The Flourishing Academic

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

Leave a comment

Making space for students to feel complex emotions after a tragedy

Christina Frasher(0)

by Christina Frasher, Instructional Consultant, Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University; Part-time Faculty, Psychology, Point Park University

When a tragedy strikes that touches so many aspects of our identities, it can be meaningful to students for teachers to model how to make space for the complex emotions that may arise.

On Monday, October 29, 2018, after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I had my students listen to the last five minutes of WTC 9/11 for String Quartet and pre-recorded voices and strings composed by Steve Reich (learn more). I introduced the activity and shared that we would not begin class with “business as usual.” cellloI explained the background on the piece, that it was composed after 9/11 using interviews and recordings and that the section we would be listening to included the voices of volunteers who, honoring the Jewish tradition of staying with the deceased, stayed with the bodies and sang psalms.

After listening, I invited students to sit in silence for a few minutes and then offered them time to write reflections. I noted that I would not be collecting their writing. We then discussed any reactions or thoughts they wanted to share. Many students expressed gratitude at having the opportunity to slow down and experience the emotional tone of the music. They also noted that the music related to what they were experiencing and carried deep meaning that they had longed for. Some students shared their personal reactions to the shootings but all reactions and reflections were brief as the students seemed to value the contemplative nature of the activity.

Before we transitioned to the rest of class, I reminded students of support available to them through their university counseling center and invited them to reach out to me as well. At the end of class, some students wanted to share what they had written. Some expressed appreciation for the support I had offered. Just as not all students will perceive a tragic event in the same way, not all instructors will approach teaching after a tragedy in the same way. More resources are available on the Duquesne CTE website.





picture of carpet with phrase, " I can show you the WrHLD"

Leave a comment

I Can Show You the WrHLD


by Benjamin S. Goldschmidt, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Duquesne University

Have you ever been so busy you forgot a meeting even though you had entered it in your calendar? Since becoming an assistant professor, I have done this many times–as hard as it is to admit.  I believe the reason has to do with cognitive load. Cognitive load is the amount you can store in your short-term memory at the same time. As professors, we are tasked with many different duties such as performing research, mentoring and teaching students, and overseeing special projects for student groups and the department.  The cognitive load we bear is significant. Thus the stereotype of an absent-minded professor can be quite real.

Have you ever considered the cognitive load on your students? Put yourself in a student’s shoes. Their cognitive load is for new tasks as socialization to college, apartment/residence living, and employment, in addition to taking multiple classes each semester. One common problem all academic institutions have is simply getting students to turn in their work on time, or sometimes at all. People attribute this to varied reasons such as student choices or the difficulty of the work, but what if that isn’t the whole story? What if the organization of our courses has a dramatic impact on whether or not students submit assignments?

image of student clasping head in stress, with word "overload" looming above head

To investigate this, I ran an informal experiment during the first semester I taught Biomaterials & Characterization Techniques at Duquesne University. I asked students to turn in one single document every Monday at noon called a “WrHLD.” WrHLD, pronounced “world,” stands for the four weekly assignments: Writing, Homework, Lab and Design. I uploaded a template (WrHLWrHLD) to the Blackboard course site so that the students could simply drop the four assignments into a pre-formatted single submission each week.

Although students found the course challenging, by the end I noticed a greater than 50% reduction in the number of students forgetting to submit weekly work, compared to a previous course with weekly assignments.  And this occurred despite the course requiring a lot of student work.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t had missteps with this technique. One unexpected piece of the cognitive load was that I asked students to label each WrHLD with a number corresponding to which week of the semester we were in (i.e. Week 1 = WrHLD #1). This, however, proved to be a comparatively complex process. The students turned in their work, but overwhelmingly forgot what week we were in. I often got WrHLDs without numbers and had to determine the week by the content. In the future, I will simply use the date the assignment is due rather than an arbitrary number. I expect to see a significant improvement in labeling assignments once this is implemented.

image of calendar showing assignment due at noon every MondayAfter giving it some thought, I believe the improvement in student submission of weekly work resulted from three factors.

  1. Consistent, weekly due dates that do not change throughout the semester
  2. Having a single consolidated assignment for students to turn in each week
  3. Having a memorable acronym (WrHLD) along with a template available on Blackboard to remind students of what they need to submit every week

Each factor reduces the cognitive load for students by simplifying what they have to remember week to week. Having reduced the extraneous cognitive load on students, I can now guide them in focusing on important course content and skills rather than on when and what assignments are due.

Image Credits: The hand drawn  images in this post were created by Kiara Yough, student aide at Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence and a Biomedical Engineering student. 


undergraduate research program picnic at Duquesne University

Leave a comment

Best Practices in Mentoring Students: A Reflection

head shot Ben Kolberby Benedict J. Kolber, Ph.D., Associate Professor
Department of Biological Sciences, Duquesne University

“Mentoring” has been a buzzword in higher education for years, but its meaning varies by context. Mentoring relationships can be spontaneous and organic or assigned and structured. Mentoring occurs among faculty, staff, and students, and between peers and non-peers, alike. One  common mentoring relationship occurs between faculty and students — especially when faculty work individually with undergraduate and graduate students on research or projects.

The level of mentoring proficiency varies widely and does not directly correlate with the number of students mentored nor years experience. This may be due to how mentoring is typically learned. Most people mentor others as they have been mentored. So, your ability to mentor students effectively is a chance coming together of your previous experience as a mentee and your personal reflection on mentoring relationships. Unfortunately, even for those with positive mentoring role models, elements of mentoring, like those related to diversity and inclusion, often need to be developed.

To learn good mentoring practice and reflect on their own experiences, several Duquesne faculty participated in Entering Mentoring in spring 2017. This program, originally developed by the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching, is a free and customizable curriculum designed to guide both experienced and novice mentors.  At Duquesne, the program was supported by deans from Liberal Arts, Natural & Environmental Sciences, Health Sciences, and Pharmacy as well as by the Office of Research and the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE).   The workshop was facilitated by Erin Rentschler and Laurel Willingham-McLain from CTE, Philip Palmer from the sciences, and myself.

We met weekly to talk about these topics:

  1. Mentoring Goals and Expectations
  2. Assessing Understanding and Fostering Independence
  3. Mentoring Challenges and Solutions
  4. Addressing Diversity
  5. Dealing with Ethics
  6. Developing a Mentoring Philosophy

At the sessions, we discussed readings and cases, and peer-reviewed documents.  For me, one of the more valuable exercises was the development of a mentoring compact.  This  document, given to a new mentee (e.g. a new student in my biology laboratory), describes my expectations for them and things they can expect of me. It discusses our mentoring relationship, and also includes nuts and bolts of how to be successful in my laboratory.

group of undergraduate research students Duquesne University outside on academic walk

Undergraduate Research Program students with Ben Kolber, Duquesne University

Throughout the program we reflected on and shared best practices in mentoring. The participants represented diverse research fields, faculty rank, and opinions, which resulted in a robust discussion.  Here is some mentoring advice the participants gave for new mentors:

Think about goals and set expectations

  • Think about the environment and community that you are trying to develop.  Then work backwards towards the expectations and compact. This is backwards design of mentoring.
  • Put together a mentoring compact to set clear expectations for mentor and mentee.  

Mentor for student growth

  • People matter.  People change. Relationships are going to change with individual students over time.
  • You might be surprised by the ideas that come from undergraduate and graduate students.
  • Be patient with students.  Give them time to grow and learn.
  • Give students second chances.  People can respond well with clearly defined expectations.
  • Don’t be a helicopter parent.

    URP students poster

    Undergraduate Research Program student poster session, Duquesne University

Grow as a mentor

  • It is okay for you and the students to make mistakes.
  • Ask for help to learn how to mentor.  
  • Get perspective on other fields and how they mentor.  
  • You don’t have to be the perfect mentor in every way. Pick your strengths.
  • Suggest other mentors for your students.   You don’t have to do everything.

Mentoring – the big picture

  • Mentoring is fun.  
  • You are a representative of academia/institution to the public.  The students are watching. You may not even realize that you are mentoring a student.
  • Mentoring is a process not a destination.  
  • There is value in getting together with others to talk about mentoring.

And most importantly…

  • Don’t be intimidated by “best practices” lists. Start with small changes in your mentoring, reflect, and then adjust.

Overall, the Entering Mentoring program received strong reviews from the faculty participants. In particular, some very experienced faculty reported receiving much more out of the program than they expected, and some younger faculty were surprised at how much they could contribute to the discussion.

The next round of Entering Mentoring  is planned for summer 2018. So watch out Duquesne, the mentors are coming!

Leave a comment

What Are We Doing and Why? Transparent Assignment Design Benefits Students and Faculty Alike

Photo of Kasey Christopher at microscopeBy Kasey Christopher, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Duquesne University

As a biology professor, I like to imagine that the relevance of my subject matter is indisputable. Don’t we all? Unfortunately, I don’t always clarify how the focused exercises I ask students to do will translate into the “big picture” learning objectives I expect them to meet. It may be obvious to a student why abilities to hypothesize or interpret experimental data are useful in any career; it is decidedly less clear how writing about the appearance of worms in a petri dish serves these goals.

When I joined the Duquesne faculty in Fall 2015, I had little experience designing assessments. My instructions were rarely as clear as I thought. I failed to provide a context for what I was asking and for what students could hope to gain from completing the assignment, other than a grade. I tweaked assignments to increase clarity, but lacked the tools for dramatic improvement until I attended a 2016 Duquesne CTE workshop on Transparent Assignment Design presented by Mary-Ann Winkelmes.  This workshop revolutionized my approach to assignments, with little additional effort on my part. The tenets and inclusive nature of Transparent Assignment Design have been discussed on the Flourishing Academic before, so I won’t rehash them here. Briefly, transparent assignments are constructed with three key components: purpose, task, and criteria for success. This lies in stark contrast with the more traditional approach of providing only the task, perhaps with a rubric attached for higher-stakes assignments.

At the workshop, I practiced applying these principles to an assignment in which I asked students to examine mutant roundworms and speculate as to the developmental basis of their defects. When I gave the original version of the assignment, many students struggled with understanding how to guess the cause of the worms’ appearance. I refined the new “transparent” version of the assignment and put it into practice the next semester.  (The original and redesigned assignments have been submitted to the TILT Higher Ed project and are accessible here: from assignment

I was shocked at the results; by simply mentioning that learning to make observations and hypotheses was part of the key goal, and providing a successful sample response, I avoided the vast majority of confused student questions. Concurrently, the depth of thought that students put into their hypotheses increased noticeably.

Since attending Dr. Winkelmes’s workshop, I have incorporated this paradigm into every assignment I give. I believe the benefits to students are twofold: (1) Detailed criteria for success lead to improved clarity of expectations, showing students what I am asking them to do. (2) A specific purpose fosters deeper appreciation of the value of the assignment, explaining why I am asking them to do this and motivating students to spend more time thinking about their work. In particular, breaking the purpose into knowledge and skills  (Figure 1) emphasizes that the activities are useful not just for learning this specific content, but for honing skills that will be broadly applicable throughout college and postgraduate careers.

TAD Christopher figure 1 revFrom my perspective, the perks to faculty are impressive. It has made grading easier: fewer students completely miss the mark, while more adhere to the appropriate formatting and style. Coupled with demonstrated evidence of the student outcomes (Winkelmes et al., 2016), this would be sufficient motivation to use this assignment structure. However, I have noticed further indirect gains. First, by removing the confusion about basic requirements, I find that students worry less about what their assignment should look like, focusing more energy on content. I relish responding to questions about the impact of various mutations rather than about whether they must re-type the questions. Additionally, putting the purpose into writing forces me to think carefully about designing assignments that truly help students meet learning objectives. Creating specific criteria for success helps me anticipate common problems, thinking preemptively about what constitutes a good response.

Dr. Winkelmes and her colleagues have published strong evidence about the positive learning impact of showing students what you expect of them and why you are asking them to do specific tasks.  My experience suggests that as educators, asking ourselves the same questions can have a deep impact on teaching without drastic changes to our courses or large impositions on our time.

Works Cited:

Christopher, K. (2016) Sample E: C. elegans Mutant Phenotypes Assignment. Retrieved from TILT Higher Ed Examples and Resources.

Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1), 31-36. Retrieved from


Leave a comment

Lynn Hertrick Leavitt – Effective Teaching Through Caring

MarkPrestopnikBy Mark Prestopnik, Assistant Director of Online Teaching and Learning, Duquesne University

We honor the memory of Lynn Hertrick Leavitt (1965-2017) who taught part-time for 11 ½ years in the Duquesne University MS in Leadership Studies.


Lynn Hertrick Leavitt was a strong and kind-hearted woman. I first met Lynn when I was working in the School of Leadership and Professional Advancement many years ago. In my role, I helped to on-board faculty and acclimate them to our processes and standards, as well as connect faculty with the resources and services that the University offered.

Lynn was enthusiastic and eager from the start. Her work-ethic was apparent. She wasn’t afraid to ask questions and to give a great deal of energy to her adjunct teaching for Duquesne. Even though Lynn had several other professional responsibilities, she always carved out time to provide more than enough attention to the courses she was teaching for Duquesne.

Lynn was proud of teaching for Duquesne. She really believed in the University, its mission, and the education of adult and professional students. She participated in retreats with the Center for Teaching Excellence, and was always seeking to further enhance her teaching and mentoring abilities. She made it a point to travel from Virginia multiple times to celebrate with her students at commencement. She was as much a part of the team as other faculty who lived in the immediate Pittsburgh area.

Even though it was outside of the realm of her responsibilities, Lynn constantly sought to promote Duquesne and its online leadership programs. She would relate stories about being at conferences and events and espousing the value of these degrees to those whom she sensed would benefit from them. If there was something that our administrative team would ask of the faculty, she would be one of the first to offer her hand and time, and to share ideas on how we could make things work more effectively.


On a personal level, Lynn was very kind and thoughtful. She always took the time to ask how I was doing, to encourage me professionally, and to reconnect if it had been several months since our last conversation. I could tell that she also had a similar impact when interacting with and motivating her students. She was authentic, and simply put, she cared. Even though most of our interaction was through phone or email, it was clear the type of person who Lynn was, and the positive impact that she had upon others.

The lesson that I’d like to impart to others inside academia, the lesson that I will take with me from knowing Lynn, is to put your heart into your work and your interactions. Take time to care about people on a genuine level. Look for ways that your interaction with others can make them better off, and in turn leave you more fulfilled knowing that you helped them. Get to know people, understand what matters to them, and you will find that this allows for a greater range of possibilities in your teaching and mentoring. It’s not always about knowing the right answer, or knowing the ideal solution to a problem. Sometimes it’s just listening a little bit more, and putting in that extra effort that can make the difference.

Leave a comment

Happy New Year…



Erin Rentschler, Center for Teaching Excellence
at Duquesne University


It’s not too late to wish everyone a happy new year, right? Of course not, especially with the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat being celebrated this week.  My children and I are learning together about this festival. Tu B’Shevat, also called the New Year for Trees, celebrates the initial awakening of the earliest blooming trees, which have been dormant in the winter. It provides an opportunity to appreciate what the trees provide us: beauty, clean air, fruit — the list goes on. While we in Pittsburgh are still very much in the thick of winter whites and greys, thinking of the green that will emerge in the months ahead is energizing. After the hustle and bustle of the winter holidays and the start of a new semester, reflecting on what is to come can help put and keep our goals in perspective. The buds on the trees will surface and we will celebrate the longer, sunnier days;  however, pausing to think about that eventual emergence is pretty inspiring, too.

Don’t worry — The Flourishing Academic won’t be dormant for too long. We’re on a break right now as we at CTE settle into our new location in Duquesne’s Fisher Hall (where we have a view of the trees gearing up for the spring from our new conference room!).


a sneak peek of CTE’s new space!

We are also busy preparing for this semester’s micro-workshops and for the first Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium on Friday, March 16, 2018. In April, we’ll be ready for our annual Celebration of Teaching Excellence, where we recognize winners of teaching awards for faculty and graduate students, recipients of the Certificate of University Teaching, workshop presenters, committee members, faculty near-peer mentors, blog writers, and orientation volunteers. Checking out the Undergraduate and Graduate Student Research and Scholarship Symposiums is on our agenda, too.

These upcoming events are comparable to seeing those beautiful trees in bloom, as this is a time to showcase and appreciate the hard work of our faculty and students alike.

It’s an exciting year ahead, and we look forward to sharing it with you.




Leave a comment

Winter Break: Rediscovering What Brings You Joy



by Steve Hansen, Center for Teaching Excellence at Duquesne University



Duquesne’s new Strategic Plan envisions “a vibrant campus community” through making “available to faculty and staff ample and fulfilling opportunities for personal and professional growth.”  While this is a worthy institutional commitment, we need to remember that personal and professional growth also takes place off the Duquesne bluff by discovering what enriches us in our private lives away from work.  Current research shows that time spent away from campus plays a crucial role in your overall wellbeing.

The time you spend socializing, playing and sleeping reduces burnout

In a study of faculty burnout at doctoral institutions, Padilla and Thompson (2016) say, “As expected, more social support, hours spent with family, hours spent on leisure activities and hours spent sleeping are related to a decrease in burnout.”

Among faculty, the temptation to let work replace everything else is pervasive

Sorcinelli and Near (1989) recount one faculty member’s recollection: “Since I’ve come here I’ve worked all the time and I can’t even remember activities I used to take great pleasure in, because it’s so long since I’ve let myself do that . . .  I don’t like particularly what it’s done to me and I feel very strongly that I need some balance in my life.”

The happiness you find in an activity determines its contribution to your recovery from stress

In a study examining work-related, household, social and physical activities, Oerlemans, Bakker and Demerouti (2014) found that “it is not just time spent on off-work activities but the subjective experience of such activities that plays a pivotal role in the way they are linked to recovery.”  In other words, the personal joy that an activity brings you contributes to the reduction of stress and the promotion of your well being.

As winter break approaches, try to spend a little time doing things that bring personal pleasure to you. Give yourself permission to play, sleep, and socialize.  You will find that discovering joy in your private life will help you ultimately in your personal and professional growth.


10 activities that might bring you joy over the winter break…

  1. Sleep in! Your grades are finished.
  2. Read a book unrelated to your academic work.
  3. See a movie with a friend or loved one.
  4. Get outside. Take a walk, ski, snowshoe, window shop, walk the dog, take a bike ride, etc.
  5. Do something unexpected for someone. Visit a shut-in, give to a food pantry, etc.
  6. Spend time with family and friends.
  7. Be realistic about your work agenda. You can accomplish a lot by regularly setting aside brief times for writing, grant proposals and projects.
  8. Simplify holiday preparations by remembering that things do not need to be elaborate to be enjoyable.
  9. Take time to look at the holiday decorations.
  10. Revisit an abandoned hobby, talent or interest!

The staff at the Center for Teaching Excellence

wish you an enjoyable winter break and happy new year!

Oerlemans, W. G., Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2014). How feeling happy during off-job activities helps successful recovery from work: A day reconstruction study. Work & Stress28(2), 198-216.
Padilla, M. A., & Thompson, J. N. (2016). Burning Out Faculty at Doctoral Research Universities. Stress and Health32(5), 551-558.
Sorcinelli, M., & Near, J. (1989). Relations between Work and Life Away from Work among University Faculty. The Journal of Higher Education, 60(1), 59-81. doi:10.2307/1982111