The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

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Early Course Evaluations

-by Rachel Luckenbill and Dr. Steven Hansen

A few semesters ago, I noticed that one of my classes was not engaging actively in the large group discussions I was attempting to facilitate.   I tried asking different kinds of questions and moving chairs into a circle rather than having them face forward. None of my efforts prevailed. I decided to see if early course evaluations could determine what the problem might be.

Before mid-term, I asked students to tell me anonymously what aspects of the course helped them learn the most and what least contributed to their learning. I discovered that roughly half of the students preferred small group work to large group discussions. I acknowledged their feedback and began regularly incorporating small-group activities while making large group discussions less frequent. Having seen that I would listen to their feedback, students’ engagement increased and the class became much more lively.

The following is adapted from a “teaching and learning tip” authored by Dr. Steven Hansen:

In her research, Carolin Keutzer identifies “five distinct benefits of midterm evaluation: a) The information can he used to make changes during the current course; (b) students feel empowered to help design their own educational process; (c) it allows an assessment of specific behaviors rather than a global “quality of teaching” rating; (d) instructors can ask for the information most pertinent to them-even soliciting criticism without fearing any adverse consequences from the administration; and (e) the evaluations go directly to the instructor.” (Keutzer, 1993).

Peter Cohen’s meta-analysis of studies on the impact of early-course evaluations on end of term evaluations concludes, “Instructors receiving mid-semester feedback averaged .16 of a rating point higher on end-of-semester overall ratings than did instructors receiving no mid-semester feed- back” (Cohen, 1980). In a more recent study at Brigham Young University, the authors show that the impact of midcourse feedback on end-of-term feedback depends on what instructors do with the early course evaluation: “Student ratings showed improvement in proportion to the extent to which the faculty member engaged with the midcourse evaluation. Faculty who read the student feedback and did not discuss it with their students saw a 2 percent improvement in their online student rating scores. Faculty who read the feedback, discussed it with students, and did not make changes saw a 5 percent improvement. Finally, faculty who conducted the midcourse evaluation, read the feedback, discussed it with their students, and made changes saw a 9 percent improvement” (McGowan & Osguthorpe, 2011).

The table, adapted from an article by Buskit and Hogan (2010), offers guidance on how to process midsemester feedback. 
Throw out the off-the-wall comments that do not provide you with useful information and forget about them. “She needs a haircut and a new pair of shoes.”
Set aside the positive comments that don’t tell you anything specific. “Best class ever”
Divide the negative comments into two groups: those you can change and those that you cannot change. Can Change: … redistributing the points for different assignments because of the amount of work that they perceived were required for each assignment.
Cannot Change: … let students out of
class early rather than keeping them the entire class period.
Work on perceptions and learn to be explicit. As we look at our evaluations, we often think, “But I do that!” If we feel we are doing the things that students say we are not doing, then it maybe that we need to address students’ perceptions.
Savor the comments that are meant to be negative, but let you know you are doing your Job. “She made us think.” “Dr. S. is a very influential
teacher, but I didn’t come to college to be influenced.”


Karen Lewis (2001) says, “Perhaps the most important part of conducting a mid-semester feedback session is your response to the students. In your response, you need to let them know what you learned from their information and what differences it will make. “

Some Early Course Evaluation Ideas:

Pluses and Wishes
“As this course progressed, I was able to get it back on track by using a mid-semester evaluation process called “pluses and wishes.” Students divided the evaluation sheet in half and placed all the positives about the course on one side and suggestions for improvement on the other. For the most part, the students were satisfied with the course, but the one “wish” that was prevalent was to increase student interaction” (Ladson-Billings, 1996).

Traffic Light Survey
Nakpangi Johnson (Pharmacy Graduate) uses a “One Minute Traffic Light Survey.”


More Early Course Evaluation Methods


Connie Buskist and Jan Hogan, (2010). She Needs a Haircut and a New Pair of Shoes: Handling Those Pesky Course Evaluations. Journal of Effective Teaching 10 (1), 51-56.

Peter Cohen, (1980). Effectiveness of Student-Rating Feedback for Improving College Instruction: A Meta-Analysis of Findings. Research in Higher Education 13 (4), 321-341.

Carolin Keutzer, (1993). Midterm Evaluation of Teaching Provides Helpful Feedback to Instructors. Teaching of Psychology 20 (4), 238-240.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, (1996). Silences as Weapons: Challenges of a Black Professor Teaching White Students. Theory into Practice 35 (2), 79-85.

Karen Lewis, (2001). Using Midsemester Student Feedback and Responding to It. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 87, 33-44.

Whitney Ransom McGowen and Russell T. Osgathorpe, (2011). Student and Faculty Perceptions of Effects of Midcourse Evaluation. To Improve the Academy 29, 160-172.





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Top Advice for Graduate Students’ Application Portfolios

hire me button

Image by Stuart Miles,

Post by: Rachel Luckenbill and Michael McGravey

Each year the Center for Teaching Excellence presents our Landing an Academic Job series. The sessions are designed to help graduate students prepare for the job market and features advice from experienced faculty and administrators. This year’s series opened with the session, “Preparing the CV, Cover Letter, and Research Statement,” featuring advice from Drs. Philip Reeder, Greg Barnhisel, and Lauren O’Donnell. What follows is a brief overview of some of their comments:

Cover Letter

  1. Tailor your letter: (1) First, know whether you are applying to a university that stresses teaching or research and emphasize the appropriate one in your letter. (2) Second, know the University’s mission and what the department you are applying to emphasizes about itself.
  2. Three words of emphasis: Versatility, Engagement, & Professionalism, along with a demonstrated genuine interest in teaching.
  • Versatility: demonstrate your variety as a teacher. What are the different courses, subjects, sub-topics you have taught? If you have only taught one, identify what you have done differently between semesters or academic years.
  • Engagement: what have you done with students outside the classroom? Show hiring committees that you are willing and excited to support students in extracurricular activities.
  • Professionalism: hiring committees want to know that you are confident and that you are capable of handling tough work.
  • Genuine interest in teaching: especially if you are applying to a teaching-centered school, make sure your tone and evidence convey that you are committed to teaching and that you can link your research to the work you do in the classroom.
  1. Respond Professionally, Not Personally: Hiring committees want to know what makes you a good fit for the university and the department; your answer should not include the personal element. While your favorite aunt might live in the same city as the University to which are applying, you should instead stress your desire to work for the University because of its offerings (e.g., a specialized archives that speak to the topic of your current research) or identify how your professional profile meets a core value of the department.

Curriculum Vitae (CV)

  1. Be thorough but not verbose: Give the hiring committee the evidence they need to know that you are the best candidate for the job but make sure that evidence is organized, concise, and free of jargon.
  2. Shorter is not always better: While you strive to be concise in the language you use, do not widen the margins and shrink the font just to fit everything into four pages or less. It’s okay if your CV is longer, as it demonstrates all of your accomplishments!

What you want to avoid, however, is supplying unnecessary information (like the article you published for your high school newsletter or the grocery clerk position you held last summer). You want to demonstrate ample experience that is pertinent to the job description, even if it means handing in a CV longer than 5 pages (just imagine: Dean Reeder’s is more than 40 pages at this point!).

  1. Tailor Your CV for the Job: The CV is not a static document. In the same way that it grows each time you have a new accomplishment, you should also tailor the CV to each position you apply for.Questions you should ask yourself when tailoring your CV for a particular school:
  • What should be listed first for a teaching institution? A research institution?
  • Should you emphasize research more than teaching?
  • Will they want to know about your community service outside of your academic institutions?

Research the values of the specific department and school to which you are applying so you can emphasize the things they will find most attractive and useful in their discernment.

The Research Statement

  1. This is Not Your Life Story: This document is meant to convey the background story of your research and its future trajectory. Stick to the pertinent information and avoid writing a narrative about your life and desire to cure or resolve the unattainable. Demonstrate small, achievable steps over a five-year period without rehashing your life’s work.
  2. Be Concrete: Show the committee that you have a concrete specific plan you intend to pursue. Ask yourself:
  • Would you look like someone who knows exactly what they need and exactly what they hope to accomplish?
  • Or will you look like someone who has a vague idea of what they need and only a general concept of what they might accomplish?
  • What is it that you want to be (realistically) known for?
  1. Be Unique and Independent: No one wants a researcher who will simply parrot what their favorite mentor told them or piggyback on another scholar’s project. Yes, your work might reference the work of someone else, but demonstrate that your specific experience and ideas are unique and that you can work independently without depending on someone else’s momentum.

  2. General Advice for All of these Documents: Just like the shampoo bottle reads—rinse, lather, rinse, repeat—your documents should go through a similar process: write, edit, revise, & repeat. Each of these documents will change for specific job applications. So know the colleges and universities you are applying to, edit your materials, seek the advice of colleagues and experienced mentors or professors, and don’t fear rejection. Keep working at it!





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Who Are You? Pitching to Your Students

Tune into any major city’s local sports talk radio, and you will most likely hear a sentence or two about baseball.  The final few weeks of regular season baseball can be some of the most entertaining: who’s going to the post-season, which batter is chasing a title, and what pitcher is chasing a Cy Young award.

Teaching, like baseball, is a long and strategic game.  But if we think of the semester as a nine-inning game, where both sides get to pitch and both take swings at the ball, we see ourselves and our students.  As pitchers, we are offering up our fastballs, curveballs, sliders, our splitters (our knowledge) in order to position our ideas before our hitters, who might bunt, hit a single, double, or triple, or outright hit the ball into the Allegheny River. 

But for  a moment, let me take this one step further and ask you to imagine yourself as one of three pitchers: George Bradley (St. Louis Brown Stockings, 1876), Clayton Kershaw (LA Dodgers, 2008 – Present), or Jon Lester (Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, 2006 – Present).

George Bradley: The Perfect Semester

Since Pittsburgh is a National League city, it’s worth mentioning George Washington Bradley.  Who?  In 1876, at the age of 24, Bradley finally caught a break and was signed by the St. Louis Brown Stockings.  Standing 5’ 10.5” tall George pitched the first complete game in the National League against the Hartford Dark Blues on July 15, 1876.  That year, Bradley would stand out as a most valuable player: he pitched 23 of the 24 perfect games for the Brown Stockings, had 16 shutouts (no hits allowed), and carried a 1.23 earned run average (ERA) for the remainder of the season.  In other words, Bradley was good, but he was only this good for one season.

I often think that this is the type of pressure we put on ourselves as lecturers.  We strive to have that perfect lecture, the perfect offering to our students, only to find that Bradley’s line is impossible to copy (his single season shutout record still stands).

Clayton Kershaw: The Consistent Performer

Six seasons in the league, and Kershaw is being compared to the greats in Dodger history: Drysdale, Koufax, Newcombe, Roe, and several others.  Kershaw alone has pitched the team to 18 victories so far this season, three shy of his 2011 win-count.  In this season, he holds five complete games and two shutouts.  While close to perfect, Kershaw shows his flaws, remains humble, and continues to go and give a great effort every five days.  Kershaw is near perfect and if you are a baseball fan, he is great to watch! 

Hearing Kershaw speak about his performances, one gets the impression that he is a realistic individual; I don’t think Kershaw goes to the mound every day confident that he’s going to meet or exceed Bradley’s outstanding 1876 season, a near impossibility.  What stands out and what we can learn from Kershaw is his consistent preparation, despite the positive and negative games he may have had before.

Jon Lester: The Every Day Balance

Admittedly, I am a die-hard Red Sox fan.  My New England roots gave me no other option; I certainly was not going to be a fan of the Evil Empire (the Yankees!).  That changed, of course, in 2004, 2007, and 2013, where suddenly being a Sox fan no longer elicited sympathy, especially from Pirates fans, but snide remarks eluding to the money spent, the question of steroids in some famous players, and the overall Sox pride we too often wear on our sleeves.

That said, one pitcher comes to mind as a phenom in his own right: Jon Lester.  But Lester is no Kershaw or Bradley (Lester: 114 wins, 66 losses, 3.60 ERA, 11 career complete games, and 4 shutouts over nine years).  What makes Lester a phenom is what has happened to him off the field.  Lester is a cancer survivor.  Between 2006 (his rookie season) and 2007, Lester underwent treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, surrendering about one year of professional baseball for treatment and recovery.  Through the process, Lester believed he would come back stronger, and did he ever, helping the Red Sox win the 2007 World Series.

Lester reminds me of what we all contend with: off-the-field issues.  God-willing, the issue for you is not cancer, but the balancing act of children, family, research and publication, or exams and dissertations for graduate students.  So, when approaching your students, know that you are going to have those days where your teaching may be less than stellar.  Just like the ace pitchers of today’s game, know you’re going to have day to day struggles.  And that’s okay.

So, I conclude with four thoughts:

  1. Approach each day with the goal of showing your students ‘your best stuff,’ but acknowledge there will be those days when your fastball is operating at 70% efficiency.
  2. Be consistent with your day-to-day approach, your preparation, in your feedback to students, and most importantly, be honest when you have those difficult days.
  3. Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Have a new curve-ball you want to try out?  Give it a go!  This is especially true when trying new active learning techniques, incorporating technology, etc.
  4. And lastly, during those days you struggle, note what was difficult and how you might change it the next time you teach the lecture and plan on how you can make the next class better.

Your objective, unlike these ace pitchers: get your students to take the pitch and run with it.  As much as we would hate to see the Pirates get overtaken by the mighty bat of Matt Holliday, our objective as teachers should be just that: let Matt go yard and take our knowledge for a run.

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Adding Variety to Your Instructional Repertoire

Dr. Steven Hansen
Associate Director for Faculty Development at the Center for Teaching Excellence

detectiveprofile  An item that students consistently rank with a low average on teaching evaluations is “the instructor used a variety of instructional strategies.” In all honesty, sometimes I get stuck in a teaching rut where I conduct every class in the same way with the same instructional strategies. I become formulaic in my teaching. My pedagogy becomes liturgically predictable (i.e. – PowerPoint with mini-lectures and think-pair-share activities). It gets old after a few class sessions for the students and the instructor. How do I enliven my teaching routine?

I occasionally teach naked.

Of course, I am not being literal here. The idea comes from Bowen’s Teaching Naked (2012) where he makes a case for using technology outside the class to inform learning and focusing class time on authentic face-to-face interactions between faculty and students. If you regularly teach using PowerPoint, try to occasionally send the information electronically to students ahead of class for review, and spend the class time solving an intriguing problem or discussing issues that the material raises. This approach works particularly well for topics that you have seen students struggle with in previous semesters and allows you to spend more time coaching and allowing students to practice during class time.

I occasionally have the class play a game.

I recently had to teach a nuts and bolts session to graduate students on giving feedback and grading fairly. Wanting to break away from the monotony of PowerPoint, mini-lecture and discussion, I decided to design a game that I entitled “University Clue.” Like the traditional game, students were asked to solve who, where and what of a mystery: “A professor is hurting students with negative feedback. The morale in the professor’s class is at an all-time low. You must put the clues together to discover who the professor is, where the professor teaches, and what weapon the professor is using.” While students worked through a series of worksheets to solve the mystery, they were analyzing types of feedback that an instructor can give and examining how approaches to grading impact learners. Academic games are a great way to add some variety to your teaching repertoire.

I occasionally employ spy tactics.

According to Sun Tzu in The Art of War, an ancient Chinese military treatise, “Be subtle! Be subtle! And use your spies for every kind of business.” Students are great sources of information to enliven your teaching repertoire. From the first day of class, try to learn as much about your students as you can. Discovering their interests, hobbies, majors and talents allows you to think of new ways to relevantly teach your discipline. You can also ask your students to spy on you and give you feedback about how the course is going.   In my experience, students will often tell me what will help their learning and make suggestions about classroom activities they would find useful.

While we do not have to change our instructional strategies every class, occasional changes to our teaching routine reduces the likelihood of receiving low ratings on teaching evaluations, and more importantly, makes learning interesting for students.

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The Active Classroom: Practicing Argumentation and Conflict Resolution

kinesthetic learner

Image from

–by Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs at the Center for Teaching Excellence

A few years ago when teaching UCOR 101, “Thinking and Writing Across the Curriculum,” I decided to give my students a break from the daily midsemester routine of reading and discussing sample argumentative essays. My classroom needed more energy, so I created a learning activity designed to help students meet the following goals: craft a clear, feasible, reasonable solution to a problem; understand criteria by which to evaluate an argument; and engage in meaningful dialogue about conflict resolution. It was a smashing success. My students had fun and connected with the principles they had been slow to grasp through reading and discussion only. Here’s a brief summary of the activity that has now become a staple feature in my composition classroom:

At the start of class I introduce the following scenario, one that I’ve designed because of the likelihood that students have encountered something similar to it:

Your local elementary school baseball team has had several years of winning seasons. The whole town is proud, but no one is prouder than the parents of the players. In fact, the parents have been so involved that they are more vocal during games than are the players. They shout instructions from the stands and occasionally address the coaches with concerns after games. This year the team is struggling. They’re winning some games but not all. Their record isn’t the problem, though. After all, little league athletics is all about developing skills and learning how to be a good sport when winning and losing. The parents, however, are the problem. Instead of just yelling encouragement and instructions, they’re berating players loudly from the bleachers. They’re also verbalizing their critiques of the coaching staff and waiting in the parking lot afterwards to confront them about their techniques.   Sometimes they even leave the stands and approach the players with mid-game advice. The level of disturbance has increased dramatically so that the parents are impeding the educational and athletic progress of the team.

As a member of the school board, concerned both for the students’ academic and athletic growth, you want to help solve the problem. What solution can you propose that will allow parents to participate in their children’s athletic endeavors while allowing coaches the room to instruct?

I then appoint two students as judges and divide everyone else, the “school board members,” into groups. I task the two judges with creating a list of criteria by which to evaluate the proposals and then ask each group to craft a clear, feasible, and persuasive solution to the problem. Wanting students to both take the activity seriously and really feel the change in routine, I send each group to deliberate “confidentially” in a nearby empty classroom or hallway, and then I visit each one to answer questions and offer guidance.

Once deliberation is complete, everyone returns to the room where each group has 3 to 5 minutes to present their solution to the rest of the class and answer questions from the judges. Once the judges select and announce a winning team, I debrief the activity with a large group discussion that ties the experience back into the lesson’s goals.

The physicality of moving about, the brain work of crafting a solution that will have a live audience, and the task of cooperating with teammates all contribute to making an activity like this one yield significant learning gains.

I offer this as an example of experiential learning in a composition classroom but such an activity is easily transferable to other disciplines. Imagine nursing students dividing up into teams of caregivers who each have to offer a solution to a complex patient problem or groups of history students explaining to city planners why a historic property should not be demolished. Whatever the content of the exercise, active learning that engages students in “real world” problems and offers a chance to simulate or practice solving those problems can increase engagement and comprehension in the classroom.

See VARK, a guide to learning styles and the article “Not Another Inventory, Rather Catalyst for Reflection” by Fleming and Mills (1992) for detailed discussion of the relationship between learning and “kinesthetic” activities like the one described above.

Now it’s your turn to share. Have you tried similar exercises in your classes? What worked? What didn’t?


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Happy Labor Day!

by Rachel Luckenbill, CTE Instructional Consultant for TAs

To all of our academic friends whose Labor Day looks like this:


Be sure to step away from the lesson planning, grading, or researching to enjoy the holiday. I found this delightful scenery in Oklahoma City this past spring. I was feeling saturated by information while attending a conference and took a break to go for a walk at the nearby botanical gardens. A brief respite from the intellectual rigor of academics was all I needed to finish out the rest of the day feeling brighter and ready to learn. Whether you spend all day picnicking with family and friends or just an hour or two reading a good book and sipping your favorite coffee, may you flourish at work tomorrow because of restful moments you experience today.


Stay tuned for a full-length post tomorrow on creating an active learning experience in the classroom.

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From the Director: Possibility and Promise


By Laurel Willingham-McLain
Director of Faculty Development and Teaching Excellence at Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence

I love this time of year – when we are privileged to welcome dozens of new faculty and TAs to our campus. I take this responsibility very seriously because it’s important to set the right tone from the beginning. So, it takes a lot of work. But in return, I receive joy and energy from the new colleagues I meet.

Every year I think, “wow, this is an amazing group of people.” Marathon runners, kayakers, singers, dancers, quilters, gardeners, chefs, bakers, parents and partners… and teachers and researchers. And that’s just this year! At faculty orientation, I listened for themes. I noticed shared academic interests in adolescents among some faculty, and research on mobility and community in others. How good it was to watch people listen to one another and make connections their first day together – across the disciplines.

At the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), we have come to focus on community building. I learned from my mentor, Dorothy Frayer, to focus on people. To encourage them and congratulate them. To take time for a walk or a cup of tea. And in the last five years or so, we at CTE have intentionally shifted our central focus away from teaching technique to teacher identity. When faculty ask us how to lead better discussions and engage students in active learning, for example, we spend time getting to know them. We ask about their interests and concerns, their successes and obstacles, their teaching contexts and aspirations, and out of that conversation emerge strategies for getting better at teaching.

One thing I’m confident of is that the best teachers are avid learners. That’s an identity we all need to share. In fact, when I consider Duquesne’s teacher-scholar model, the primary pursuit that teachers and researchers have in common is deep learning. Brew and Boud (1995) point out that teaching and research require rather different skills, but they share the importance of learning. At the heart of both endeavors is an exploration of existing knowledge and the desire to go beyond it. Both involve the human act of making meaning, of making sense of phenomena in the world (pp. 267-268).

I see energetic learning – in both teaching and research spheres – occurring within community at Duquesne. At CTE we witness motivation and productivity among informal peer-mentors, creative teaching award teams, research partners, workshop panelists, and even committee members (!) – who inspire one another to learn and make that learning public to their students and peers. Who guide students in engaging deeply in their learning, and in turn, sharing their learning beyond the classroom.

Brew, A., & Boud, D.  (1995).  Teaching and research: Establishing the vital link with learning.  Higher Education, 29 (3), 261-273.


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