Finding relevance and meaning in work that serves professional and societal goals … having the ability to communicate effectively to make a difference … giving and receiving feedback to facilitate leadership and problem solving skills… strategically prioritizing their time to achieve a work/life (and academic) balance. Graduate accounting students today recognize the importance of these “soft skills” in their future accounting careers; and, based on the author’s observations in the classroom, they seek educational opportunities to develop and apply them. Students want meaningful, relevant assignments, especially those linked to activities they will encounter in their careers. They want to make a difference now by developing and applying their skills to real world issues. Educators can facilitate the development of these skills by incorporating experiential activities into their courses.

In an article that shaped my view of the need to integrate soft skills in the accounting curriculum, 119 accounting professionals were surveyed regarding their perception of the importance of the six Core Competencies described in the AICPA’s report, CPA Horizons 2025—communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills, leadership skills, anticipating and serving evolving needs, synthesizing intelligence to insight, and integration/collaboration (Douglas M. Boyle, Daniel P. Mahoney, Brian W. Carpenter, and Ronald J. Grambo, “The Importance of Communication Skills at Different Career Levels,” The CPA Journal, August 2014, pp. 40–45). The authors’ results suggest that all six of the Core Competencies are perceived as highly important for public accounting career success, with communication and critical thinking/problem solving skills ranking as the top two.

With the connection to career success, graduate accounting students, in my experience, are especially interested in developing their critical thinking and communication skills. For an educator in a graduate accounting program, there are many ways to provide experiential activities in or outside of the classroom to enhance these skills; for example, the accounting department at Middle Tennessee State University offers a professional education seminar for practicing CPAs to earn CPE credits each year. We have provided speaking slots to panels of students to present or discuss research on auditing, fraud, or other timely topics. Not only is the audience excited by the fresh perspectives and abilities of our students; the students also build confidence in their professional presentation skills.

Before applying their skills in a real world setting, students generally need to practice and build confidence to move beyond their comfort zones and produce top-quality outcomes. Multiple opportunities to practice throughout the semester is the key to a positive final outcome. Practice does not always have to be in the form of formal presentations; it can instead be incorporated in routine class meetings, such as by asking students to take turns leading discussions of problem solutions or responding to critical thinking questions.

Constructive feedback is also vital. In my experience, students yearn for assurance, and are willing to accept, detailed constructive feedback on ways to improve. Educators can be creative in our feedback approaches. Besides providing written individual feedback in our learning management system, feedback can be verbally delivered to the entire class, highlighting overall strengths and weaknesses. In addition, peer and outside professional feedback can be a powerful way for students to gain insights about competencies they may not have previously recognized, and boost their confidence. Instructors can invite a fellow instructor or outside professional to ask probing questions following a presentation in order to encourage critical thinking on their feet. Students can provide feedback to each other in a variety of ways, such by responding verbally in class or by posting reflections of insights gained in a discussion board. The bonus for student feedback is that it encourages the development of two other important soft skills—active listening on the part of the student audience and leadership skills in providing constructive feedback to others.

Finally, students want educators to care about their need to balance their busy work, personal life, and academic schedules. It is important for educators to value their own time as well as that of their students. In my experience, graduate students are more motivated by a few comprehensive assignments they perceive as highly relevant, as opposed to multiple assignments they perceive as disconnected from their career goals. As educators, not only do we need to start with the end in mind in terms of the skills and knowledge we want students to develop; we also need to make clear connections to the students through stated learning outcomes. When students see that their professors value their time and have their career interests at heart, they have more enthusiasm to devote their best efforts to the work at hand.

Sandra S. Benson, JD, is a professor of business law in the department of accounting at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tenn.