The Flourishing Academic

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

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How Am I Doing? How to Have Meaningful Conversations with Students about Class Process

by Jess Dunn, Instructional Consultant at the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence07Teachers-t_span-articleLarge

Mid-term is a difficult time for professors and students. Both experience the sensation of time moving far too quickly coupled with the illusion that the end of the semester is an ever-retreating horizon. The excitement that characterized the beginning of the semester starts to wane and disenchantment sets in. It is at this point in the semester when I am filled with the most doubt: about the course, my teaching abilities, and the students. Thus, around mid-term, I open up a discussion with students around what is helping or hindering their process of thinking, learning, and creating. The focus of this discussion is not on course content but on the process of student learning and development. It involves asking questions about how students learn, about how professors teach, and, finally, how we are working together to create an environment that makes teaching and learning possible

Often, however, when you try to open this discussion, you are met with blank stares and silence. It may be tempting to take that as a sign that everything is great or that students simply don’t care. But it is far more likely that students are not comfortable entering into a conversation with a professor that feels like a confrontation. That is because students are savvy. They have been students for a long time and they know tPanopticonhe score. Whether or not they have read their Foucault, they know intuitively and through experience that the classroom is awash with technologies of discipline. Visibility in the classroom can too often be met with punishment in the form of shaming, grade reduction, and additional work. So, how do you get students to engage openly in this conversation, in the classroom, with you? How do you go about opening up the discussion when students tend toward silence in the face of authority especially when that face is asking for feedback that may not be entirely to its liking?

For starters, you can prepare for the discussion with the same gusto as any other classroom activity, assessment, or presentation. Take the time to prepare discussion questions that address your concerns and goals and invite students to express theirs. You may want to give the students an anonymous mid-semester course evaluation  and review it ahead of time to help you develop your questions accordingly. You also want to make sure that you leave enough class time to devote to this discussion. Five minutes at the end of class on a Friday afternoon is probably not ideal for this purpose. When you and your students feel rushed you are less likely to think clearly and speak cogently and more likely to be irritated, anxious, and defensive. Offering a few stolen minutes at the end of the class can also be interpreted as a lack of genuine concern which discourages students from taking the discussion seriously.

Having prepared, the most important thing you can do is enter into the discussion from a position of not knowing. This is not to say that you should feign ignorance in a Columbo-esque ruse to catch your students unaware and get them to confess! You may, however, want to let go of assumptions that you are the expert on how a classroom should be run and instead, position students as the experts on how they learn. Your actions, words, and responses all flow from this position of relinquishing claims to expertise and inform your comportment throughout the discussion. One way to begin the conversation might be to begin with observations about yourself and areas where you see room for improvement. This not only encourages students to help you with your goals as a professor and also shows them the kinds of issues you hope to address, it also models for the students how to take responsibility for their contributions to the classroom and how to offer constructive criticism. Another way to open up this discussion is to normalize the situation. Let them know that all courses can be improved upon and that not every teaching style or process works the same for everyone. You can frame the discussion by introducing the notion of a class as a collaborative project wherein we all have various roles and responsibilities to help create a useful, engaging, and enjoyable experience.conversations

But no matter how you begin your discussion, open-ended questions will likely be the most helpful contribution you can make. Questions that are too specific like, Do I assign too much reading? are often met with yes or no responses and can lead students to respond the way they think you want them to. Open-ended, however, does not mean vague or unfocused. Questions that are too broad, for example, What do you think about the class so far? often overwhelm or confuse students and tend to pull for responses like I like it or It’s really hard. Questions that are “just right” offer a framework for discussion while still leaving room for students to voice their ideas. Some examples of questions that are “just right” in this context might be How can we make better use of out-of-class readings? or If you could change anything about this course so far, what would you change?  If students still offer short, nondescript responses you can ask them to elaborate with questions like: Could you tell me more about that? or How so? By asking questions and pressing students in gentle ways, you can encourage a discussion that not only helps you understand “problems” in the classroom, but possible solutions.

And so, what you get when you engage openly and thoughtfully with your students is more than just an answer to the question, How am I doing? You get a way forward through the mid-semester malaise and feedback that allows you to continue to develop as a professor and help your students to continue to develop as learners, thinkers, and creators.

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The Power of Good Questions

photoby Jerry Minsinger, Supervisor of Student Teachers and Adjunct Professor, Duquesne University, School of Education

This past Spring I had the opportunity to attend the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence Inspired Teaching Retreat: “The Olive Tree Effect.”  Using a future orientation, we explored several questions.  How do we motivate our students?  How do we motivate ourselves?  What are our plans for personal and professional growth?  The retreat encouraged reflection of teaching practices; the readings and content facilitated a constructivist approach to learning.  Multiple perspectives represented by various disciplines and experiences contributed to a healthy dialogue, enriching my capacity to learn and grow.

As a teacher, I have observed students who are disengaged from the text and class discussions.  This can be an albatross or an opportunity.  During the retreat, a discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation challenged me to consider my future purpose as a teacher, and strategies to address disinterest.  How can I model intrinsic motivation and promote personal growth, self-acceptance, and generativity?  How can I increase student engagement in the classroom and inspire students to become personally responsible, self-directed, reflective learners?  

Among the many takeaways of the retreat, I was intrigued by “the power of questions” to build relationships, engage students and facilitate learning.  Effective questions are thought provoking, reflective, and inspirational.  In the best sense, questions are motivational devices that elicit ownership and accountability.  Probing, open-ended questions require thoughtful responses, invite alternative viewpoints, and clarify misconceptions.

Good questions require students to analyze, evaluate, and create new thinking.  Questions are used in formative assessment, during instruction, to determine student understanding.  Powerful questions inform, organize, and require students to elaborate and act on their learning.  Examples include: What are you working on?  Can you provide an example?  Why are you doing this work?  How do you know your work is good?  Would you explain further what you mean?  What do you need to know in order to complete this work?  Where do you go for support?

The quality classroom requires rigorous activities that make learning meaningful and fun.  How does the teacher determine that students have learned?  Has teaching occurred if the students have not learned?  Who controls the learning?  What makes learning interactive and personal?  The benefits of powerful questions are numerous.  Good questions engage students in deeper learning and create energy in the classroom.  This is an adaptive challenge that improves the instructional process.

Rather than “telling” students or providing the “answers,” asking the right questions can lead them to “construct” new learning.  When you involve students in the process, they are more likely to take ownership, invest, and contribute.  Active listening and probing become instructional tools to deepen students’ knowledge.  Effective questions are invitational.  Students learn to hypothesize, connect ideas, and think critically.  Learning becomes authentic when students struggle to find the answer or solution to a problem.

“The power of questions” does not apply only to the classroom and my role as professor. As a parent, raising children is a fluid, evolving and exciting adventure.  Rebellion, challenge, and defiance can erode and disrupt healthy relationships.  I have found that questions are powerful tools in helping to work through difficult situations.  A knee jerk, visceral reaction is to tell, demand, or coerce, using parental directives “in the child’s best interest.”  This strategy often backfires or is resisted, causing further deterioration of the relationship, frustrating the participants.

Asking critical, thoughtful questions and allowing time for reflection, demonstrates care and concern.  Examples include: What is your purpose?  What are the benefits of your actions?  What values are you demonstrating in this decision?  What are some other options?  Why is this important to you?  Dialogue respects and honors the thoughts and ideas of others.  This opens the door to resolutions that are creative, synergistic, and most importantly, owned.

As a spouse, parent, teacher, or friend, powerful questions can help build healthy, enduring relationships.  Try it out.  The next time you find yourself making premature judgments about the motives of others, frustrated by situations out of your control, or worried about issues and events, use open-ended, probing questions.  Listen and inquire before responding.  You will empower others to think critically, reason, and practice personal responsibility.


Jerry Minsinger served 38 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools; as a principal at various school levels for 25 years.  Currently, Jerry serves as an adjunct professor and supervisor of student teachers in the School of Education at Duquesne University.

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Presence and Single Focus


Laurel Willingham-McLain
Learners – students and faculty alike – are starting a new semester. Here are some thoughts on how I want to approach this new beginning as a learner:
“Full attention is needed for learning.”
“Focus on one task at a time, and you’ll do better at each task in much less time.”
“Typically, research demonstrates that individuals who shift tasks make 50% more errors and spend at least 50% more time on both tasks” (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013, p. 79, based on Medina, 2008).

As a mother and center director, I had always prided myself on being a so-called ‘multi-tasker’. But lately I have noticed that I reach sensory overload very quickly. I have a very hard time, for example, focusing on a conversation or reading while the radio is on. In fact, I find it painful. My head hurts.

The research is clear. There is no such thing as multitasking – just serial switching, which has detrimental effects on both our work and the brain itself.

Now, of course, if at least one of the tasks is more procedural (repetitive, familiar, and low on cognitive processing), we can do two things at once. I can wash dishes and chat with a friend. Or walk and pray at the same time. But there are many tasks, both personal and work-related that deserve and even require my full attention.

And so, my resolution for this year is to learn to attend to one task at a time – be it a simple or complex task.

If I start to make a cup of tea, I plan to finish without using the intervening two minutes to leave the kitchen and fold the laundry – which inevitably means coming back to a tepid cup of water and starting the process over again. Or forgetting the tea altogether.

However, this resolution is not merely about being more efficient or productive but also about being present to the person I’m with rather than planning the next move in my mind. This focus is essential in other cultures where the present is valued more than the future. This doesn’t come naturally to me. I need to learn how to give very clear signals when I do need to move on from the conversation rather than allowing my mind to drift into giving half of my attention.

For reading and desk work, the pomodoro technique (aka, tomato timer) is a useful tool for attending to those tasks I’m resisting. The cycle of 25 minutes on task followed by a 5 minute break, fits another cognitive science finding: that we need to interweave our learning with “wakeful rest,” or periods of time where we are not taking in new information (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013, p. 25). We also need physical movement.

The good news is that I just succeeded in a small way. I wrote this blog post without checking email, text messages, or Facebook.

I can do it! So can you.

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Medina, J. (2008). Brian rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

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What’s your name again?

We all know how difficult it is to memorize the names of our students. Especially after several years of teaching it can seem as though we’re seeing similar faces each semester. But addressing a student as “you there in the second row” or calling them Jake when they’ve insisted multiple times they prefer Jacob can convey poor listening skills or a lack of care. Begin your semester with good first impressions by making every effort to learn student names within the first few weeks. Be candid with your students about how difficult it is to learn new names when you’re teaching three or four classes or one or two large classes. But make a concerted effort to show students that you care about creating quality faculty-student interactions. Check out the teaching and learning tip below prepared by Dr. Steven Hansen on this very subject:

Learning Student Names by Dr. Steven Hansen, Associate Director for Faculty Development, Center for Teaching

Image courtesy of Sicha Pongjivanich at

Image courtesy of Sicha Pongjivanich at

Excellence, Duquesne University

Instructors who learn their students’ names and use them in class build better student-faculty rapport, decrease the number of student absences, and bolster student participation (Sleigh & Ritzer, 2001).

“While it is difficult to learn students’ names in large classes,
an earnest attempt and even moderate success doing so,
is extremely salient to students.”

Here are some strategies that can help you to learn and remember student names:

1.   Make it a priority

” Focusing on any goal is the first step towards making it happen” (Mckinney, 2006).

2.  Study your course roster before the first class

Begin familiarizing yourself with the students’ names.  If you can memorize the roster of names, associating the faces of students with the names becomes easier.  At the first class, tell students to give you their last name and then you tell them their first name

3.  Get to know something about each student

Many Duquesne faculty members distribute blank index cards and ask students to give their name, nickname, hometown, major, year in school, etc.  I liked to ask students to tell me something about themselves such as hobbies, pets, favorite foods, etc.

A variation on the student index card is to have students make a passport for the second class:

“This is an exercise in creativity and an opportunity for you to get to know about the student as well as their name. Using an old notecard, have the student make a passport or document that tells about them. They must include a personal picture (a snapshot is okay), some information about their likes and dislikes, and something about where they have been and where they are going. This is especially helpful later, when the student calls and asks for a recommendation…you can use the card to jog your memory.” (Middendorf, 1997)

4. Include the class in learning names

“The student sitting at one of the corner desks at the front of the room begins by taking the first letter of their name and selecting an adjective that begins with the same letter. Examples include: ‘Gross Greg’ or ‘Awesome Alicia.’ The second person has to repeat the first person’s name preceded by its alliterative adjective and then gives their own. The third person repeats from the beginning and adds her own moniker to the game. When all of the students have participated I recount them all back by adding my own name at the end. It may or may not be your cup of tea, but it’s an effective device that is always good for a few laughs.”  (Middendorf, 1997)

5.  Use nametags or name tents, and /or a seating diagram

If remembering names is difficult for you, have students make a name tent to display at their desk or design a seating chart that reflects the arrangement of the seats in the room.  Some faculty members ask students to keep the same seat until they have memorized students’ names and faces.

6. Schedule group meetings

“I teach a class of 72-75 students every spring. Starting with the second week of class, for one week I have small group meetings with seven students at a time. I learn a little about them and they learn one another’s names. I take their picture as a group as well.”  (Middendorf, 1997)

Now it’s your turn to share. What strategies have you tried that have helped you retain those ever elusive student names?


Mckinney, Mary. (2006). Learning your students’ names. Tomorrow’s Professor #752

Middendorf, Joan. (1997). Learning student names. The National Teaching and Learning Forum

Sleigh, Merry and Ritzer, Darren. (November 2001). Encouraging Student Attendance. Association for Psychological Science Observer.

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thank you

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles,

Happy teacher appreciation week and happy summer break! The Flourishing Academic will be taking the summer off and returning at the start of the fall semester to welcome the new academic year with all of you.

In honor of teacher appreciation week I wanted to say a special thank you to all of the teacher-scholar writers that have made this first year of our blog a success! Thank you for the diversity and depth of perspectives and ideas you shared with all of us. It’s been both inspiring and fun to work with each of you.

Jeryl Benson
Danielle St. Hilaire
Susan Hines
Steven Hansen
Leslie Lewis
Rachel Luckenbill
Jessica McCort
Michael McGravey
Jerry Minsinger
Elizabeth Pask
James Purdy
Cheryl Read
Erin Rentschler
Allie Reznik
Heather Rusiewicz
Matthew Srnec
Sarah Wallace
Laurel Willingham-McLain
Richard “Lanny” Wilson

We’ve published 41 posts on a variety of topics related to teaching and learning and our authors are TAs, faculty, and staff from nine different departments and offices across campus with one guest writer from another university. We are truly blessed to have had such robust participation from a strong and innovative teaching community.

A big thanks also to the rest of The Flourishing Academic blogging staff: Mike McGravey (editor), Laurel Willingham-McLain (content editor), Steven Hansen (content editor) and Erin Rentschler (content editor) for making the machine run smoothly!

I wish you all a refreshing summer!
Rachel Luckenbill, Lead Editor for The Flourishing Academic



Breaking the Glass Slipper

By Dr. Jessica McCort, Instructor of Writing in the English Department, Duquesne University

breaking glass

Image courtesy of

Recently, I have become deeply invested in fostering my students’ ability to question the world around them, particularly the received messages that they tend to accept blindly rather than interrogate. This past semester, for example, in each of the classes I taught, we studied the written versions of different fairy tales with an eye to the fact that these stories are constantly evolving and changing based on the culture that is telling them. As one of the first written assignments for the semester, I asked my students to analyze a specific tale before they came into class to discuss it. I was once again struck, as I am every time I do this exercise, by how much students want to stick to the messages they have learned to associate with these stories, even when the words that are directly in front of them on the page contradict what they recall.

Let’s take “Cinderella,” for example, the tale my students were supposed to examine. I had asked them to read a translation of Charles Perrault’s version of the tale after our careful close reading of several different versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” and how the messages purveyed by each specific tale related directly to the culture out of which that particular version had evolved. Still, I got lots of reflection papers asserting that “Cinderella” is a “rags to riches” story in which the family’s poor, lowly housemaid “pulls herself up by her bootstraps” in order to become a princess; that the “charm” Cinderella has is that she’s such a kind person and that this is why she ascends in her social position by the story’s end.

In the version of the tale my students had read, Cinderella is not always just a lowly housemaid. She is the daughter of a gentleman, a girl who was knocked out of her rightful place in the social order by a stepmother who was a little nervous about her and her biological daughters’ place in the household. The tale has a lot to do with how blood will win out, how you can’t try to rearrange the social order. She may look like the housemaid, but she’s not. Secondly, she doesn’t “pull herself up by her bootstraps.” Her fairy godmother gives her all sorts of accoutrements to make her more desirable or, in the language of our specific translation, more “charming.” To follow up on the papers they had initially written, we spent the next class interrogating the text, asking questions of the following sort: If the Prince is so in love with Cinderella that he just can’t go on without her, why can’t he remember what she looks like? Shouldn’t he remember her face? Her voice? Why does it all boil down to whether a shoe fits or not?

My point here is that a crucial step in becoming a responsible citizen, a thinking person, and a worthy scholar is learning to question the world around you. To turn over the stones, especially the very familiar ones, and look underneath of them in an effort to understand the things squirming around in the loam. What my students wanted to stick to was an American Cinderella, a girl whose tale reflects the American Dream – not the girl they were actually reading about on the page. Any teacher of writing knows that a lot of what writing teachers actually teach is reading, and reading critically. In this case, I tried to get my students to turn the words over and think about the choices writers and translators make in order to persuade their audiences to accept or agree with a certain idea or perspective on the world. Such a thoughtful interaction with writing, especially in the freshman year, translates into greater depth of thought as our students move forward in academia and then enter the real world, whatever their profession.


Dr. Jessica McCort is an Instructor of Writing in the English Department at Duquesne University. Dr. McCort’s scholarship focuses on two areas: (1) the appropriation of children’s literature, particularly Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, by women writers and (2) gothic horror in literature for children and young adults, particularly in modern fairy-tale revisions. Her most recent book project is a compilation of essays concerning the intersection of the horror genre and children’s books.

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Reflections on Teaching in Duquesne’s New FlexTech Classroom

By Dr. James P. Purdy, Associate Professor of English and University Writing Center Director, Duquesne University

As someone with a scholarly interest in the design of pedagogical spaces for writing instruction (e.g., see for a link to Making Space: Writing Instruction, Infrastructure, and Multiliteracies, my in-press co-edited digital book with the University of Michigan Press on this topic), I was very excited to be scheduled to teach Writing for Digital Media in one of Duquesne’s new FlexTech classrooms in Spring 2015. This semester I also used another FlexTech classroom for a University Writing Center event.

FlexTech 551

The FlexTech classroom in College Hall 551. Image courtesy of Dr. James Purdy.

Duquesne’s FlexTech classrooms have seating organized in pods with chairs around glass-top tables and wall-mounted computers, wall glassboards, instructor stations with larger touchscreen monitors (and cool, fresh color schemes!). The room where I taught my course, 551 College Hall, has four pods and accommodates 20 students. The other room I used, 442 Fisher Hall, is larger, seating 40 students around five pods and one conference table. More information on the classrooms is available on Duquesne’s Media Services website:

I have learned much from teaching in the FlexTech classrooms and share here some of my reflections. While I’m drawing from my particular experiences, these reflections are intended to be relevant to teachers using other similar spaces. Your mileage may vary, of course—local context is crucial—but I hope these thoughts and ideas will be applicable and helpful.

FlexTech 551 pod setup

The pod setup in 551 College Hall, showing the writable tables and wall-mounted computers. Image courtesy of Dr. James Purdy.


The most exciting aspect of the space was the collaboration it afforded.

The up-to-date computer technology was super, but more exciting was that the seating arrangement encouraged more collaboration. Through its physical design the FlexTech classroom space helped to enact this approach by compelling students to look at, talk to, and write for one another (rather than only me).

Students appreciated opportunities to use their own computer technology.

Because digital writing and research spaces are now so personalized, students welcomed chances to work with their own tools in class.

With more and multiple spaces for writing, participation spread more fully across students.

As a teacher of writing-intensive courses, I frequently ask students to write in class. In the FlexTech spaces, students wrote more in class.

My class planning changed—and didn’t.

As the semester progressed, I intentionally designed activities to exploit the room’s technological, spatial, and material affordances (e.g., asking students to post group writing on the pod wall-mounted computers, to share question responses on the wall glassboards; to use the glass tabletops to write to generate ideas for discussion; to give presentations on digital writing and research tools using the large, front wall-mounted computer). However, I was careful not to ask students to use the room’s technologies or features for their own sake. Writing for Digital Media lent itself very well topically to use and critical exploration of the room, so most days included engagement with the computers and tables. But not all did. And I quickly learned that was okay.

Digital technology wasn’t always better.

Initially I was excited about the whiteboard app on the instructor machine that allowed for writing on the large wall-mounted monitor with a stylus or my finger. The digital technology was super for projecting texts, showing videos, and sharing directions, especially as each pod computer could show the content of my instructor computer, which made for easier reading for students. Writing “on the board,” however, didn’t require it, so I went back to the whiteboard. I found that writing with a marker on the glassboards ultimately worked better.

These spaces made writing fun.

Something about writing on tables with colored markers made writing enjoyable for everyone. Perhaps it was the novelty of the space and its setup. But capitalizing on such newness helped bring life and excitement to writing activities.



James P. Purdy teaches in the English Department and directs the University Writing Center at Duquesne. With Randall McClure, he edited two collections: The New Digital Scholar: Exploring and Enriching the Research and Writing Practices of NextGen Students, which was awarded the Silver Medal for Education in the Commentary/Theory Category for the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and The Next Digital Scholar: A Fresh Approach to the Common Core State Standards in Research and Writing, which was a finalist in the Educational/Academic Category at the 2014 USA Best Books Awards. With co-author Joyce R. Walker, he won the 2011 Ellen Nold Award for the Best Article in Computers and Composition Studies and the 2008 Kairos Best Webtext Award.


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