The Flourishing Academic

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

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One Small Thing…

headshotErin Rentschler, Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University

If you could make one small change to your teaching repertoire and create the potential for significant impact on student learning, would you try it?

Over the past year or so, several colleagues at Duquesne University have been exploring just this notion of small teaching, a concept presented by James Lang in Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.  Lang argues, that 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.”

small ballComparing the notion of small teaching to baseball’s small ball (that idea that ball games are won through “simple, incremental strategies” that get players from base to base), Lang writes that it’s unrealistic to think that instructors have time for “sudden and dramatic transformation” of their teaching when they have so many responsibilities. The result? His book of small teaching strategies that can be implemented with minor, if any disruption, to your course design.

This notion aligns with CTE’s SCALE initiative (Small Changes Advancing Learning).  Our Fall 2017 SCALE UP micro workshops highlighted Lang’s strategies for helping students retrieve knowledge, connect information for greater understanding, and foster a growth mindset. At each 30 minute workshop, CTE staff highlighted key points from the respective sections of Small Teaching, and provided faculty and graduate student participants with opportunities to design a strategy for a small change that they could implement later in the semester, the week – or even later that day!

Here are some examples of the small changes faculty at Duquesne envision.

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Faculty statements of the “one small thing” they might try to increase student learning

Spending just a few minutes of class time to focus on the process of learning can have a significant impact on student learning because it fosters a growth mindset.  Carol Dweck describes growth mindset as a state of mind that helps students take risks, challenge themselves, and persist in their learning, because they believe that intelligence is not a fixed trait, but one that can increase with practice and hard work.process-of-learning-resized1.jpg

Another method is to provide feedback that fosters growth. Think: “This topic is challenging, but by continuing to work with it, you’ll grow your brain and have a better understanding” rather than “Perhaps you should change your topic.” Yet another method for fostering growth? Promote success strategies by having experienced students write tips for succeeding in the course and sharing them with new students. These strategies reinforce that learning is a process that develops over time.

Likewise, giving “quizlets” in class provides students with low stakes opportunities to practice retrieving knowledge. This is important because, as Lang writes, “the more times any of us practice remembering something we are trying to learn, the more firmly we lodge it in our memories for the long term.”  Quizzes and tests not only measure learning; they are valuable tools that “help students exercise their memory muscles to improve and solidify their knowledge base.” Reconceiving of quizzes and tests as “retrieval practice” can decrease anxiety and places emphasis on how learning happens.

And guess what! These activities can also help students to discover connections between old knowledge and new knowledge. Calling attention to these connections helps students fortify their foundations. Because students don’t always see the larger organizational picture that we can see as experts in our fields, our helping them retrieve old knowledge and map new knowledge networks deepens learning.   A small teaching strategy for helping students connect information is to draw concept maps, visual depictions that identify connections between ideas in succinct ways.

Like the sound of some of these strategies? Hungry for more? Check out Lang’s book or – better yet – join the author and regional faculty who have been exploring small teaching strategies at the first annual Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium on March 16, 2018.  Think you have a small teaching strategy that could help your colleagues? Submit a proposal by November 1! Details below.

Call for Proposals

The Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium welcomes proposals across four session types from all faculty, graduate students, librarians, instructional designers, and others involved in teaching and learning or educational development:

  • Concurrent Interactive Workshops
  • Steal My Idea / Pecha Kucha
  • Recipes for Success
  • Posters

Sessions may be presented by individuals or small groups. The proposals will be blind reviewed by colleagues from across the region.

For details on session types, click here.

To submit a proposal, click here.

We look forward to hearing about your small teaching ideas. CTE staff are available to consult on your proposals.

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Parallelograms and Poetry: helping first generation students connect

Cepek Photo

Rebecca Cepek, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of English, Duquesne University

A friend recently posted this joke on a social media site.parallelogram

This reminded me that students often do not understand the value of an assignment, especially first-generation college students, who often find themselves overwhelmed by minutiae that traditional students easily navigate. How to read a syllabus, paper prompt, or rubric are hurdles that must be cleared before they can even think about completing the assignment itself.

First-generation students are thus often doing twice the work of traditional students before they even begin an assignment. If, at this point, students cannot see or understand how these assignments align with their overall educational, career, or personal goals, they are likely to become discouraged, and to question why they are learning about parallelograms—or poetry—rather than something that seems more practical.

Transparent assignment design addresses this issue by explicitly communicating the skills and knowledge that students will acquire or increase through completion of the assignment. These skills are articulated as both discipline-specific and “real world” skills.

For example, a transparently designed close reading of a poem explains that students will gain and improve skills in understanding and analyzing literary texts and analyzing how literary devices help create meaning in texts, as well as critical reading and comprehension of complex texts.

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Close Reading of a Poem Assignment


Furthermore, transparent assignment design also requires an explanation of when and how these skills will be used. For this assignment, I explain that the ability to comprehend and analyze difficult texts is a skill that they will find necessary in other classes, and also one that will be essential to their success, both personal and professional, outside of academia. Mastering the analysis of poetry specifically, which is often dense and multilayered, will prepare them for any similar texts they may encounter and will help them come to an understanding and appreciation of the many nuances and levels of language.

This type of transparency is particularly useful for students who cannot see the connections between reading a poem and reading a report. Indeed, many students struggle to make these connections, but it is of paramount importance for first-generation students who need to be reassured that the benefits of higher education are worth the sacrifices – emotional, personal, and financial – that they are making to pursue that education.

In addition to helping first-generation students understand the value of assignments, it also aids in the successful completion of those assignments. This requires a change from what Mary-Ann Winkelmes, creator of transparent assignment design, calls “a ‘gatekeeper’ perspective,” the mistaken idea “that if a student can’t figure out the unwritten but implied purposes, tasks, and criteria for an assignment, that student shouldn’t succeed in the course and shouldn’t continue in the discipline.”

Instead, transparent assignment design lays out the steps needed to complete an assignment in a simple and easy to understand way, explaining terms (such as close reading) that are often unfamiliar to first-generation students. This is crucial to the success of students, who hesitate to ask for help, especially for understanding something that it seems like all of their peers already understand.

In my experiences with freshman composition, transparent assignment design has been immensely helpful for both traditional and nontraditional students alike. It has also forced me to articulate the value not only of my assignments but of my discipline, as well as how my chosen discipline is interconnected with other disciplines. Finally, transparent assignment design is a minor change that instructors can make, with huge benefits for everyone, but especially for first-generation students.  Because ultimately, it is always parallelogram season.


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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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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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.

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SCALE: Small Changes Advancing LEarning

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

At a recent faculty reception, a colleague recounted how a simple change he had made in his teaching was making a big difference for both him and his students. He had been experimenting with ways for students to “internalize” the content by describing a related personal experience and noting personal lessons they had learned.  Students find it an engaging learning experience and seem to like relating and contributing to the course content, he told me.

Another faculty colleague and I have been chatting about how she has begun using exam wrappers to help students learn from the exam experience itself and take more responsibility for their learning.

These are just two examples of “small” approaches that are known to deepen student learning.

At CTE (Duquesne), we will be focusing on small teaching approaches through an initiative called SCALE: Small Changes Advancing LEarning.


We are inspired by many colleagues, but in particular by James Lang’s Small Changes in Teaching series, and his book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (2016). Using a “small ball” metaphor from baseball, Lang  writes, “I became convinced… that fundamental pedagogical improvement was possible through incremental change—in the same way that winning the World Series was possible through stealing bases and hitting sacrifice fly balls” (p. 5).  Lang offers well researched teaching approaches that require minimal preparation and grading and can be adapted by teachers in varied contexts.  They take three basic forms:

  • Brief (5-10 minute) classroom or online learning activities
  • One-time interventions in a course
  • Small modifications in course design or communication with students

Stay tuned for CTE Small Teaching book studies over the next few semesters.


Another example of small teaching is the “transparent assignment design,” promoted by Mary-Ann Winkelmes and colleagues in the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project.  Their research shows demonstrable gains in learning, especially among underserved student populations, when faculty simply revise course assignments to clearly articulate purpose, task, and criteria.  Dr. Winkelmes led Duquesne faculty in a hands-on workshop in April 2016, and the video and materials are available online (with a Duquesne multipass).  CTE offers an adapted version of this workshop again on September 28, 2016.

Finally, we are drawing on AAC&U research of ten high-impact practices and their common key elements.  On September 16, AAC&U Vice President, Terrel Rhodes, will present an open session for faculty and graduate students TAs titled, Better Together: Highly Effective Practices for Engaged Learning (Read more here).

Join us in discovering the power of small changes in teaching and learning that are:

  • Known to benefit students equitably
  • Achievable by instructors in varied contexts
  • Open to creativity
  • Based on principles of learning