The Flourishing Academic

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

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Helping Students Reflect on Study Habits

In January 2017, CTE interviewed Pamela Spigelmyer, Faculty, School of Nursing about her use of exam wrappers to help students learn. thumbnail_pamela-spigelmyer_0003

What is an exam wrapper?

It’s a reflection by students on their exam performance. It stimulates them to think about the effort they put into studying for the exam, and the barriers to achieving their best score. I ask students to do the following:

  • tell how much time they studied and estimate the percentage of time they spent on various study methods
  • analyze the reason for the points they lost on the exam
  • state their study plans
  • suggest ways I can support them for the next exam. [see sample wrapper below]

Tell me how you have used exam wrappers.

I have used them on the midterm exam in three different courses. Students can use their reflection on the midterm to improve their learning in the second half of the semester.

In my freshmen class this fall it went really well. I was surprised at the list of things they said they were going to do to improve for the next exam. When I asked, “what can I do to help you,” there were only minor comments. This makes sense, because I was already administering frequent quizzes and giving them clicker questions in class. They were getting practice.

What have you learned in the process?

Some of the comments I got back really opened my eyes to what students thought was effective study. For example, some students created 50-60 page study guides by cutting and pasting from the book. They explained that this guide was all they used for studying and claimed that it should have been enough. But they didn’t do well, and I was able to provide that as evidence back to them.

I put student grades into two ranges and made a chart of the study methods students in each range said they used. Then I presented it saying, “if you want to achieve a higher grade, here’s an idea of what some of your classmates did.” chart-low-high-performance

Once I had a student who honestly reported on the exam wrapper that she had studied zero time. She had not looked at any material in preparing for the midterm exam. She apparently didn’t implement the study methods we talked about after the midterm, and performed poorly on the final exam. Then, at the end of the course, she challenged the grade. The exam wrapper served as evidence that she hadn’t put in the effort needed to achieve a better grade.

Do you have a way for students to refer back to their reflection? How do you administer the exam wrapper?

They always have the wrapper available on Blackboard. Right after the midterm exam closes, the exam wrapper assignment opens up. I tell them it is not graded, but it is required. Most students complete the 10-15 minute reflection within the 24-hour window.

Here’s the sequence: students take the online exam, receive the score immediately and then are asked to reflect on the exam and their studyingexam-wrapper-assignment-sp2017

I tell students that I use exam wrappers to identify areas where I can help them improve, and that they should use it for looking at their learning and areas for growth.

How have you used exam wrappers to help students?

Several students have mentioned stress anxiety. This gives me an opportunity to guide students to the Counseling and Wellness Center. In the past, they could have struggled without me knowing, but now I can pick that up at midterm.

Here’stwo-answers-multiple-choice another example. I can see from exam statistics where students get it down to two answers and can’t pick the right one; this is very typical for nursing exams. That tells me that I need to be more explicit in helping them choose between the two. There’s always something in one that makes it better than the other, and they’re just overlooking it. So we do practice questions that are specifically close in two answers.

Sometimes they say, “I just didn’t know the content,” which suggests that they didn’t prepare enough and I outline the way high achieving students study.

Before the exam, I also provide a study template. It just lists the course objectives and tells how many exam questions will be related to each objective. It shows the importance of sections. When there is a lot of material, it’s only fair for students to know how to prioritize their studying.

I like that way of tying it to the course learning objectives.

I also do frequent quizzing – which helps them gauge their learning. I don’t give them answers for items they miss, but just indicate the reading chapter it came from. That forces them to go back and find it.

Do you have any suggestions for your colleagues? Is anyone else doing it that you know of?

Several faculty colleagues have asked me for this assignment, and they have started to implement it. Others use a similar kind of method that they have created.

Do you tie this assignment in with a nursing competency?

I haven’t, but that would be a good idea. I never thought of that. It would fit under “professionalism and growth.”

Related posts: Helping Students Learn from Returned Tests   The Finals Lap: Tips and Ideas for Final Exam Review


  1. Approximately how much time did you spend preparing for this exam?
  2. What percentage of your test-preparation time was spent in each of these activities?
Activity Percentage of Time
Reading textbook section(s) for the first time
Rereading textbook section(s)
Reviewing homework-quiz question/concepts
Reviewing in class practice questions
Solving case study questions from textbook
Reviewing your own notes
Reviewing additional materials/websites posted in class weekly folders
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 (make sure the percentage add up to 100):

Reason for lost exam points Percentage
Did not know/remember the content on the exam
Did not understand the question
Did not read the question/item carefully
Missed key words in the question
Did not read all distractor /potential answers carefully
Had difficulty choosing between 2 answers
Read/inferred more into the question than what was stated
Careless mistake (selected the wrong response accidentally)
Changed the answer
Experienced test anxiety/ inability to focus
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 just spend more time studying,  change a specific study habit or try a new one (if so, name it), solve more case studies, practice more questions, or something else?

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



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This online course got my attention! Student and teacher views

by James Daher, President, Student Government Association and student, Economics major, French minor.

james-daher-blog-postLast summer I took Intro to Marketing with Dr. Dorene Ciletti, and she used a range of different methods for getting the students to work with the material. This included readings, video lectures, discussion boards, warm-up exercises, quizzes, simulations, exams and an extensive marketing plan.

Whereas some online courses I have experienced focused student work mostly on the discussion board, Dr. Ciletti’s class was a much more holistic approach to an online course. Not only did this range of teaching methods account for different learning styles, it also gave students more contact with the material. The same themes and key words would be in each assignment during any given week. The course required significant directed attention in order to complete the exams and marketing plan. But that effort and attention were focused directly on course content, rather than long readings and discussion board posts.

One of the more common methods in online education is the discussion board. While I believe that the discussion board is a useful piece of online education, it should not be the sole focus of the class. In my experience, it is far too easy and lacks engagement for many students.

Another hit to student engagement is that the online learning experience sacrifices the pre-established times students have with the material in the classroom. To make up for this, the online coursework should take up at least as much time as the student would spend in an actual classroom. However, if the class is all reading and discussion board based, many students lose focus and cut studying time short.

In sum, I personally prefer the physical classroom, but the potential of online courses is vast. If the course requires enough time and attention through varied teaching methods, I believe that this potential can be unlocked. Dr. Ciletti’s course engaged and challenged me.

by Dorecilettine Ciletti, PhD, faculty, Marketing, School of Business

I enjoy teaching Introduction to Marketing, creating a context in which students build a foundation in marketing and use the concepts and theories to support integrated bottom-line success in an organization. The offer to develop an online course a few years ago intrigued me. Online education is growing, and while there are some common components, approaches to online classes vary, and I had some initial concerns. How would I engage the students? How could I deliver material so that students would learn effectively? How could I assure that course objectives would be met?

Rather than simply transferring the in-class experience to the online space, I made substantial changes. Working with the end in mind, I organized material into content modules, and organized the course such that we would complete one or two modules each week, with each module supporting clearly stated learning objectives.

Students need a structure that’s easy to access and navigate, and the lesson plan and learning module features in Blackboard allowed me to build modules that incorporated various content types and skill-building activities. Discussion boards can be used to share information, promote discussion, and provide evidence of learning, but used as the only activity option, it can become a chore. So, our weekly modules included links to instructor-developed brief lectures, publisher-based content, outside video content including TED Talks, some discussion board activities, and yes, even tests.

Using a variety of activities within a consistent course structure, I believe, provided a richer learning experience for the students. They knew basically what to expect for each module so they could prepare and allocate time accordingly, but I kept the course lively with various types of assignments.

Building critical thinking is important, and, borrowing from Bloom’s Taxonomy, I wanted students to move from remembering to creating. Each module promoted interaction with content in several different ways, so students had the opportunity to understand, apply, analyze, and evaluate. The final project was designed for students to create a marketing plan utilizing concepts and skills from the entire course.

Student feedback is valuable, and I so appreciate that James Daher took the time to share his perception of this online Intro to Marketing course.  What better encouragement could a faculty member receive?

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SCALE-up with micro workshops and wrapper sessions


laurel-2013by Laurel Willingham-McLain, Director, Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University

At the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence we’re trying out some new programs in the SCALE initiative.  SCALE, which stands for Small Changes Advancing Learning, was inspired by James Lang’s, Small Changes in Teaching series, and his book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (2016), as well small-teaching-imageas  AAC&U’s High-Impact Practices and the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project.

Our initiative continues to explore the power harnessed by small changes in teaching and learning—methods that are

  • achievable by instructors in varied contexts,
  • based on principles of learning
  • known to benefit students equitably
  • open to creativity.

Lang, in Small Teaching, writes, “you can create powerful learning for your students through the small, everyday decisions you make in designing your courses, engaging in classroom practice, communicating with your students, and addressing any challenges that arise.”

twelve-twentyNew for Spring 2017, we are offering a series of 30-minute lunchtime workshops, 12:20-12:50 pm. Designed to accommodate busy schedules, these micro workshops highlight a teaching and learning topic and introduce simple, proven strategies that you can incorporate into your course right away.  Associate Director for Faculty Development, Steve Hansen, came up with the idea for these workshops as a way “to model to faculty how small teaching practices can have big connections to student learning.  We want faculty to experience how learning in a micro-context can have macro-learning implications that faculty can apply and scale up for their own teaching contexts.”

Spring topics include transparent assignment design, how emotions motivate learning, micro-aggressions, using nudges to deepen learning, and a student-learning graffiti wall.  The series will begin on January 23 and 24 and will continue through February.

Follow-up opportunities will be available through wrapper sessions and consultations with CTE staff.  Wrapper sessions provide faculty with an opportunity to reflect and learn from experience; they are based on the learning strategy called an Exam Wrapper, which guides students to review and analyze their performance (and their instructor’s feedback) on an exam, with an eye to improving their next attempt.

In December 2016, we tried out our first Course Wrapper where participants enjoyed time to reflect individually and with colleagues about a fall course, and then outlined steps for their spring courses based on their reflection and feedback. Participants repgift-with-boworted that “The reflection and discussion were a great way to put a bow on the semester” and the Wrapper session provided a “wonderful way to wind down the semester.”  The Wrapper
sessions encourage teachers to practice the systematic reflection they ask of students.  Participants are invited to consider successful aspects of a recent course and plan ways to model future teaching on what worked well.  We take a whole-person approach, encouraging faculty to plan ways to bring their very best selves to their teaching.  New spring Wrapper Sessions look at Students Evaluation Surveys and assignment design.


Our semester culminates May 17-18 in the seventh annual Inspired Teaching Retreat at the Spiritan Retreat Center.

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Rhetoric, Combs and Rhizomes: Q & A with Dr. Derek Hook (Part II)

hook-headshotarvin-simonby Derek Hook, PhD, Associate Professor in Psychology at Duquesne University & Arvin Simon, MA, Doctoral Student in Psychology at Duquesne University

Derek’s work focuses on psychoanalysis with expertise in the area of critical psychology and psychosocial studies. Arvin is an Instructional Consultant for Teaching Assistants at the Center for Teaching Excellence.

In response to Arvin’s generous characterization of the ‘rhizomatic’ nature of my approach to graduate teaching and in relation to his two direct questions, I (Derek Hook) would like to offer a few brief thoughts. watch

  • I am worried that I won’t have enough time to cover all the material! Is facilitating a discussion an efficient use of my lecture time?

Perhaps not always, but we could reverse the question: surely NOT facilitating a discussion in class is often a bad use of teaching time. This is often the case when the material is overly theoretical, when it contains much that is paradoxical or counter-intuitive, or simply when students (and professors!) are not sure they properly understand the texts in question. Discussions, particularly when paired with the tactic of asking students to frame the inquiry, can be a good way of ensuring that students read in the first place. Through student participation, systematic errors or questionable assumptions can be revealed, then engaged and worked with.

It is a good idea to work with ‘questions from the floor’ and use them to direct students to crucial facets of the text. ‘Preparing to be spontaneous’ is a nice oxymoronic way of framing this approach to teaching: I come prepared (perhaps with some possible talking-points, crucial debates, points of uncertainty, critical challenges, etc.), but keep these in the background until needed, precisely as a way of drawing out crucial facets from what emerges in more general discussion. I also make sure that students have access to scaffolding materials covering the main material (i.e. handouts with summaries of key arguments; schematic, diagrammatic depictions of the material; accessible secondary readings, etc.), which they have in front of them when one decides to risk a slightly more open-ended discussion. This is also the learning environment where I believe teachers learn the most; they are ‘unscripted times’ when teacher and student alike approach a set of ideas from a different set of problems or conceptual concerns.

Constantly asking for examples from students puts them to work on thinking how their lives are – in a manner of speaking – also a topic of learning.

Sometimes the best and most effective practical everyday examples of the ideas in question come from class discussions. I am always on the lookout for fresh examples of key ideas, because they are often what students remember best about a given theoretical notion. Constantly asking for examples from students puts them to work on thinking how their lives are – in a manner of speaking – also a topic of learning. It also means that the learning continues beyond the parameters of the classroom, to the movie theatre, the realm of earlier personal memories, to the realms of fiction and popular culture. Soliciting examples is a great way of prompting discussion and also, importantly, of isolating instructive counter-examples (i.e. pointing to why certain apparent ‘examples’ DON’T work).disc

  • I am concerned that if I lead discussions on difficult topics then students might get offended or offend one another. What can I do to create a conversation that does not shut people down?

in teaching, the basic unit of information should not (at graduate level, anyways) be a fact, an isolated assertion, but rather a tension, a dynamic, a contradiction, a pair of terms, a debate

Perhaps the obvious point is to concede that discussions can be a risk in certain student groups – especially when lengthy and gratuitous tangents seem a strong possibility – and yet they bring the dimension of ‘liveness’ to the classroom, and with it, a sense of the unpredictable and spontaneous. A great deal of emphasis should be placed first though on facilitating trust in a given student group, and avoiding the snooty or judgmental intellectual atmosphere and enabling an atmosphere where everyone can – and should – contribute.

One suggestion here is that in teaching, the basic unit of information should not (at graduate level, anyways) be a fact, an isolated assertion, but rather a tension, a dynamic, a contradiction, a pair of terms, a debate. This may not always be possible, but, this idea can at least frame discussions, so that views and counter-views are taught together in a way that prioritizes the spirit of intellectual debate, of hearing out, of considering unintended consequences, of Devil’s Advocate kinds of arguments. This type of framing also sometimes adds momentum to developing discussions.

It is often a very good move to acknowledge areas of uncertainty, indicating from time to time that one does not completely understand something. It lets students know that they too should be allowed to ‘think out loud’, to extrapolate, guess, take a stab at what some or other evasive or difficult conceptual formulation might mean.  If one can communicate a collaborative ethos or approach to working through materials, this often helps a great deal also. Signaling that we are explorers – and indeed, a team of explorers – of a given theory goes someway to dissipating counter-productive rivalries within a group of learners.

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Rhetoric, Combs and Rhizomes: Q & A with Dr. Derek Hook (Part I)

hook-headshotarvin-simonby Derek Hook, PhD, Associate Professor in Psychology at Duquesne University & Arvin Simon, MA, Doctoral Student in Psychology at Duquesne University

Derek’s work focuses on psychoanalysis with expertise in the area of critical psychology and psychosocial studies. Arvin is an Instructional Consultant for Teaching Assistants at the Center for Teaching Excellence.

For the past four years, I (Arvin Simon) have taken coursework towards my doctorate in clinical psychology. I have also enjoyed wonderful courses on philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Martin Buber to name a few. Each of my instructors found creative ways of presenting course material to students who did not have a background in philosophy. Dr. Derek Hook was one such instructor who stood out to me in the way he was able to lead instructional, collaborative and engaging discussions.

With Derek’s permission, I have written a reflection on how I experienced his class discussions. Derek was then invited to read my manuscript and respond with his own comments. This intertextual exchange might serve to illustrate how relations of power and knowledge were negotiated both as an object of study in our class (on Michel Foucault) and as a pedagogical discourse that was enacted between instructor and students.

My mentor, Dr. Steve Hansen, shared with me three types of conversations that can occur in a classroom.


A comb conversation

First, there are what he called rhetorical conversations. These are basically instances where the instructor is lecturing at students without giving them the opportunity to meaningfully critique the text or initiate discussions on a topic that interests them. The second type of conversation, comb conversations, frequently occur in classes where personal material is shared. Here, the instructor invites students to respond to the text but conversations are restricted between the instructor and an individual student. Because of mutual vulnerabilities (e.g. not wanting to seem ignorant; sharing personal opinions) the student and instructor may feel safer having a private conversation in the context of a classroom discussion. The third, and most difficult type of conversation to initiate, is a rhizomatic conversation. Eponymously named, the rhizome conversation does not stay fixed between an individual student and instructor. In fact, the conversation may extend in several different directions and involve multiple layers of interactions. These conversations are geared at getting students to engage with a) the material (instructional) b) the instructor (collaborative) and c) each other (engaging). Dr. Kathryn Strom has written extensively about applying the philosophical concept of the rhizome in the classroom.

rhizomeThere were a few things that Derek did very well to create rhizome conversations.

1) He clearly modelled a willingness to learn from both the text and his students. When discussing difficult passages of text, Derek wondered aloud about the ambiguities and contradictions in the text and even shared his own uncertainties as to the meanings. He invited us to collaboratively engage with him in making sense of dense material while also scaffolding our hermeneutics within social and historical contexts. This is consistent with rhizomatic conversations that aim to be transparent about the way that knowledge is formulated and the effects that it has within academia and the broader social-cultural context.

2) By incorporating written reflections with close, textual analysis Derek was able to invite students who would not ordinarily speak in class to share their thoughts. Derek seemed to always hear student opinions in a generous light and recognized that we might not be experts on the material but we had very worthy ideas that could be fruitfully related to the class. Rhizomatic conversations are horizontal (vs. hierarchical, vertical) in nature and invite collaborative and open-ended inquiry into complex subject matter where linear, authoritative knowledge is often subjective or incomplete.

3) Derek encouraged us to make the material our own by relating it to examples of our own clinical work or scholarship. Rhizomatic conversations are often interdisciplinary and recognize multiple intersecting lines (e.g. politics, economics, ecology) that each bring a different perspective to bear.


Part I of this post concludes by inviting Derek to respond, in Part II, to two common concerns instructors might have in leading rhizomatic conversations:

  • I am worried that I won’t have enough time to cover all the material! Is facilitating a discussion an efficient use of my lecture time?
  • I am concerned that if I lead discussions on difficult topics then students might get offended or offend one another. What can I do to create a conversation that does not shut people down?

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Creating a Welcoming Classroom Community

by Deborah Scigliano, Ed.D., Department of Foundations and Leadership, School of Education, Duquesne Universityscigliano-headshot

Setting the tone for learning is important to creating the most effective learning environment possible. We are more motivated to learn when we feel connected to the instructor and class colleagues. This applies face-to-face as well as online. Indeed, online courses need special attention to make sure all students feel connected. Here are some ideas to spark your inner learning host.

Before students arrive, send them a welcome email. Let them know a bit about their upcoming course. More importantly, let them know how glad you are that you will be learning together.

Welcome messages are an engaging way to greet students before the class begins on the first day and before each subsequent class or unit. In face-to-face classes write a message either on the whiteboard or a slide to welcome students and set a focus for the class. In Duquesne’s Flex Tech classrooms, students can see the message at their own learning group table.

To welcome students in an online course, record an audio welcome message or post a visual welcome message on the course site. Be sure to emphasize the welcome and leave the “nuts and bolts” to another message.

Warm-ups are short ways to get to know one another. They provide a transition from where students were before class started to where they are now going to be in class. They serve as “head-clearers” as well as community builders.

Examples of warm-ups: tell 3 things about your day, what is your favorite _______? and the ever-popular M & M warm-up. The M & M warm-up involves passing around a bag of M & M’s and inviting each person to take as many as they want. To a hungry student, this sounds great! Those who are new to this warm-up often take a handful.  scigliano-mmNext, each person needs to say one positive thing about themselves for each M & M. That is when the whole-handful people tend to regret their decision because they find it difficult to identify that many positive attributes in themselves. However, it is a great way to learn about the people in the class, including the instructor. Also, it encourages people to think about the qualities that they have. This is not an easy reflection. We tend to see our flaws much more readily than our gifts.

The M & M warm-up can be adapted to online use.  One week, ask each student to pick a number from one to ten. The next week, ask each student to post as many positive qualities as the number they selected. To encourage online learners to read the qualities of their class colleagues, have a Treasure Hunt where students gather one treasure from each student and instructor to compile a list of the qualities participants bring to the group.

Whether you teach face-to-face or online, be sure your students know you are glad they are hescigliano-flextech-message-welcomere. Design opportunities to learn about each class member in order to build a welcoming classroom community.

Here’s wishing you a year full of learning that is welcoming and includes opportunities to learn more about your classroom community!

Bio: Dr. Scigliano teaches in the School of Education, Department of Foundations and Leadership. Her research interests include telementoring, online learning, self-efficacy, and peer coaching. Creating a classroom community, in face-to-face and online classes, is a priority in her teaching.