The Flourishing Academic

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

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Helping Students Learn from Returned Tests

This teaching and learning tip has been compiled by Dr. Steven Hansen, Associate Dir. of Faculty Development at Duquesne University’s Center for Teaching Excellence

With approximately one month left in the semester it’s not too late to adopt a new practice that could increase your students’ learning gains. In this post, Dr. Hansen uncovers some simple ways to help students see beyond their test scores and examine their own learning process. Visit CTE’s webpage for more teaching and learning tips.


Image courtesy of artur84 at

Exam wrappers, post-test surveys, and error analysis exercises are useful tools to help your students to learn from returned exams and to perform better on future tests.

“All too often when students receive back a graded exam, they focus on a single feature – the score they earned. Although this focus on ‘the grade’ is understandable, it can lead students to miss out on several learning opportunities that such an assessment can provide.” (Ambrose, et al, 2010)

The next time you return a test or exam, consider assigning your students an exercise to help them learn from the test.

What can students learn from an Exam Wrapper, Post-Test Survey or Error Analysis Exercise?

In the Error Analysis Exercise outlined by Du Bois and Staley (1997), students analyze their wrong answers to find three dimensions:

  1. Students “identify the informational source(s) of the questions” that they missed. Did the information come from the text, lecture, other source, or a combination of sources?
  2. Students then “identify the strategies they should have employed to make information more meaningful and memorable.” Did the students have the information marked in their text? Were their notes about the topic sufficient for review?
  3. “Once students identify error patterns on our test, they generate a study plan to repair the deficiencies encountered in the analysis.”

What are some examples of Exam Wrappers or Post-Test Surveys?

Sample Exam Wrapper for a physics course might include the following:

1. Approximately how much time did you spend preparing for this exam? ______2  What percentage of your test-preparation was spent in each of these activities?a. Reading textbook section(s) for the first time ______b. Rereading textbook section(s) ______

c. Reviewing homework ______

d. Solving problems for practice ______

e. Reviewing your own notes ______

f. Reviewing materials from course website ______

g. Other _______

(Please specify) _______________________________

3. Now that you have looked over your graded exam, estimate the percentage of points you lost due to each of the following.

a. Trouble with vectors and vector notation ___________

b. Algebra or arithmetic errors __________

c. Lack of understanding of the concept __________

d. Not knowing how to approach the problem ________

e. Careless mistakes _______

f. Other ________

(Please specify) ___________

4. Based on your responses to the questions above, name at least three things you plan to do differently in preparing for the next exam. For instance, will you spend more time studying, change a specific study habit or try a new one (if so, name it), make math more automatic so it does not get in the way of physics, try to sharpen some other skill (if so, name it), solve more practice problems, or something else?

5. What can we do to help support your learning and your preparation for the next exam?

(From Ambrose, et al, 2010)

A General Post-Test Survey might include the following items:
(This survey is from

Part I — How did you Study for the Exam

1. Which part of the exam was easiest for you? Why?2. Which part of the exam was most difficult? Why?3. Activities completed prior to exam (answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’):a. All required reading assignments

b. Review of lecture notes

c. Make study sheets from reading and lecture notes

d. Self-testing/reciting of material

e. Prediction of possible questions

f. Study with friends

g. Other:____________________________

4. Which of the above did you find most helpful in preparing for this exam?

5. How many hours did you spend preparing for the exam? On how many different days did you study?

6. Did you feel prepared when you walked into the exam? Why or why not?

7. How might you study for the next exam in this course differently than you studied for this exam?


Part II — Identify the Problems You Had with the Exam

1. Write the number of each item you missed in the top row of the chart.
2. Check each sentence that fits the missed question.
3. Total the checks in each row.
4. Look at the sentences with the highest totals and decide what you can do to get a better test score next time.
Question Incorrect          # Totals
Insufficient Information
The information was not in my notes.
I studied the information but could not remember it.
I knew the main ideas but not details.
I knew the information but could not apply it.
I studied the wrong information.
I did not read the text thoroughly.
Test Anxiety
I spent too much time daydreaming.
I was so tired I could not concentrate.
I was so hungry I could not concentrate.
I panicked.
I experienced mental block.
Lack of Test-Wisdom
I did not eliminate grammatically incorrect choices.
I did not make the best choice.
I did not notice limiting words.
I did not notice a double negative.
I carelessly marked a wrong choice.
Test Skills
I misread the directions.
I made poor use of the time provided.
I wrote poorly organized responses.
I wrote incomplete responses.
I changed a correct answer to a wrong one.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C. & Noman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Du Bois, N. F., & Staley, R. K. (1997): “A Self-Regulated Learning Approach to Teaching Educational Psychology. Educational Psychology Review 9 (2): 171-197.

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The High Call of Being an Educator

By Richard “Lanny” Wilson, Theology Ph.D. Candidate  at Duquesne University Lanny Wilson
Lanny has a lovely wife and three young and energetic children that keep him very busy. 

Satisfaction is the best way I can describe it. When you get that letter, or email, or evaluation where the student says something like, “This class has positively changed how I think.” I had a student write a similar statement in a reflection assignment not too long ago. My first thought was equal parts embarrassment and exhilaration. My next thought was that I hope they weren’t just trying to “butter me up.” Nevertheless, I just took the student at their word. The emotional impact hit me in a one-two punch.

First, elation. Wow, a student thought my class changed their mind!

Second, anxiety. Oh, no! What have I done? Did I change their mind for the better? Don’t get me wrong. I was thankful for being a vessel of change. I was thankful for such a wonderful opportunity. For such a terrifyingly wonderful opportunity.

This moment exposed to me the gravity of what it means to be an educator. As an instructor I really do have an impactful influence over other minds. What an awesome responsibility! What an awesome privilege! As instructors, we have an obligation to give these students our all. They are not peripheral to our mission – they are our mission. We exist to serve them. And we do this by challenging their ways of thinking. We push back against bias and ignorance. We expose poor ideas and present alternative concepts to fill the void. We encourage, exhort, and extol them to do better and to achieve their inherent potential.

As educators we are in a never-ending cycle of preparatory work. We are constantly learning, developing, and sharpening our positions. We make mental notations of what works in lecture and what does not. The next time we cover that subject we try and get it “more right” than we did before. We attend and participate in conferences and workshops ever in search of better, more effective strategies to help our students. We often have long, lonely nights grading or prepping material. Frequently this is done with little-to-no thanks. Perhaps that’s why it is so encouraging when a student seemingly acknowledges all of your hard work – even when it may seem like a throwaway comment at the time.

As educators we understand the importance of shaping the minds of the next generation of students. Our students may not comprehend our sacrifice and dedication; nevertheless, they will base life-altering decisions on what we teach them. They will apply what they learn in our classes. Hence, we need to teach them well. We have the privilege and honor of influencing the next generation of citizens and scholars. Even with the “mid-semester” fatigue setting in and student apathy on the rise, let us continue to be teachers of excellence – guiding students the way we were, or would want to be guided; genuinely caring for them as people of immeasurable worth; shepherding them through the hazardous labyrinth of academia – so that when the time comes they will be able to navigate the rough waters of life.

Ask yourself, what teacher had a profound influence on you? How did their class(es) shape who you became? How different may your life have been had you never crossed their path? Likewise, how do you think you influence your students? What would they say about you if given a dose of “truth serum”? Give them every reason to think of you in the best possible way. I had a professor in seminary that greatly influenced the tenor and path of my own educational journey. He was a brilliant individual who could move effortlessly between hermeneutical theory to metaphysics to philosophical theology and all the while crack jokes to both engage students and illustrate his points. It was really something to behold. And at the end of the day he genuinely cared for his students. He was a striking example of someone who could both effectively communicate profound intellectual notions and nurture students on a more personal level. He not only counseled and encouraged me in pursuing further education, but exemplified the type of teacher – the type of person – I want to be.

For better or worse, teachers wield a tremendous amount of power in the lives of their students. Sure, we want our students not only to grow in knowledge and get better jobs, but we want them to become better people. We want our students to have genuinely fulfilling lives. It is my hope and prayer that we be constantly aware of our motivations. Never forget to put the student’s interest’s first, if for no other reason than this is the high calling of being an educator.

How has a teacher influenced you? What did they do, or how did they act that made such an impact? We would love to see your story in the comments below.

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When Questions Are the Answer

By Dr. Danielle A. St. Hilaire, Assistant Professor of English and Interim Director of First-Year Writing at Duquesne Danielle St. HilaireUniversity

In my training of new graduate teaching fellows, a frequent topic of conversation is class discussion: how can we, as teachers, encourage students who seem reluctant to participate to be more involved in classroom conversations. There are no magic bullets here, but I thought I’d share my experience in dealing with this problem and one approach that developed out of that experience—an approach that not only encouraged greater participation, but also, I think, fostered a culture of inquiry in the classroom.

In a previous job, I had two sections of the same class, which I taught back-to-back. The first section was exceptionally quiet: every question I asked was met with a prolonged silence, to the point where it was difficult to advance through the text because no one but me was willing to talk about it. My second section was the opposite—talkative, even boisterous. The disparity was so glaring that, after three weeks of struggling forward with the first section, I decided it was time to have a conversation with those students. Why, I asked, were they so reluctant to respond to my questions in class? The answers I got boiled down to fear: the students in my first section felt so unsure of their comprehension of the texts (which admittedly were not easy), they were afraid to venture answers to my questions—for fear of appearing “stupid” both to me and to their peers.

After talking with them for a while and brainstorming some possible solutions to help them get over their fear of putting their ideas on the table, I decided to try something new: instead of me coming in with discussion questions, I made the students responsible for coming up with the questions, and then we as a class together would try to wrestle with some answers. I started asking students to come in with 5-6 questions they had about the reading each day, then to work in groups: which questions could they help each other solve, and which seemed harder to answer? Then we tackled the harder questions as a class, making a discussion out of grappling with the things that genuinely confused the students.

The class relaxed visibly when I turned to this approach, and conversation improved immediately—again, not in a magic-bullet kind of way, but my students became more wiling to overcome their fear of participation.  This worked, I think, for a couple of reasons. First, if the questions are coming from the students rather than from me, we avoid the problem where students suspect I’m looking for a particular “right” answer. This alleviated a certain amount of fear of being “wrong.” Second, it’s easier to ask a question than to find an answer, because it feels like the stakes are lower. Of course, having students bringing discussion questions to class is a well-known tool in the teacherly toolkit, but making these questions the center of the class—making them drive the entirety of the conversation—meant that the subject of the class shifted from the text and to how to inquire into the text.

As time went on, I realized that this approach needed more structure to be entirely successful. Not all questions are created equal: asking “How old was Milton when he wrote Paradise Lost?” is a very different thing from asking why a poem with an explicitly religious purpose would open by presenting a very sympathetic-seeming Satan. For these lessons to work, we needed to have a conversation about the different kinds of questions a person can ask about texts we were reading. So I asked the students to look at their group questions and to develop a taxonomy. What would it take to answer each question—closer reading of the text, or research outside the text? Which questions seem like they will have single, right answers, and which seem like they could be answered more than one way? Once we’d discussed the different kinds of questions they were asking, I was able to direct them towards the kind that are specific to the discipline of literary study, while at the same time validating the other kinds of questions as legitimate topics of inquiry in other settings. No questions were “bad,” but some were better suited to the task we were engaged in than others. And now the students could start to understand how to frame their inquiry to be most productive in class.

I’ve adapted this approach in subsequent classes, and I like the results I get: in classes where I use this approach, I consistently have more engaged students who seem more excited about the material than I see in my more traditional classes. When I reflect on why this might be, I come to the conclusion that my question-based classes teach inquiry and are thereby much more empowering than my other classes. By focusing on asking questions first and then working in class together to find answers, I am trying to overcome the misperception that not-knowing is a disabling problem or a sign of deficiency. Instead, I want students to see what all of us who engage in scholarly work know: that not-knowing is the first step on the way to greater knowing. Not-knowing means that you have a question: and questions are how we get to answers. We learn through questions. By putting the emphasis on these rather than on answers, we can show students who are afraid to answer that it’s okay to ask, and thereby move forward together.

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Engaging Race in the Classroom Part 3: Exploring Race and Pedagogy at our Predominantly White University

By Erin Rentschler, Program Manager at the Center for Teaching Excellence; English PhD Candidate, Duquesne University

I left this workshop, which I facilitated with Emad Mirmotahiri, simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. The turn-out was amazing; the conversation insightful and committed. But I openly acknowledged that our session would only scratch the surface and I continue to wonder whether that scratch will have any real effect. As Allie’s and Rachel’s posts already suggest, talking about race is hard, personal, emotional work. I do believe, though, that this work can transform a scratch in the surface to a dent in the structure. I want to highlight here some of the strategies that emerged through the workshop. My hope is that words evolve into work that causes dents, and that our communal dent-making can loosen the structures that impede productive dialogues about race.

One of the top strategies was that of telling your own story, which might mean sharing an anecdote about a pivotal event that shifted your way of thinking about race or positioning yourself racially in terms of your scholarship. As Allie’s post captures, the amazing thing about stories is that they offer a vehicle to model strategies for engaging in race talk. To open the session, for example, Emad told the story of a white friend who wondered, after attending a Persian wedding, why Persians tended to befriend and marry only other Persians. When Emad questioned this observation, pointing to the way that white people also tend to befriend and marry only white people, the friend’s observation was telling: “But it’s different.”  The response is telling because, as Emad explains, “it evidences one of the most challenging and beguiling problems of race these days, which is no longer […] racism; it is, rather, the spectrality (invisibility is not precise, actually) of whiteness. Whiteness–as a formation, not a community–has come to characterize itself as innocent of race, outside of it, over it, beyond it, immune to its torments, exempt from its responsibilities. It doesn’t see itself as a term in the structure of race.” Emad’s story illuminated the necessity of including whiteness in discussions of race—even if, or perhaps precisely because, it might make people uncomfortable.

During the workshop several participants talked about the growth that can come with discomfort. But situating students at this learning edge can be tricky. Many of the session’s participants talked about the delicate balance of creating a safe space while also challenging students to examine their own assumptions. Like others at the workshop noted, creating a space in which we’re allowed to be vulnerable by admitting to our own mistakes (and acknowledging that our conversation will likely lead to more) can ease some of the discomfort. As a white woman studying and teaching multi-ethnic literature about the Vietnam War, I talk with my students about how I struggle with my positionality: what right do I have to be making claims about how literature represents the war, the minority-group soldiers who fought it, or the way in which our national culture represents—or fails to represent—them?  I’ve been afforded opportunities to talk about my work with diverse groups of people in and out of the academy. It can be intimidating, and sometimes I overgeneralize so that I won’t have to engage too deeply and stick my foot in my mouth. But lately I’ve been more direct and I’ve learned so much more from the conversations that follow. Sharing these experiences models for students a productive vulnerability.

To emphasize that our conversation is a shared learning experience, I use a concrete comparison that addresses my students’ desires to be “politically correct” and also helps them overcome the fear of appearing racist. When we begin a conversation about race I say,

 “We’re going to have a complex conversation today/this week/this semester because we’re talking about race, identity, and Broken eggprivilege. Often these conversations might feel like we’re walking on a carton of eggs, choosing our words carefully so as not to break any. Well, I’m probably going to break some eggs because the complexity involved in race dialogues doesn’t go away. If I break some eggs today, I hope you’ll help me clean up the mess. Breaking the eggs doesn’t mean we’ve failed—it just means we have more work to do, and I want us to work together.”

Using this metaphor helps me to remain in a mindset that focuses on facilitating rather than fixing students’ conversations about race. Students can become resistant and defensive if they think that their words or actions are being judged, devalued, or viewed as offensive. This type of resistance can shut down conversations or relegate them to the superficial or non-productive. Approaching students empathetically helps to keep the lines of communication open.  When conversations reach a sticking point or the room becomes too quiet, I can focus our attention by raising the question, “do we have some eggs to clean up?”

Raising the question about my role in the field of multiethnic literature of the Vietnam War also illuminates the complexity and value of both intra-racial and inter-racial dialogues and it enables me to be empathetic to their fears and hesitations. I talk with my students about the difficulty of choosing words, especially those that refer to groups of people, and I model for them the careful, critical thought that goes into those decisions. This was described by workshop participants as providing context and equipping students with a lexicon for talking about race in a productive and informed manner. Prefacing Linda Alcoff’s idea of “speaking with” and not “speaking for” marginalized groups and then historicizing the importance of not letting the work of race dialogues fall on people of color helps centralize whiteness as a subject position that needs to be examined. I describe how reading the fiction of those who are not white isn’t about being a passive observer of the world of an “other” but about how the text is speaking to us as an individual whose actions and reactions can effect change. How, in other words, does the reading implicate us in the very systems it works to dislodge?

Being implicated can arouse feelings of shame and guilt, but it also signals that there’s room for growth, change, and action. In other words, being part of a system means we can also be part of the change. As was articulated in the workshop, the goal is to implicate, not incriminate. Stories can help students (especially in predominantly white classrooms) understand the intersections between their lives and those of others and to see more clearly their potential as change agents in their communities.

Perhaps you’re not sure that storytelling will work for you. Here are some other strategies that emerged from the workshop:

  • Ask students what challenges they face when talking about race. Share their answers (anonymously) and work together to develop some solutions.
  • Be thoughtful and intentional when planning your reading lists. Don’t simply include diverse authors. Integrate identity into the conversation through historical context, current events, etc. Remember, discussing whiteness is discussing race.
  • Make material relevant, personal, and engaging by taking advantage of events happening on or around campus (e.g., film screenings, guest speakers, arts exhibits, and other excursions)
  • Reach out to others, especially outside your field. Cross-disciplinary conversation provides fresh perspectives and can work to build confidence in engaging difficult dialogues.

Part of the reason that the workshop was draining is that for as many solutions as it illuminated, it also raised a lot of questions. As we often urge our students, though, asking questions leads to learning. New questions create energy that inspires dent-making. So…what questions remain for you?

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Engaging Race in the Classroom Part 2: Writing About Race



Image courtesy of Carnegie Natural History Museum exhibit Race: Are We so Different? and

By Rachel Luckenbill, English PhD Candidate and Instructional Consultant for TAs

This blog post is full of confessions.

Over my nine years teaching at the college level, I have been conspicuously aware of my own discomfort when broaching the topic of race in the classroom. I often found myself worrying that I would accidentally say something offensive or make a student of color feel uncomfortable because of my own bumbling attempts to handle race dialogues. I think a part of me believed that my whiteness disqualified me from leading such discussions. I teach literature so there’s no way around it – race comes up all the time in my classroom. I’ve attended conferences on race, read articles, and my own research engages deeply with race and ethnicity in contemporary literature. But still I found myself feeling self-conscious and hesitant whenever the topic surfaced.

Last summer all of this began to change when I participated in a writing exercise that helped me to explore my past experiences with race and understand the roots of my discomfort. In this post, I will describe that writing exercise and suggest ways it could be incorporated into the college classroom.

During the summer and fall of 2014, I participated in a poetry workshop held in conjunction with the Race: Are We so Different? exhibit at the Carnegie Natural History Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. I signed up for the workshop precisely so that I could explore why talking about race makes me so anxious, and I was more than a little tempted by the opportunity to work with the facilitators, well-known poets Sheila Carter-Jones and Terrance Hayes. Approximately 30 of us gathered on two Saturdays and one Sunday for five hours at a time.

On day one, the facilitators encouraged us to share openly the reasons why we wanted to attend a workshop centered on the topic of “race.” The candidness with which each person confessed suffering, complicity, confusion, and more raised the comfort level I felt with revealing my own ambiguous experiences with race. Next, the facilitators then prompted us to identify our earliest awareness of race and then list in writing experiences from our upbringing that helped shape how we currently view race. This part of the workshop was quite a challenge because it forced many of us to record experiences we did not want to explore but it was also freeing, allowing us to discover the roots of our current perspectives.

After these writing opening exercises, together we toured the exhibit and learned about the science behind skin color, the social dynamics surrounding race in grade schools, the inequities facing veterans of color, and more. We were encouraged to spend considerable time in the exhibit reflecting on what we heard, saw, and felt. We left the first day with our writing prompts, all of which pushed us to reflect on what we learned from the exhibit and also what we discovered when we remembered our own personal histories with race.

Our second Saturday was dedicated entirely to workshopping our poems, each person in turn hearing feedback from the entire group after sharing what he or she had written. This was a scary experience for me.  My poem confessed that I grew up hearing older members of my family use racist language and I was afraid to out them, afraid I would dishonor them while making myself appear insensitive and ignorant. The fear and uncertainty that clouded my thoughts about race were palpable.  The facilitators set a precedent for listening to each person’s poem attentively and then honoring its strengths and identifying possibilities for improvement without invalidating any one person’s experience or perception. In the end, the participants encouraged me to tell the truth about my experiences growing up, not just the darkness I was afraid to admit but also the beauty.

The workshop concluded on a Sunday as all of us gathered for a public poetry reading at the museum. We were all anxious and feeling incredibly vulnerable as we prepared to share very personal reflections. Ultimately, the experience of reading our poems was transformative. We voiced our stories in the midst of a community characterized by understanding and a desire to grow.

The poetry workshop taught me many things about being a writer, but more importantly it taught me how to dialogue honestly about race. It helped me accept my own experience in the context of my family as one that was both complex and ambiguous.  I wouldn’t say that I now am entirely comfortable dialoguing about race in the classroom but I certainly approach these conversations with more confidence and less fear.

Here’s a suggestion for how this writing exercise can be translated into a multi-day lesson for the college classroom. It can be adapted to fit almost any discipline.

Step 1:  Set the tone by laying the ground rules for dialogues about race so that every student knows they will be heard and respected when they speak.

Step 2: Prompt students to identify in writing their earliest awareness of race and then to write a list of experiences that contribute to their current understanding of race. These can be from their childhood or they might be from their current experiences in college. Invite students to share what they wrote if they feel comfortable doing so, making sure to model listening and respect.

Step 3: Give the students a common learning experience. If you want to stay in the classroom, you could offer a brief selection of readings on race from your discipline or if you have the resources to venture outside, take students to a relevant museum exhibit, play, or other event that foregrounds race.

Step 4: Have your students talk about what surprised them or interested them most during the common learning experience. Hearing what other’s think can prompt students to new realizations and deeper reflection.

Step 5: Give a writing assignment that encourages students to craft a response both to their own experiences and what they discovered from the readings or field trip. They might discover intersections between the two or contradictions. This can take the form of a poem but it can also be a letter, editorial, memo, story, journal entry, or an essay.

Step 6:  Have students share excerpts from what they wrote with the rest of class. For the poetry workshop, even though this was the part of the experience that made us feel most honorable it was also one of the most pivotal components. Sharing our work with each other gave us an opportunity to offer support, affirmation, and sometimes empathy. Keep in mind that you should only do this if you announce at the very start of the activity that you will want students to share the final product with others. This gives students the ability to control how much they are willing to share with their colleagues. This is part of what it means to build a safe and respectful learning environment.

The exercise I’m recommending will not work for every class. In fact, I think it’s well-suited for classes where a particular unit or the entire course is focused on race. Whatever your discipline, having students begin engaging with race by writing about it offers all students, the shy and the outspoken, an opportunity to articulate their thoughts about a topic that often stirs up fears and insecurities.

Have any of you already experimented with having your students write about race? We invite you to share those experiences in the comments below. Feel free to describe other assignments that have successfully challenged your students to engage race in the classroom.



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Engaging Race in the Classroom

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Over the next couple weeks, The Flourishing Academic will be exploring race in the classroom. Here’s the first post in our miniseries:

By Allie Reznik, Teaching Fellow and English PhD Student at Duquesne University

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel Americanah, she presents an American undergraduate classroom where the main character Ifemelu, a transplant from Nigeria, watches Roots. After the film ends, a “firm, female voice from the back of the class, with a non-American accent, [asks]  ‘Why was ‘nigger’ bleeped out?” (168). What ensues is a dialogue between a diverse body of students in the classroom, as Professor Moore, “a tiny, tentative woman with the emotionally malnourished look of someone who did not have friends,” begins to cower into a corner, as “a vague terror was freezing her features into a smirk-smile ” (169). Of course, Adichie creates the situation as both a tense and comical one. Yet, more importantly, Adichie highlights and critiques the professor’s role in this exchange, as Professor Moore is unwilling to release her authority to engage with her students and their experiences.  The first key to discussing race, and its intersections with class, gender, and environment in the undergraduate classroom, is to courageously speak and listen.

Stories, including yours and your students’ and what appears in news media, films, scientific reports, literature, among many other cultural texts, all play a powerful role in the construction and understanding of race. In order to talk about race, we as educators need to be able to courageously speak and listen to stories, but also model how to interpret those stories and how they can be used to empower or oppress. In “The Danger of a Single Story,” Adichie’s powerful TED talk (~ 19 minutes, please consider watching!), Adichie offers an incredibly useful paradigm that equips students to theorize and think critically about their experiences by situating them in larger conversations. Adichie’s paradigm also positions the professor in a place of learning, rather than authority, through stories. The medium of stories is a pivotal place to begin to speak, listen, and learn. I touch on a few of the quotes from her talk here, and elaborate on methods that I use in my classroom.


Adichie explains that her American roommate had “seen and heard different versions of the single story” regarding Africa, which led her to assume that Adichie could not cook on a stove and listened to “tribal music.” She follows up with humor, explaining that her roommate was surprised when she brought out Mariah Carey, yet she points to a larger issue of how stories that we consume shape and solidify assumptions about people. Moreover, this interaction emphasizes the need—no matter how awkward or painful—to address those assumptions and move forward to a deeper understanding. This insight is an incredibly useful way to get both students and professors thinking about how their lives are impacted by racial identity. Each of your students experienced a new place when they arrived at university, so the opportunity is ripe to push them to think about the single stories that they enacted or had to react to.


A huge obstacle that students face when discussing race in the classroom is that they don’t have the language. Adichie explains that “…the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes, is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Some students will not know what a stereotype is, or think they do but are confusing it with something else. The single story is in itself a stereotype based on one representation that is incomplete. To counter stereotypes and model cultural consciousness, offering students scaffolding is incredibly useful. For instance, the film Ethnic Notions traces black stereotypes both before and after slave emancipation to show how the “Uncle Tom” and “Mammy” stereotypes reinforced the notion that slaves were content in the slave system to reinforce and justify its existence, while “Jezebel” and “Zip Coon” stereotypes proliferated after emancipation to emphasize the social consequences of freeing blacks. These stereotypes highlight that race is highly contextual and constructed based on the historical moment, and calls students to see real world consequences of these stereotypes that continue to resonate in culture today. Defining terms is essential to creating students and citizens who can engage in meaningful conversations in the classroom and beyond. I’ve even had to define race versus racism in my classroom, so find out where your students are and meet them there.


How else can you get students to engage and critique the single story and understand how power operates? Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is an accessible and engaging text that moves students towards thinking critically about the single stories they encounter and consume in their lives so they can begin to think about the large systems that they operate within rather than feeling burdened or shy because of their personal identities. Focusing on white guilt won’t do anything for a discussion, rather opening students up to learning about cultural differences in addition to interrogating how others are treated differently because of race, class, or gender begins to make the theoretical connections and material consequences more clear. bell hooks, a renowned cultural critic celebrated for engaging with complex theories of class, race, and gender via popular culture, spells out the theoretical scaffolding of power with her term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal forces” to understand how race, class, and gender intersect in regards to how power circulates.


Adichie also emphasizes, “it is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.” The single story is a single representation of a people that has been historically exploited to disempower and stereotype. Those who have the political and financial strength to create and circulate the stories (think, Hollywood, government) have power over whose voices are heard. Regardless of discipline, historical contextualization is highly useful when discussing race since it is so engrained in historical systems of power. Katy L. Chiles’s Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America offers an incredibly fascinating perspective on the scientific and literary intersections
of how the narrative surrounding race shifted from the 18th century understandings of race, when it was considered an exterior social symbol, to 19th century in America, where conceptions of racial interiority were perpetuated to uphold the system of slavery: this even carries into today (7-8).


Adichie offers another way for students to challenge the single story. Consider “how they are told, who tells them, when [are] they told, how many stories are told” to spell out how power operates. Push for you and your students to ask questions, not seek static answers. Release your authority and push for students to interrogate the representations in a literary text, commercial, historical document, or scientific report. Moreover, channel hooks and push beyond the limits of academic texts to popular culture. Be like a sponge and absorb everything so that you can push your students to think critically about the world they live in. For instance, last week I saw an article on colorism regarding Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose, where her parents wouldn’t attend the wedding because he was “too dark.” Also, you may recognize Adichie’s voice—Beyoncé samples her definition of feminist in her song “***Flawless” from her latest album, which begins to move beyond racial difference to other urgent issues regarding gender that connect everyone.


Adichie meets her audience where we should meet our students: we all agree that everyone deserves dignity, which makes talking about race so incredibly urgent. She explains, “…the consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity…it emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” History again can offer an effective lens through which students can consider the linguistic consequences of defining racial difference. While it is important to expose students to specific cultural norms that they might not have had access to or never had to think about—this was true for hair culture and colorism while I taught Americanah—they also need to be aware of the power of language and narratives.

Just as Adichie explains how she experiences the consequences of the single story based on her American roommate’s assumptions about her, she self-consciously identifies where she also enacted the single story on others. Based on her consumption of American news, she made assumptions about Mexicans and immigration, but discovered that this single story was incorrect and incomplete when she arrived in Guadalajara. Based on her mother’s description of their house servant Fide, she assumed his life was horrible until she went to his house and discovered that his family were highly skilled artists. In this active self-reflection, Adichie offers an effective model for educators to facilitate dialogue rather than merely relay content to your students in the classroom. To fruitfully discuss race in your undergraduate classroom, don’t be a Professor Moore. Instead, “regain” in your classroom what Adichie refers to in her TED talk as “a kind of paradise” by cultivating the strength to courageously speak and listen.

How do you engage race in your classroom? Please share here and join CTE for the panel, Exploring Race and Pedagogy at Our Predominantly White University, this Wednesday, February 25th.

Allie Reznik is a second year Ph.D. student in English studying the intersections of race and music in American literature. She writes #TSWBAT blog at and tweets about food, music, literature, and popular culture at @alliebgolightly.


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED. July 2009. Web. 19 February 2015.

—. Americanah. New York: Anchor Books, 2014. Print.

Chiles, Katy L. Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Cultural Criticism and Transformation. bell hooks. Dir. Sut Jhally. Media Education Foundation, 1996. Film.

Ethnic Notions. Dir. Marlon Riggs. California Newsreel. 1987. Film.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” 1989. Web. 19 February 2015.

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Academic Motivation

By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs At Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

When we first started dating, my husband Mike and I quickly realized we would each have to do some work in order to learn about the other person’s interests. He had trouble appreciating my passion for music, seeing little purpose for it in his life, and I perceived physics as inaccessible, too difficult and hypertechnical for me to understand. While we both wanted to learn more about each other, we felt a level of reluctance dedicating time and energy to exploring subjects that felt inconsequential to our respective lives. But we liked each other enough that we began to adopt practices that made the pursuit of each other’s interests manageable and even fun. I explained connections between particular songs and meaningful emotional and spiritual experiences I remembered having, and Mike began introducing me to the complexities of physics on an elementary level using YouTube videos and object lessons. Pretty soon we were each voluntarily scheduling “music” and “science” dates, both having realized that learning about the other’s interests has a strong payoff; it can contribute to a lasting and meaningful relationship.

Without realizing it, Mike and I were putting into practice key concepts from B. D. Jones’s model of academic motivation. In his article “Motivating Students to Engage in Learning: the MUSIC Model of Academic Motivation,” Jones (2009) suggests that five principles, when applied to course design, can facilitate increased motivation among college students. These principles include empowerment, usefulness, success, interest, and caring. While some of these concepts are best implemented before the semester even starts, many of them can be incorporated in the middle of the term to inject new life into a class that feels tired or unmotivated.

Jones begins with empowerment. He writes, “a key principle in [self-determination theory] is that individuals enjoy activities when they believe that they have control over some aspect of them” (274). For me, this is the most difficult of the five concepts to employ because it means trusting that my students will be responsible with the level of control I give them. But that trust is precisely part of what makes empowerment so impactful.  Jones suggests giving students “meaningful choices” regarding the structure of the course. For example, if you require students to complete 10 writing journals or quizzes throughout the course of the semester, offer three dates on which they are due instead of scheduling each one of them. This allows students to work at their own pace (274). In a recent Flourishing Academic post, Dr. Jerry Minsinger of Duquesne’s School of Education also suggests involving students in creating course policies. Mid-semester you can use an informal evaluation to ask students what practices they would like you to adopt or change. Incorporating their feedback is one way of helping them experience a level of control over their education.

The second principle Jones identifies is usefulness. Students are more likely to approach class content with energy and purpose if they understand “the usefulness of the task in terms of [their] future goals” (275). All too often, we as instructors assume our students understand why our course is important for their career, but this should never be implicit. I recently spoke with one instructor at Duquesne who periodically asks his students to write a brief reflection on how they might use the knowledge from his class in specific future situations. I like to highlight usefulness by connecting course content to the community outside the class, helping students see that a well-crafted argument can raise awareness about a critical issue or even persuade city government that change is necessary.

Third, Jones argues that “instructors should design all aspects of courses such that students can succeed if they obtain the knowledge and skills and put forth the effort required” (276). Perception is a powerful tool. Jones notes that “students who believe that they are likely to succeed at an activity are more likely to . . . put forth more effort . . . persist longer . . . [and] be resilient in the face of adverse situations” related to that activity (276). Setting students up for success does not mean making your courses easy. It does mean making the requirements manageable. Jones suggests “divid[ing] longer and more complex learning activities into manageable sections that challenge but do not overwhelm students” (276) and offering students regular feedback measuring “their level of competence” and helping them identify “attainable (but challenging), short-term goals that lead to longer-term goals” (277).

Fourth on Jones’s list is interest. Most of us who teach naturally find the content of our courses interesting but students don’t necessarily share our passion. Drawing from research by Hidi and Renninger (2006), Jones notes that while a student’s interest is piqued by “hands-on activities,” hot button issues, humor and more, that interest will diminish if not cultivated into “individual interest,” a state during which a student has “obtain[ed]” and now “value[s]” knowledge. This transformation happens as instructors build on attention-getting activities with content specific instruction (Jones 278). In last week’s blog post, Dr. Susan Hines makes a similar suggestion. She recommends beginning by “awakening students’ current knowledge” and then building on that connection by “adding new knowledge.”

And finally Jones contends that caring is central to engaging students.  He doesn’t call on instructors to become “good buddies with the[ir] students” but he does recommend demonstrating that you care “about their learning” and “well-being.” Accomplishing this can be as simple as paying careful attention to each student’s progress and contacting any of them who appear to be struggling (279) or offering grace when a student encounters an extraordinary situation and needs an extension (280).

For Mike and I, caring and interest came first and the other steps made learning about music and physics not just doable but desirable. Since those early years, each of us has developed a sustained interest in the other’s favorite subject. Mike invites me to concerts and I stage science experiments in the kitchen. The fear of a subject being too hard or a lack of connection to it does not have to prevent your students from engaging deeply with course content. It’s possible to craft your class so that students not only become interested but also work hard to gain a deeper understanding.



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