An Unlikely Collaboration: College Forensics and Classroom Accounting

October 15, 2015 Les Lynn Argument and Math, Classroom Debating, The Debatifier

By Yanelly Villegas

Northern Illinois University’s College of Business and Department of Communication were brought together several years ago over the common goal of developing student’s critical thinking skills. The connection nurtured a mutually beneficial relationship for both NIU departments, and all of the educators and students taking part. My involvement in the collaboration has grown throughout its development. It began with providing example debates as a senior undergraduate member of NIU’S debate team; then I provided more extensive support as a graduate intern; and now I am integrally involved with the project as its professional consultant.

How It All Began

Four years ago, the interdisciplinary relationship between the Department of Accounting (housed within the College of Business) and the forensics team (housed within the Department of Communication) began with an initial meeting. Grant Thornton, Associate Professor of Accounting Dr. Tim West, and current Director of Forensics Lisa Roth set the foundation by working together to integrate a debate component into a business school course – specifically, Dr. West’s graduate-level accounting ethics course, “Judgment and Decision Making.” The primary goal was to develop students’ critical thinking skills in the context of accounting and business decision-making, using debate in the classroom.


As outlined by Dr. West in our presentation at the 2014 American Accounting Association’s yearly conference, students had been becoming less engaged in his classes, and inquiry and curiosity had declined. Consequently, he sought innovative ways to develop critical thinking skills, the ability to express ideas clearly and confidently, and the ability to accurately assess ethical risks and benefits in business scenarios.

Implementation Overview

Lisa Roth and Dr. West began to bring together and highlight fundamentals of argumentation based on the classic and very widespread Toulmin[1] model, and components of parliamentary-style debate. In order to reinforce the concepts, a variety of in-class activities were implemented[2].  We typically like to begin with an activity called Chain Debates, which gets students up and making and defending and refuting claims about important issues of the day.

Many of the decisions in adapting the debate format and style were made to resemble real world situations as much as possible. As such, the debatable issues forming the basis of the debates center on accounting-related topics and follow a specifically designed format.

For example, we designed the following debatable issue template:

To_______________, the ____________ should______________.

We used this template to produce the following debatable issue, or resolution, around which we built classroom debates in accounting:

Resolved: To improve the relevance of financial reporting, the SEC should mandate 10-K disclosure of the social media trends significantly impacting a company’s current financial results and future business operations.

The graded components consisted of written cases and ultimately two graded debates. The cases that students write consist of the following general components:

  1. Top of case
    1. Introduction of topic
    2. Statement of resolution
    3. Explanation of the resolution in common terms
    4. Establishment of weighing mechanism (means by which the debate is judged)
  2. Body consisting of arguments as to the issues in the status quo (reasons for adoption of resolution) and the causes of those issues.
  3. Advantages (of adopting the resolution) and disadvantages (repercussions of implementation of the resolution as well as advantages of the status quo), and the evaluation or ‘weighing’ of these two to favor the debater’s side.

The major grading criteria for the debates included the following:

  1. Clear establishment of top of case, specifically explanation of the resolution
  2. Strength of arguments and evidence to support arguments
  3. Ability to develop a clear and concise position
  4. Clash between and refutation of arguments
  5. Delivery

With regard to the characteristics of the debate format, the debates follow a four-cycle format and students are given general guidelines as to the purpose and goal of each cycle.

Cycle 1: Establishing a top of case

Crossfire 1: Q&A between first two speakers

Cycle 2: Finalizing introductory and new arguments

Crossfire 2:Q &A between second two speakers

Cycle 3:Constructive rebuttals

Grand Crossfire: Includes all speakers Q&A

Cycle 4: Final focus and evaluation speeches


Ultimately, Dr. West and I have consistently identified an improvement in student’s performance from the first debate to the second, as documented by scores received on both the cases and debates performed. Moreover, student feedback – which Dr. West has systematically collected – has underscored the positive impact the course and the debates in particular have had in both the remainder of the students’ collegiate experience and even their professional careers.



[1] Toulmin, S. (2003). The Uses of Argument (Updated ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Example provided below.