Teaching by example: Real-world lessons guide accounting professor's approach

Jeff Rice
April 04, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Between the time he received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of California-Santa Barbara and the time he started working toward his MBA at Claremont Graduate University, Scott Collins worked as a staff auditor with Arthur Andersen, a plant controller at General Mills, and a financial controller at an internet startup company.

That real-life experience has come in handy in the classroom for the associate clinical professor and discipline coordinator of accounting in the Smeal College of Business, and is a large part of his teaching philosophy that is as much about showing as it is telling.

“It’s not just talking about something and expecting that students are going to understand it,” Collins said. “It’s following and backing it up with an anecdote that they can remember the topic by.”

During his time as an MBA student, a master’s student at Penn State, and, eventually, a doctoral student, Collins found he learned best when he was able to relate to the material.

“What I liked was when a faculty member was able to supplement a statement they made in class with a story or with an example,” he said. “We learn more by reinforcing with examples than we learn by just listening to somebody lecture.”

Real-world applications

In his Accounting 211 honors course — Financial and Managerial Accounting for Decision Making — Collins takes advantage of the small class size to provide Smeal students in the Schreyer Honors College with supplemental materials focused on financial literacy. This semester, for example, his students are taking a book-club approach to “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” the popular book on personal finance by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter. Collins also believes it’s important for students to know there is more to professional success than simply meeting the requirements of their jobs.

“What do they do when they start on Day 1?” said Collins, who is also the director of Smeal’s one-year Master of Accounting program. “How do they remember it’s really important to enroll in the company’s 401K? What’s the difference between a Roth and a traditional IRA?”

Students in the 211H class also have received a real-life lesson on ethics from guest speaker Aaron Beam, the former HealthSouth chief financial officer who spent time in federal prison after pleading guilty to accounting fraud. It’s part of Collins’ goal to keep them not only engaged but an active part of the course.

“I never felt frantic about taking notes,” said Katie Bettenhausen, a senior Schreyer Scholar in the integrated Master of Accounting program who took Collins’ 211H class. “I always felt like I could look up and listen to him. It was more of a discussion classroom, which I really enjoyed.”

The honors section of 211 allows Collins to give handwritten exams rather than auto-graded exams, which are used in the larger sections of the course.

“In accounting, working through problems on paper, and seeing the workflow, is a lot different than answering a radio-button question in a test center,” he said. “In a handwritten exam, you can’t fake your way through that.”

The first handwritten exam of the semester, where students are asked to work through a transaction set, can be stressful for students, said Collins, but “after they go through it, they appreciate what we did. We set them up for success in the course.”

Impact beyond the classroom

Bettenhausen remembers Collins staying with groups of students after the class had ended if they needed more time to complete an exam. The rapport she established with him in that class was a major factor when she sought him out as a supervisor for her honors thesis, which explores block chain technology as it relates to auditing.

“He definitely cares about each of his students,” she said. “He wants us all to succeed, in whatever it is — class, thesis, anything.”

Collins will teach a Maymester course in Florence, Italy, this spring on the history of business systems. He said his passion for teaching can be traced back to his days as an adjunct instructor, and that his in-class discussions with honors students have helped improve his own experiences as a teacher.

“Learning how to interact with people who are asking questions at a different level has helped me,” he said. “I’ve benefited greatly from it.”

Last Updated April 04, 2019