extra-credit-header-2018

Get the most out of a guest speaker visit

Preparation can make the difference between a great experience and a mediocre one.
By Susan L. Wright, CPA, Ph.D.

Accounting courses can derive a number of benefits from well-managed visits by professional practitioners. These visits provide students a window into the world of business practice, which can reinforce program-level, course-level, and module- or unit-level objectives. Beyond that, however, such visits can give students opportunities that are often lacking in traditional, textbook-bound curricular activities. They highlight for students the need to develop business acumen and can offer students an excellent context in which to develop the interpersonal skills critical to success. Finally, when the visit is a well-structured, rewarding experience it can enhance the reputation and perception of the quality of your program where it matters: in your local or regional business community.

We can all recall presentations that have left us enthused, energized, and inspired, often with a precious nugget of learning that we’ve long carried in our professional practice. We’ve all experienced, as well, presentations we sat through sneaking glances at the time and wishing the suffering would end (for the presenter, the audience, or both).

Fortunately, there are ways to help ensure a quality presentation other than inviting a guest speaker with a good reputation and hoping for the best. Let’s view this project in three phases: preparation, execution, and follow-up. 

Preparation

Preparation starts with you. You need to be able to articulate what skills and knowledge you wish this visit to support. Is the guest appropriate to the students’ current area of study? You probably wouldn’t want to invite an accountant who specializes in personal income tax to speak to your managerial accounting class while they’re in the middle of a unit on activity-based costing, for instance. 

Obtain a brief biographical sketch of your speaker and provide it to the students. Use this as a foundation to work with the students in constructing topics they’d like to see addressed that are relevant, appropriate to their guest’s background, and consistent with the curriculum. (This process provides an excellent opportunity for student group work.)

Prepare your guest. Provide them with the students’ compilation of topics as well as an overview of the curricular outline for the course. This avoids the uncomfortable situations of a speaker ill-prepared to answer students’ questions, or one prepared to address topics that the students lack the learning, thus far, to benefit from.

Give your guest an agenda for their visit. Typically, a visit can be broken up into time for the guest to provide a self-introduction, a time to speak to the issues the students would like addressed, and a question-and-answer period.

Let the guest know where and by whom they will be met on arrival. Finally, contact the guest prior to their visit and after they’ve received the students’ questions. Express your appreciation for what they are going to do and make them comfortable by letting them know they don’t need to address everything asked of them, just what they feel they have time to do a good job with.

Prepare your students. Skillfully facilitated, student-driven opportunities to interact with the greater world of business are essential, especially to upperclassmen, who will soon be pursuing internships and launching their careers.

Determine what roles students will fill in hosting the event. Have the student or students and alternate(s) rehearse who will greet the speaker in the reception area of the building and guide them to the classroom or lecture hall. They need to cultivate the professional skill of small talk — of putting a visitor at ease and making a good first impression. There is the role of facilitator or master of ceremonies to consider as well. Again, rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse some more.

Execution

Prompt students to take notes during the presentation. As mentioned previously, working in groups to construct a logical and relevant sequence of topics is a great learning opportunity for students. Coach the students in listening skills as well. Teach them to jot down notes of items of particular interest, those that require further clarification, or those they wish to learn more about in the questioning period that follows the body of the presentation. Give them the opportunity to rehearse asking questions in a professional manner: “You mentioned that … can have a negative influence on ….. Could you expand on that for us?” 

Finally, the facilitator/master of ceremonies should be practiced in ending the session and thanking the speaker in a polished and professional manner. Consider rehearsing these skills.

Ensure students dress the part. The final polish on the guest speaker event is the professional dress and grooming of the students. Make students aware of the relationship between professional behavior and appearance and the reputation of their program and the effect it has on the value of their diplomas.

Undergraduate students frequently need a certain amount of guidance and constructive feedback about professional attire. Most speakers will recognize this fact and will appreciate an honest effort to dress professionally on the part of the students. (They won’t appreciate pajama bottoms and Captain Morgan T-shirts.)

Follow-up

Thank the speaker. A thank-you letter should be sent to your guest speaker within a week of the visit. Ideally, this should be a student-generated effort. Beyond thanking the speaker, it should reference a couple of points of particular interest to the class and express the hope that they will be able to return at some future time.

Incorporate the visit into an assignment. The possibilities for post-visit learning activities are many and depend largely on the instructor and their teaching style. Options might include a reflective paper summarizing the visit and highlighting one or two especially pertinent points learned. Students could discuss what was done well and what could have been done better -- just ensure that they make clear whether they are recapping the visit itself and the class’s performance, discussing what they learned, or both.

Classroom visits can be dynamic, engaging exercises for students. They provide a context for learning both curriculum-related hard skills and professional soft skills. They can strengthen curricular learning outcomes and build relationships and partnerships for your school and your students. Your thorough and thoughtful preparation effort will ensure that your program and your students reap the many benefits of this dynamic and rewarding classroom experience.

Susan L. Wright, CPA, CMA, Ph.D., is an associate professor of accounting at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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