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October 28, 2004

Betsy Matz on Teaching

For students of Betsy Matz, scholarship can be as inviting as a pudding parfait and as sweet as whipped cream sprinkled with crushed Oreo cookies. No, Matz is not a dessert chef. She is an associate professor and chairperson of business management at Pitt-Bradford whose students prepare parfaits to better understand expenses and labor costs.

The Pitt-Bradford Alumni Association, which gave Matz its 2004 teaching excellence award, credits this accounting teacher with breaking down complex and sometimes tedious concepts into everyday-life examples.

In Matz’s managerial accounting class, she could go on ad nauseam about material and labor rates but instead opts for detailing the expenses of creating parfaits, fluffy desserts with alternating layers of pudding and cream. Armed with the main ingredients as well as toppings, ice, and grocery store receipts for expenses, Matz assembles three student departments — mixing, chilling and assembly – representing a type of production line. The chilling department may turn a mixing bowl of pudding in ice 40 times until it’s properly set and ready for production. And 40 turns is 40 turns from X amount of employees for X amount of time. “They have to time all the operations, then they have to make a list of the operations and they pick the labor rate,” she said. Students calculate the cost per serving, then add on overhead costs. The parfait production gives students a real example of calculating the cost of a product, an experience that speaks with more volume than a textbook. “I find they have a lot more fun doing that,” Matz said of making parfaits. “And they are more likely to pay more attention to this exercise than listening to me describe a bill of materials and the labor charts.”

Recently, Matz wanted to enhance the concept of inventory valuation systems, which assigns value to inventory items. So, she brought two different sized and priced packages of doughnut holes to class. “I introduced the subject while students passed this basket of doughnut holes, chomping away. The basket came back with 12 doughnut holes left. How much did these cost? And how much did the 28 consumed cost? I put the prices of the doughnut holes on the board and students figured out some sort of weighted average.”

Discovering the cost of doughnut holes made students think about HOW to arrive at a conclusion. “I find if you let students figure it out on their own, it will make a lot more sense to them,” Matz said. Intuitive concepts work well with this technique. And students seem to perform better on exams with self-learned concepts than standard lecture material, she said.

Now in her 16th year at Bradford, Matz didn’t begin her teaching career by discerning the cost of dessert toppings. A native of Colorado, she earned an MBA from St. Bonaventure University in New York and a bachelor’s degree in Russian literature from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. Matz currently teaches a variety of accounting and business management classes.

Early in her career, Matz wasn’t satisfied with the traditional instruction methods for accounting: text readings and lectures. When her student evaluations came back, with comments such as “I’m not getting why you do cost accounting,” Matz knew she needed a less-traditional approach to make her classes more understandable. “Students need to be a little more entertained. They’re somewhat less likely to sit through a 75-minute lecture and stay engaged the whole time.”

Matz’s teaching methods continue to evolve as she links students with local companies in Bradford. Not only are businesses such as Zippo interesting to students, they’re located within a 10-minute drive of campus.

“When I first started teaching cost accounting, there were 19-year-old students who had never been in a factory and they just had no clue,” Matz said. Factories are learning labs abounding with real-life examples: Contrast the cost of automated versus manual labor required to produce a Zippo lighter. In fact, Matz’s students had to work on that very problem during a plant visit. For a special order, the factory needed to produce more lighters than its highly automated machines could produce. So workers set up a manual production line to assemble lighters simultaneously with the machines. “You’ve got the same item going into inventory but the costs are very different. How do you handle that?” Students often meet with company accountants to answer such questions.

Matz’s accounting class typically visits up to three local plants a year. Interestingly enough, many of the cost accountants at local businesses are former Matz students, such as Melissa Fredeen, corporate accountant for the Allegheny Bradford Corporation, a producer of products for the pharmaceutical industry. “The biggest thing she did was make everything in the real world make sense,” Fredeen said. She recalled the impact of visiting her first plant as a Matz student. Fredeen and others made a call on Case Cutlery, a producer of specialty knives. “I thought it was interesting, the visit had immediate results.” Specifically, students learn about the type of costs associated with a knife manufacturing company. A knife may seem simple, but at Case, knife blades are cut from steel rolls, fired, cooled, polished, sharpened and attached to handles. After students see the production process, Matz said, “that tells them a little about the kinds of costs they are trying to capture and their goals with their cost accounting system.”

Matz’s is still trying to apply her real life method of teaching to upper level accounting courses. But it’s difficult because students have to plow through a 1,400-page text in two semesters for intermediate accounting. “It’s a lot of stuff. What I really want to do and can’t quite find the courage to do is spend a lot of time talking about the concepts.” But Matz said she’s still trying to change the teaching approach for those courses, partly because of reinforcement from former students. “When I talk to students four or five years after they’ve left they have found that the concepts they discovered during the real life exercises were the ones they remember as opposed to information they memorized for a test. The students seem to remember longer and that’s the goal.”

-Mary Ann Thomas

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 5

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