The Flourishing Academic

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


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Giving Thanks

Dear Colleagues,

We at CTE all have a lot to be grateful for as we approach the season of holidays, but this thankfulness is also part of our every day. From our house at 20 Chatham to your classrooms, offices, and homes —

Thank you

for being committed to student learning. 

for bringing your ideas and energy to CTE.

for serving as peer leaders.

for taking risks in your teaching.

for reflecting on your own learning.

for being dedicated teacher-scholars. 

Perhaps most importantly, thank you for walking alongside one another and helping us all to learners. 

Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving break,

Laurel, Steve, Erin, Christina, Nikki, and Kiara

 


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What makes the military and veteran population students unique?

Lee Wagner casusl photo
 Lee Wagner, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran
This blog post is a collaboration between Lee Wagner and Erin Rentschler.

Over the past year, I have had the honor of learning from Lee Wagner, Duquesne University School of Nursing’s out-going Veterans to BSN Academic Coach. Lee also chaired the Veterans’ Engagement Consortium, a group of faculty and staff from across the University who are interested in helping to better serve our veteran and military students through targeted engagement focused on academic success and career preparation.

I asked Lee to reflect on how instructors can enhance the learning experience of this population of students—whose pathways to higher education and future directions both have a lot to offer both within and outside of the University. Over the course of the year, we hope to continue reflecting on how military and veteran students contribute to and diversify our campus community.  Lee’s thoughts are below. We wish him well in his new role as Veterans Program Outreach Specialist for the White Oak Vet Center.

I am often asked by faculty, “What makes the military/veteran population students unique?” That seems like a simple question to answer, but it can quickly become a rabbit hole of assumptions and speculation.  There are two simple answers, one is, “their life experience” and the other is that a majority of veteran students are first generation college students.  This unique life experience and a lack of exposure to traditional university life can leave the veteran student feeling isolated and confused.  In order for an instructor to understand this student population best, they must first have a better understanding of what that unique life experience is, what it is not, and how it differs from traditional college life.  This post will focus on the military experience, but a later post may center on the intersection of first generation and military and veteran students. 

Let us start with what it is not.  Not all military and veteran students have a service-connected disability, have seen combat trauma, or want to talk about their time in the military. There are hundreds of military occupation specialties that a man or woman can serve in.  Some members serve in the infantry, which has a higher likelihood of experiencing combat, while others serve in clerical administration positions that have a lesser chance of seeing action.  However, both can serve in a combat zone. Other occupation specialties include cooks, medics, reporters, truck drivers and helicopter mechanics–the list goes on.  Having assumptions about one’s service can limit the potential of the student and can greatly diminish the connection they make with the faculty member or University. 

Second, what it is.  Military experience, is just that, experience!  Our society often places an unnecessarily high value on military service. Today’s military services members are all volunteers who have willfully entered into a contract with the US government.  Of course, their service needs to be respected and honored; however, it should not lead us to blind patriotic beliefs that all military and veteran students are the same.  Those are assumptions that should not be made.

individuality

Lastly, how does military service experience differ from traditional college life?  The best way to understand this question is to ask the student veteran directly, yourself.  My point being that all service members are people (individuals) first and how they see their experience is based off their core values and beliefs, not our own assumptions or generalizations about what military life is/service is like. 

Here is a tip to help get you started: when speaking with any veteran, not just a student, incorporate these kinds of opened-ended questions into your conversation.

  • Can you tell me more about why you decided to serve in the military?
  • Why did you choose the branch you served in?

The answers to these questions will give you insight into how that particular student’s military experience shapes who they are as a person and how they differ from a traditional college student. From there, you can begin taking steps for engaging this unique individual in an engaging learning experience.

Lee’s reflection begins thinking through how we might both serve and be served by our veteran and military students in our teaching and learning endeavors. I hope you’ll join me in considering this population as one of many that make Duquesne University a unique place to teach, learn, and work.

One place to continue this conversation is at the upcoming talk by Elizabeth R. Barker, who will present Military and Veteran Culture across the Education, Practice, and Research Continuum.” Details and additional resources below.

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For more information about how Duquesne engages and supports military and veteran students, see the following resources.
Miller, R. S., Accamando, D., & Wagner, L. (May 12, 2017). Collaboration between an Academic Library and Campus Partners to Connect with Military and Veteran Students. Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice, 5, 1, 35-41.
Support Services for Military and Veteran  Students at Duquesne University

 

 

 


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Office Hours: Meeting Students Where They Are

This post is drawn from CTE’s Teaching & Learning Tip on Effective Office Hours, written by Erin Rentschler.

Many students, especially freshmen, do not realize the value of one-on-one interaction with their instructors.  When done well, instruction during office hours benefits both students and instructors. Office hours help improve teaching and learning by:

  1. Facilitating deeper learning by sharing additional resources and engaging in dialogue with students, especially those who might be excelling in your course.
  2. Coaching students before they have performance problems to help them grasp key concepts or clarify assignment expectations.
  3. Working with students who are performing poorly to learn how to guide or assist them.
  4. Fostering  important “critical connections” between student, instructor, and material by providing an opportunity to get to know one another—not for the sake of personal relationships, but to create “a positive and productive working relationship” (Kreizinger 2006).connecting puzzle pieces

So…how to make this happen? Read on for some tips on effective office hours.

Get Them There

  • Explain what office hours are on the first day of class, but remind students throughout the semester where and when they can find you. Post your hours and location on the course syllabus and consider publicizing office hours on Blackboard and/or in your email’s “signature” so that students see this information regularly.
  • Group sessions can ease some pressure, establish rapport between students (increasing class time collaboration), and streamline providing feedback. Topic-based office hours model productive individual sessions.
  • Consider requiring students to meet with you early in the semester, especially if you have smaller classes. Once they surpass initial anxiety, students are likely to come on their own. While it’s wise to have students schedule these visits around a course assignment, a brief meeting to discuss their personal goals for the class can also be effective. Other ideas for required visits
    • Davis (1993) suggests that writing “see me about this during office hours” gets a 75% response rate. However, you can avoid making office hours punitive by centering the requested visit on both praise and constructive criticism.
    • Nilson (2010) suggests having students drop off or pick up assignments during office hours rather than during class time.
  • Consider alternative “office spaces
    • “neutral spaces” may alleviate anxiety, and meeting in a working space, like the library, provides space to model learning or disciplinary practices.
    • Walk and talk. Requests for general information or clarification can be addressed “on the fly,” as you walk from one class to the next.
    • Supplement office hours with technology. Email, discussion boards, twitter or other online spaces “are most efficient when communications are brief and to the point and offer ‘easy answers to easy questions.’” (LASTA).
  • Allow time spent in office hours to count toward the course participation grade.
  • Plan office hours carefully. Avoid what James Lang calls “the Early Bird approach” (or variations of it) by
    • waiting, if you can, until the semester begins and polling your students to see when  a majority of them will be free. When teaching in one of Duquesne’s Learning Communities, for example, it doesn’t make sense to schedule office hours during the time slot during one of the other courses.
    • Holding office hours after class, so that “questions and concerns can be  addressed immediately” (LASTA).

      Office-hours

      What not to do when scheduling office hours. 

Be Productive Once They’re There

  • Instruct students on how to prepare, and ask them to reschedule if they haven’t.
  • Segment your office hours and ask students to come during a particular time slot; the new Starfish calendaring tool in Blackboard could be helpful in managing time slots. Set clear guidelines as to what can and cannot be accomplished within the specified time frame.
  • If students come to office hours eager to inform you of their latest dormitory exploits, set clear boundaries without dismissing the students entirely. LASTA suggests “reflect[ing] on the role you can play in students’ lives.” Remember that your primary responsibility is to foster learning, but be empathetic. Provide students with additional campus resources (Writing Center, Wellbeing Center, etc.), but make certain that they understand you aren’t ignoring them or denying a request for help.
  • “To maximize the value of your consultation, make it as student-active as possible” and make it clear to students that office hours are not a condensed version of class (Nilson 2003).

Get them to Come Back

  • Follow up with students on issues raised during office hours. Send an email with an additional resource that might be of interest or ask about an exam/event mentioned in passing.
  • Make students feel welcome and comfortable: “Interact with students with intentional time and depth” (Robertson). Close your books, silence your phone, and turn off the computer.

  • Validate the points students make in office hours. In Tools for Teaching Barbara Gross Davis (1993) suggests bringing students’ outside comments into the classroom: “If they make a good comment, check with them first to see whether they are willing to raise the idea in class, then say: ‘Jana, you were saying something about that in the hall yesterday. Would you repeat it for the rest of the class?’”

Learn from Students during Office Hours

While taking advantage of office hours to work on research or grading may sound appealing, not meeting with students can actually put you at a disadvantage. Once you have students visiting your office hours, you’re likely to learn from your students. Use the time to solicit feedback about the course and instructional materials. Ask students what they like about the course and what confuses or challenges them. Students are more likely to be honest if you demonstrate genuine interest in hearing what is working well and what needs improvement.

Resources
Davis, Barbara Gross (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Kreizinger, Joe (2006). “Critical Connections for the First Day of Class” The Teaching Professor. 20.5
Lang, James M. (2003). “Putting in the Hours: You Can Tell a lot about Faculty Members by How They Set Up Their Office Hours.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Liberal Arts and Sciences Teaching Academy (LASTA). University of Illinois. “Making the Most of Office Hours”
Nilson, Linda (2010). Teaching at its Best. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Robertson, Douglas (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.


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One Small Thing…

headshotErin Rentschler, Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University

If you could make one small change to your teaching repertoire and create the potential for significant impact on student learning, would you try it?

Over the past year or so, several colleagues at Duquesne University have been exploring just this notion of small teaching, a concept presented by James Lang in Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.  Lang argues, that You can create powerful learning for your students through the small, everyday decisions you make in designing your courses, engaging in classroom practice, communicating with your students, and addressing any challenges that arise.”

small ballComparing the notion of small teaching to baseball’s small ball (that idea that ball games are won through “simple, incremental strategies” that get players from base to base), Lang writes that it’s unrealistic to think that instructors have time for “sudden and dramatic transformation” of their teaching when they have so many responsibilities. The result? His book of small teaching strategies that can be implemented with minor, if any disruption, to your course design.

This notion aligns with CTE’s SCALE initiative (Small Changes Advancing Learning).  Our Fall 2017 SCALE UP micro workshops highlighted Lang’s strategies for helping students retrieve knowledge, connect information for greater understanding, and foster a growth mindset. At each 30 minute workshop, CTE staff highlighted key points from the respective sections of Small Teaching, and provided faculty and graduate student participants with opportunities to design a strategy for a small change that they could implement later in the semester, the week – or even later that day!

Here are some examples of the small changes faculty at Duquesne envision.

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Faculty statements of the “one small thing” they might try to increase student learning

Spending just a few minutes of class time to focus on the process of learning can have a significant impact on student learning because it fosters a growth mindset.  Carol Dweck describes growth mindset as a state of mind that helps students take risks, challenge themselves, and persist in their learning, because they believe that intelligence is not a fixed trait, but one that can increase with practice and hard work.process-of-learning-resized1.jpg

Another method is to provide feedback that fosters growth. Think: “This topic is challenging, but by continuing to work with it, you’ll grow your brain and have a better understanding” rather than “Perhaps you should change your topic.” Yet another method for fostering growth? Promote success strategies by having experienced students write tips for succeeding in the course and sharing them with new students. These strategies reinforce that learning is a process that develops over time.

Likewise, giving “quizlets” in class provides students with low stakes opportunities to practice retrieving knowledge. This is important because, as Lang writes, “the more times any of us practice remembering something we are trying to learn, the more firmly we lodge it in our memories for the long term.”  Quizzes and tests not only measure learning; they are valuable tools that “help students exercise their memory muscles to improve and solidify their knowledge base.” Reconceiving of quizzes and tests as “retrieval practice” can decrease anxiety and places emphasis on how learning happens.

And guess what! These activities can also help students to discover connections between old knowledge and new knowledge. Calling attention to these connections helps students fortify their foundations. Because students don’t always see the larger organizational picture that we can see as experts in our fields, our helping them retrieve old knowledge and map new knowledge networks deepens learning.   A small teaching strategy for helping students connect information is to draw concept maps, visual depictions that identify connections between ideas in succinct ways.

Like the sound of some of these strategies? Hungry for more? Check out Lang’s book or – better yet – join the author and regional faculty who have been exploring small teaching strategies at the first annual Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium on March 16, 2018.  Think you have a small teaching strategy that could help your colleagues? Submit a proposal by November 1! Details below.

Call for Proposals

The Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium welcomes proposals across four session types from all faculty, graduate students, librarians, instructional designers, and others involved in teaching and learning or educational development:

  • Concurrent Interactive Workshops
  • Steal My Idea / Pecha Kucha
  • Recipes for Success
  • Posters

Sessions may be presented by individuals or small groups. The proposals will be blind reviewed by colleagues from across the region.

For details on session types, click here.

To submit a proposal, click here.

We look forward to hearing about your small teaching ideas. CTE staff are available to consult on your proposals.


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Parallelograms and Poetry: helping first generation students connect

Cepek Photo

Rebecca Cepek, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of English, Duquesne University

A friend recently posted this joke on a social media site.parallelogram

This reminded me that students often do not understand the value of an assignment, especially first-generation college students, who often find themselves overwhelmed by minutiae that traditional students easily navigate. How to read a syllabus, paper prompt, or rubric are hurdles that must be cleared before they can even think about completing the assignment itself.

First-generation students are thus often doing twice the work of traditional students before they even begin an assignment. If, at this point, students cannot see or understand how these assignments align with their overall educational, career, or personal goals, they are likely to become discouraged, and to question why they are learning about parallelograms—or poetry—rather than something that seems more practical.

Transparent assignment design addresses this issue by explicitly communicating the skills and knowledge that students will acquire or increase through completion of the assignment. These skills are articulated as both discipline-specific and “real world” skills.

For example, a transparently designed close reading of a poem explains that students will gain and improve skills in understanding and analyzing literary texts and analyzing how literary devices help create meaning in texts, as well as critical reading and comprehension of complex texts.

Cepek assignment flow chart darker

Close Reading of a Poem Assignment

 

Furthermore, transparent assignment design also requires an explanation of when and how these skills will be used. For this assignment, I explain that the ability to comprehend and analyze difficult texts is a skill that they will find necessary in other classes, and also one that will be essential to their success, both personal and professional, outside of academia. Mastering the analysis of poetry specifically, which is often dense and multilayered, will prepare them for any similar texts they may encounter and will help them come to an understanding and appreciation of the many nuances and levels of language.

This type of transparency is particularly useful for students who cannot see the connections between reading a poem and reading a report. Indeed, many students struggle to make these connections, but it is of paramount importance for first-generation students who need to be reassured that the benefits of higher education are worth the sacrifices – emotional, personal, and financial – that they are making to pursue that education.

In addition to helping first-generation students understand the value of assignments, it also aids in the successful completion of those assignments. This requires a change from what Mary-Ann Winkelmes, creator of transparent assignment design, calls “a ‘gatekeeper’ perspective,” the mistaken idea “that if a student can’t figure out the unwritten but implied purposes, tasks, and criteria for an assignment, that student shouldn’t succeed in the course and shouldn’t continue in the discipline.”

Instead, transparent assignment design lays out the steps needed to complete an assignment in a simple and easy to understand way, explaining terms (such as close reading) that are often unfamiliar to first-generation students. This is crucial to the success of students, who hesitate to ask for help, especially for understanding something that it seems like all of their peers already understand.

In my experiences with freshman composition, transparent assignment design has been immensely helpful for both traditional and nontraditional students alike. It has also forced me to articulate the value not only of my assignments but of my discipline, as well as how my chosen discipline is interconnected with other disciplines. Finally, transparent assignment design is a minor change that instructors can make, with huge benefits for everyone, but especially for first-generation students.  Because ultimately, it is always parallelogram season.


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Welcome to the 2017-2018 Academic Year!

CTE had a busy summer, but we’re thrilled that the academic year is underway. Here are just a few highlights of the exciting work we did over the summer:

  • CTE hosted and participated in seven orientations for new faculty and graduate students. What a way to usher in the new year!
  • Laurel Willingham-McLain prepared an article on CTE’s Near Peer Mentoring Exchange  with colleagues from the School of Education using data from recent focus groups.
  • Steve Hansen was busy as co-program chair for the upcoming conference of the POD Network.
  • Erin Rentschler attended the Project-Based Learning Institute at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts with faculty members from the history and English departments.
  • CTE welcomed two new graduate students to our staff. Christina Frasher joined us as the new Instructional Consultant for Teaching Assistants and Nikki Klingler started as our Program Assistant. We couldn’t be happier to introduce them to you.
  • We’ve been planning for the first Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium at Duquesne University on Friday, March 16, 2018.  The symposium is a regional collaboration of colleges and universities with support from the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education and will feature  a keynote address by James Lang, author of Small Teaching: Every Day Lessons from the Science of Learning (check out some of Lang’s writings for The Chronicle of Higher Education).  Stayed tuned for more information, including a call for proposals. 

We are thrilled to have the students and faculty back with us for what we hope will be an exciting year full of learning. The Flourishing Academic will soon feature new posts by CTE staff and members of the Duquesne community. If you’re interested in writing for us, please email cte@duq.edu. In the meantime, check out the Teaching and Learning Tips on our Duquesne website.

happy new year


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Summer Break

The Flourishing Academic will be taking a break for the summer. We look forward to new posts starting in August.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check out CTE’s website for teaching and learning tips.   As always, CTE staff are available throughout the summer as you plan courses and write syllabi.

And while you’re at it, check out this essay from Faculty Focus on “Taking Time to Refresh, Recharge, and Recommit.” In it, Maryellen Weimer posits summer as a time to reflect on the past to re-energize for what’s coming up next. She suggests using “a planned and purposeful set of activities that renews your commitment to and passion for teaching. This is not the kind of refresh that comes from revising a syllabus, choosing a new textbook, or working out the details of a group project. This needs to be about you and what will enable you to stand excitedly before students the next time you teach.”