The Flourishing Academic

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

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Presence and Single Focus


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can do it! So can you.

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

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The Serving Leader: A Book Review

By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs at the Center for Teaching Excellence and English PhD Candidate at Duquesne University

I recently read a book called The Serving Leader (2003) by Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert. Though as the cover of the book states the authors focus on “actions that will transform your team, your business and your community,” I was struck by how applicable their ideas are to academia. The authors profess a model of leadership that values excellence and competitiveness without sacrificing attention to the needs and value of people. In this post I offer a review of their book and make some suggestions about how college instructors can be serving leaders.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Jennings and Stahl-Wert present the concept of “serving leaders” through the fictionalized story of a young businessman named Mike who is pursuing reconciliation with his father and attempting to engage with his father’s consulting business as the older man’s health fails. His assignment is to learn about serving leadership and begin to implement it himself. After meeting a series of community leaders from sectors as diverse as education, manufacturing, and military, Mike begins to put together a complete picture of what a serving leader does, all the while realizing that the very principles which make an organization healthy can also breathe new life into a personal relationship. The leadership model outlined in the book has a distinct spiritual component; it relies on principles of altruism and community taught in both the Old and New Testament, but the authors demonstrate the model’s applicability in both secular and faith-based organizations.

The writing is clear and straightforward and the story itself is engaging, but the real value of this book lies in the principles that appear to go against the grain of typical cutthroat corporate practices. Here’s a snapshot of them.

Five Actions of a Serving Leader (pages 100-101):

  • Run to great purpose – lead a team by offering a compelling goal and “reason why”
  • Upend the pyramid – place yourself “at the bottom of the pyramid and unleash the energy, excitement, and talents of the team”
  • Raise the bar – set high expectations and be selective in your choice of team leaders
  • Blaze the trail – teach serving leader principles to others while “removing obstacles to performance”
  • Build on strength – assign each person a role that allows him or her to “contribute what he or she is best at”

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but imagine how this model would play out on a University campus. What would it mean if each one of us tried using our position of authority or power to remove obstacles that stand in the way of our colleagues instead of using that same authority to focus on building our own reputations and CVs? Jennings’ and Stahl-Wert’s model is decidedly communal. They recommend that each leader build an “encouragement group” that provides affirmation and “perseverance” in difficult times (55) and they insist that “if you want to do something that really changes someone’s life, the best thing you can do is make the person you’re trying to help a participant in the process” (57).

Imagine with me for a moment what it would look like to perform as a serving teacher in the classroom:

  • Run to great purpose – both on the syllabus and in class, connect the content and skills your students are learning to a greater purpose such as the learning objectives for the course and the careers and life situations your students anticipate facing outside of school
  • Upend the pyramid – try a student-centered approach, de-centering yourself by employing active learning strategies that involve students in their own learning process rather than positioning them as passive listeners while you lecture
  • Raise the bar – research suggests that the expectations you have for your students will affect their ability to perform: the more optimistic your expectations, the more likely the students are to succeed
  • Blaze the trail – remove obstacles your students might face by scheduling practice sessions at a time and place when you are available, by surveying students at the end of each class to find out which concept was perplexing or unclear and revisiting it at the beginning of the next class, or by encouraging students to reflect on their own work habits and helping them construct environments and practices that promote concentration and productivity
  • Build on strength – while it’s certainly important to help students improve skills they have not yet mastered, try pairing these lessons with either written or verbal comments about each student’s strengths: show students the potential their strengths offer and the next steps they can take based on their already positive progress

I myself have seen this model work outside the classroom as well. I’m currently writing my dissertation and am thankful that the way my committee functions resembles the serving leader model. All three of my committee members have helped me see the greater purpose of my work in building cultural sensitivity; they upend the pyramid by encouraging my own initiatives rather than letting their agendas drive my project; they raise the bar by having high expectations and refusing to allow me to settle for less than what I’m capable of even when I’m tired and discouraged; they blaze the trail by removing obstacles in my path, helping me make valuable connections with colleagues in my field and unraveling perplexing ideas in the theory I study; and whenever I get stuck in a cycle of comparing myself to others, the committee members build on strength by helping me focus instead on the methods and content that make my project unique. I can say from experience that this model makes me a more productive and satisfied graduate student than I would be otherwise.

So as you close out the semester and prepare your courses and committees for the summer and fall, think of ways that you can be a serving leader in your classroom, department, and university communities. Jennings and Stahl-Wert suggest that as you practice serving leadership, you pave the way for productivity and fulfillment for others while moving toward a greater sense of wholeness and accomplishment for yourself.  In the comments below, I invite you to share ways you practice any part of the serving leaders model either in your classroom or organization.

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The Hands Have It


Image courtesy of Heather Rusiewicz via

By Dr. Heather Rusiewicz, Assistant Professor of Speech-Language Pathology, Duquesne University

We all do it.  We move in the classroom, especially with our arms and hands.

We ask our students to move their hands too, but typically just by raising them.  Have you ever thought in a systematic way about the way that you move your hands during instruction?  What about incorporating movement by your students?  Gestures are a no-cost enhancement to instruction according to a growing literature base on the effect of gestures on learning.  Indeed, I certainly can attest to the benefit of gestures during lectures on new material or during that third hour of a three hour and fifteen minute course to capture attention.

Gesture in the classroom is natural and pervasive.  The impact of gestures, seamless and extensive during instruction as they may be, upon the learning process in higher education settings is unknown.   Yet, data suggests that there is a nearly ubiquitous, robust, beneficial effect of gesture in the instruction of school-age children, primarily in the area of mathematics (e.g., Cook & Goldin-Meadow, 2006) and bilingual education (Church, Ayman-Nolley, & Mahootian, 2004). Likewise, it is certainly well established that gestures can be beneficial in learning of communication skills for individuals with language impairments, such as aphasia (see Rose, Raymer, Lanyon, & Attard, 2013 for a review).  Indirect associations of these bodies of work along with anecdotal accounts of the effect of using gesture during lecture and other instructional activities may lend insight to pedagogical approaches used with young adult learners. It is also important to consider why gestures may be effective in strengthening the learning process.

My hands-my classroom

I think a lot about gestures from a research and clinical standpoint.  I admit, I am not as systematic in my hand movements when I teach.  However, I can say with certainty that I produce more gestures to engage students when I see glassy eyes in the audience. I also know that I have integrated the hands when teaching more than a few concepts.  For instance, I have students pair up and use their hands when learning how specific parts of the speech mechanism coordinate to produce sounds.  Students are also instructed to “tap” out the rhythm of speech when learning to distinguish stressed and unstressed syllables in words and utterances.  Indeed, my gestures heighten engagement and provide information to the students.  Likewise, students’ hand movements increase their attention in the immediate learning environment and I anecdotally see improvement in retention of these concepts after initiating gestures in these learning activities compared to when the content was delivered without students moving their own hands.

Why gestures? 

In short, gestures can convey information when presented to an individual and can also embody information when produced by an individual.  As Goldin-Meadow (2003) stated, gesture and speech are “complementary components of a single integrated system, with each modality best suited to expressing its own set of meanings” (p. 184). She continues by stating, “gesture itself can allow for the construction of two different types of representations—visuo-spatial representations and motor representations” (p. 185).  It is also the case that students’ production of gesture likely has a stronger effect on learning and retention than merely observing gestures, according to the theoretical framework of embodiment. Embodiment refers to the thought that cognitive and learning processes are strongly integrated with the way in which an individual moves and interacts with the world.  Embodiment of thoughts and cognition provides “learners an alternative, embodied way of representing new ideas” (Cook, Mitchell, & Goldin-Meadow, 2008, p. 1047).  Embodiment of coding new information may be especially useful in the retention of knowledge (Cook et al., 2008).  The complex interaction of action and cognition remains a topic of extensive investigation (see Goldin-Meadow & Beilock , 2011 for a review) and broad theoretical postulation (e.g., Xu & Fe, 2014).

So, we all should start waving hands around during class? 

Well, maybe.  There is much to learn about the effect of different types of gestures on learning outcomes in higher education.  Though it does seem certain that gestures, whether pointing gestures, gestures that hold meaning (e.g., demonstrating something is large by holding two hands out wide), or even beating our hands in time with the rhythm of speech will heighten attention as well as provide information.  Memory and learning may be further enhanced by encouraging our students to gesture during their explanations of novel concepts.  Ultimately, gesturing, by the educator and student, during teaching is natural and beneficial.  Now—get moving!


Church, R. B., Ayman-Nolley, S., & Mahootian, S. (2004). The role of gesture in bilingual education: Does gesture enhance learning?. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 7(4), 303-319.

Cook, S. W., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2006). The role of gesture in learning: Do children use their hands to change their minds?. Journal of Cognition and Development, 7(2), 211-232.

Cook, S. W., Mitchell, Z., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2008). Gesturing makes learning last. Cognition, 106(2), 1047-1058.

Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). Hearing gesture: How our hands help us think. Harvard University    Press.

Goldin-Meadow, S., & Beilock, S. L. (2010). Action’s influence on thought: The case of gesture. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(6), 664-674.

Rose, M. L., Raymer, A. M., Lanyon, L. E., & Attard, M. C. (2013). A systematic review of gesture treatments for post-stroke aphasia. Aphasiology27(9), 1090-1127

Xu, X., & Ke, F. (2014). From psychomotor to ‘motorpsycho’: learning through gestures with body sensory technologies. Educational Technology Research and Development, 1-31.