2018 Top 50 Undergraduate Professors: Karen Braun, Case Western Reserve University (Weatherhead)

Karen Braun

Professor of Accountancy

Case Western Reserve University, Weatherhead School of Management

Undergraduate students at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management love Karen Braun. Since joining the school in 2006, Braun has won the Weatherhead Undergraduate Teaching Award four times, which is won by a vote among undergraduate students at Weatherhead. A professor of accounting, Braun not only teaches managerial accounting, she has written the book on it. Managerial Accounting, now in it’s fifth addition, is used in classrooms at more than 200 universities across the U.S. and Canada. Braun teachers her students to first think like business people and then focus on managerial accounting. Outside of the classroom, Braun is an outdoors enthusiast. She loves to ski, hike, bike, and garden, most recently this has manifested in completing the 154 kilometer walk along the Portuguese Camino de Santiago and three summers ago, she biked across Austria.

Age: 55

Education: PhD, Business Administration, University of Connecticut; BA, Accounting, Luther College

At current institution since: 2006

List of courses you currently teach: Managerial Accounting

What professional achievement are you most proud of? I’m most proud of being selected by the students to receive the Weatherhead School of Management Undergraduate Teaching Award four times in the past eleven years. My primary professional goal is to inspire, mentor, and guide students through their learning process, whether that be learning about accounting or learning to become an ethical professional and an upstanding, caring member of the global community.   These awards show me that I’m on track in reaching my goal.

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…” I think I’ve always been a teacher at heart.   I used to play teacher, with my younger sister as a pupil, when she was only 3 or 4 years old.    I later decided to become an accounting professor when I was in public accounting and the staff who reported up to me told me that I was good at teaching and explaining things to them.    At that point I had lunch with an accounting professor who told me I needed to get a PhD. I said, “Sign me up!”

“One word that describes my first time teaching…” Mediocre. I was working on my PhD and taught an intermediate accounting summer school course.  Let’s just say my student evaluations were not very stellar! Often, one learns best from their mistakes, which is something I try to impress upon my students.  I think the same can be said for teaching. After those first mediocre student evaluations, I’ve always made a point to get detailed student feedback about what I’m doing that works well for them, and what doesn’t work well, so that I can continually improve.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? My current research revolves around accounting education.  I’m a textbook author, so I’m continually researching business trends to incorporate in the book. I also really enjoy developing educational resources that actively engage students.    My current research involves scientifically evaluating the efficacy of these resources in terms of their ability to help students learn.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? One funny thing that stands out in my memory was a night when my class was taking a field trip to the Cleveland Foodbank to learn about their inventory management system and sustainability initiatives.   I had hired a company to drive us in large passenger vans, but instead, the company showed up with several limousines! It was a first class ride to the Foodbank!

Since you first started teaching, how has business education changed? Obviously, technology has changed considerably since I first started teaching in 1996.  I still remember not having a way to get in touch with my students on 9/11/2001 because we didn’t have a campus- wide email system.   Technology has not only changed the manner in which we communicate, but also the content of our courses and the way the content is delivered.

“If I weren’t a business school professor, I would be…” I think I would be a lean/six sigma or sustainability consultant.   Or I might be a ski bum!

“Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a professor”: To be a really great professor demands a lot of emotional energy.   I give it my all in the classroom, and afterwards I’m often spent. I wouldn’t change that for the world though, because the passion I give in the classroom comes back to me 1,000 times over from my students.

Name of the professor you most admire and why: Uwe Rudolf, Emeritus Professor, Luther College.  Uwe was passionate about accounting and cared deeply for his students.   Nearly 35 years later, he still remembers me and other students from my class.  Most students will not remember the content of a course nearly as much as they remember how the professor conducted him or herself both inside and outside of the classroom.  Uwe was a role model in how to be a first class professor and a first class person at the same time.

What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduate business students? I love their energy and zest for life.   It’s so exciting to be part of a person’s life as they prepare for and launch their careers.   I love to be able to connect them to employers and different career options within the field of accounting.

What’s the biggest challenge?  My students are SO busy with extracurricular activities (sports, clubs, etc.) that it’s difficult to get a big slice of their time for my course.  I truly believe that all of my students are capable of succeeding in my course. When they don’t do well, it’s usually because they didn’t devote enough time to the material.  As a caveat, though, I believe that involvement in extracurricular activities is very important, as it allows students to hone communication, leadership, and teamwork skills.  It’s just a matter of finding the right balance between devoting time to coursework and devoting time to extracurricular activities.

What is the most impressive thing one of your undergraduate students has done? It’s difficult to pick out just one, since my students have such impressive backgrounds.   However, one recent example that sticks out in my mind was a flamboyant student from China who invented and patented some sort of tool set in China that led him to be a multimillionaire before taking a seat in my introductory managerial accounting course.  His dream was to become a pop music star in China. And yet, he gave his all to my class, despite his career aspirations and his financial ability to just go sit on a beach somewhere for the rest of his life. Now that was impressive!

What is the least favorite thing one has done? Cheated; either through plagiarism or looking at notes on a cellphone during an exam.   It’s absolutely heartbreaking to know that some students care more about a grade on a single assignment than their character.   They don’t quite realize that your reputation as an ethical person, whether student or business leader, is your greatest asset. Once your reputation is tarnished, it is very difficult to regain.

Since you’ve been teaching, how have students changed over the years?  I don’t think their human nature has changed much; but technology has changed the environment in which they operate.  For example, they don’t come to office hours as much because it’s easier to email me; they don’t feel as comfortable speaking up in class because they are used to texting, etc. However, they need to realize that most business professions are client-facing industries where development of communication skills and personal relationships is of utmost importance.

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Students must have an internal desire to learn and then follow through.   The science of learning has shown that the more someone encounters the same material, the stronger their neural networks will be.  Therefore, to really soak in the material, my students need to read and take notes on the assigned pages before class so that they can come to class with some pre-knowledge of the material, engage with the activities we do in class (discussions, examples, and simulations), and then complete the homework practice sets after class. Following this pattern will allow them to touch on the same material several times in several different ways.   I’ve also made video tutorials they can use to further supplement their learning.

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as …” Very fair.   I expect a lot, but I give students all of the tools they need for success.   When they don’t succeed, it’s usually because they haven’t spent enough time with the material.

If your teaching style/classroom experience had a theme song, what would it be? “Forever Young” by Rod Stuart.

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student: Engaged

Using just one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Cheater

Fill in the blank: “If my students can learn to think critically and follow through with ethical business decisions, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”  

Fun fact about yourself: I hiked through the Grand Canyon, from the North to the South Rim, in one day.

What are your hobbies? Hiking, biking, skiing, gardening

How did you spend your summer? Last summer I hiked 100 miles through Portugal and Spain on the Camino de Santiago, and then spent the rest of the summer making short video tutorials for my students. Two years before that I biked across Austria, and wrote the 5th edition of a Managerial Accounting textbook that I co-author with Wendy Tietz.

Favorite place to vacation: Colorado and Arizona

Favorite book: Pride and Prejudice

Favorite movie and/or television show: American Ninja Warrior and Seinfeld reruns

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: Country, Jason Aldean

Bucket list item #1: Being a ski bum in Colorado for a full winter season.

What’s the biggest challenge facing business education at the moment?  I think the biggest challenge is to help students learn how to adapt, continually learn, use good judgement, and think critically in an era when technology is replacing lower-level human tasks.  There will always be a need for business people who use professional judgement to critically assess business situations and carefully analyze relevant data to arrive at ethical and profitable business decisions.  

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…” Business school courses would include much more self-paced, experiential learning, and very little lecture.   Students are capable of reading and watching tutorial videos. Class time could be better spent diving deeper into the material through use of small group discussions and business simulations.

“And much less of this…” Focus on grades. I would love to teach courses where students simply came to learn, not to earn a grade.  Students often focus on the wrong carrot: rather than focusing on learning in order to add value to their future company and clients, students often focus on cramming for exams, like they did to successfully navigate high school.   I truly wish the notion of grades didn’t exist.

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would be like for you: Success to me, would be to continue to have former students reach out to me to let me know that what they learned from me, whether professional knowledge or personal characteristics, made a positive difference in their lives and the lives of those around them.

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