that principles courses offer the most promise of attracting the best and the brightest. Once those students decide to become accounting majors, the burden on the balance of the accounting program will be to hone the array of essential skills and to keep talented students interested.

Richard E. Brown is professor and chair of the department of accounting, Kent State University.
Mark J. Myring is an assistant professor of accounting at Ball State University.

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