The Flourishing Academic

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

undergraduate research program picnic at Duquesne University

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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!

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What’s your name again?

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

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

Image courtesy of Sicha Pongjivanich at

Image courtesy of Sicha Pongjivanich at

Excellence, Duquesne University

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

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

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

1.   Make it a priority

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

2.  Study your course roster before the first class

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

3.  Get to know something about each student

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

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

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

4. Include the class in learning names

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

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

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

6. Schedule group meetings

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

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


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

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

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

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Tips for the First Day of Class

hello first day

The start of the academic year is rapidly approaching and with it the first day of class full of possibility, first impressions, and nerves. For instructors, day one brings with it opportunities to spread enthusiasm for favorite subjects and to establish a positive and productive tone that influences the remainder of the course. It’s not uncommon for the importance of this first impression and the experience of walking into a room of unfamiliar faces to create some anxiety. If you’re new to the profession, never fear. Even seasoned instructors can feel anxious walking into class on the very first day of the semester. Instead of looking at those nerves as a hindrance, interpret them instead as a sign that you genuinely care about the course material and students you are about to teach.

Whether you’re flying high on the energy of new beginnings, caught up in last-minute syllabus revisions, or feeling the pressure of establishing a good first impression, we at CTE invite you to relax, grab a cup of tea, and check out these tips for making the most of day one in the classroom.

Dos and Don’ts for the First Day

What NOT to Do

What to Do

Prepare ahead of time!

Make just enough copies of the syllabus

Make extra copies of your syllabus

Wait until the day of your first class to make copies

Copy all materials for the first class ahead of time

Wait until the day of your first class to find the classroom

Preview the teaching environment a few days before your first class

Wing it!

Practice your lesson ahead of time

Make a great first impression!

Dress informally

Dress professionally

Arrive late

Arrive early

Let your students get to know you.

Provide students with little to no information about you

Briefly inform students about your educational and professional background

Don’t introduce yourself at all

Tell students what you want them to call you and how to pronounce your name; invite students to get in contact with you and tell them how best to do it

Show little to no enthusiasm for the course

Generate enthusiasm for the course; briefly relate your personal interest in the course content.

Get to know your students.

Show little to no interest in getting to know the students or learning their names

Learn students’ names/nicknames

Consider ice-breakers

  • Social: self-introductions; three-step interviews; self survey
  • Subject matter: specific surveys; course expectations or concerns


Do not collect any personal information on students

Collect student information and/or interests (index cards, survey, etc.)

Teach on the first day.

Distribute a vague, brief, or unclear syllabus

Distribute a comprehensive, well structured syllabus

Simply hand out the syllabus

“Teach” the syllabus, drawing particular attention to the most important items; develop a creative way to go over the material

Overwhelm students with too much information

Introduce the course topic and/or some initial material

Do not engage with the course topic or material in any way

Incorporate an activity that allows students to engage with the course topic

Do not provide students with the opportunity to ask questions

Invite students to ask questions and participate

Set the tone for the entire semester.

Let students leave early

Make productive use of entire class period

Set a negative tone for the semester

Model the expectations and behaviors you want to establish in your classroom for the semester


Find more helpful tips on teaching and learning here.

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Welcome to The Flourishing Academic, the newest online resource produced by Duquesne University’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). We, the staff of CTE, are entering the blogosphere in order to increase community and conversation surrounding our favorite topic: teaching. The Flourishing Academic is a multi-voice blog devoted to exploring the question, “How can we as teacher-scholars thrive in academia?” and featuring posts on teaching and learning by CTE staff, faculty guest bloggers, and participants in our Certificate of University Teaching. The blog will also highlight outstanding Duquesne teacher-scholars through brief monthly interviews. We hope you visit us often, comment actively, and teach enthusiastically!

Stay tuned as we publish new resource pages and begin posting on a regular basis . . .

Duq D