The Flourishing Academic

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

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Reflective Learning: Asking Students to “Live the Fourth”

Those of us who teach core courses at a liberal arts college or university are often confronted with the student(s) who ask, “What purpose does this have for my major or degree?” Personally, when teaching core theology courses, I have tried to make the connection between their major and what I was teaching by offering plausible scenarios. It is a process of self-reflection and evaluation of both teacher and student; everyone is tasked with examining the practical implications of sometimes difficult concepts.

For those of you who are familiar with Jesuit high schools, colleges, and universities, you have undoubtedly encountered the KAIROS retreat. In high school, the four day retreat asks students to reflect on their lives, the friends they had made, and the relationship they had with parents, grandparents, and teachers. The guided retreat reinforces self-worth and the positive attributes these young men and women bring to their school and community. Most importantly, they make connections through prayer and reflection on what it is they have learned about themselves and their relationship with others. And for those familiar with the retreat, you might have heard retreatants return with the oft-quoted phrase, “Live the Fourth!,” an affirmation I will return to below.

I would like to think the KAIROS model could be applied to the classroom. Teaching core courses, by making sensible connections between the student and her classmates, between the students and the course material, and between the student and her potential career. As the new semester begins, similar to the retreat, the practice of asking your students to pause and reflect on what they have learned, contextualizing their learning experience, may be just as important as “feeding them the facts.” Here are some ways your students and you may conduct this reflective practice, all of which are low-stakes assessments:

  1. Journal: Asking your students to keep a separate section of their notes dedicated to a weekly or daily journal provides them a space to write thoughts related to their personal life, your discussion for that day or week, and how it relates to what they are studying elsewhere. Concerned about time? Ask your students to do this in the final minute or two of your class session, encouraging them to pause from their hectic lives in order to process what it is they learned. If your students see you doing this as well, you are bound to get a better response.
  1. Scenario Designs: At the end of the week, ask your students to create scenarios applying their work in your class to their major, other courses, or their ideal career. I suggest this as a possible weekend or topic-culminating homework assignment. For example, a Physician’s Assistant student might reflect or write on a scenario in which a blood transfusion violates religious beliefs, and the student is tasked with designing alternative treatments.These assignments, possibly collected via Blackboard, should only take students a maximum of 20 minutes to compile, and provides them the opportunity to connect multiple subjects into one synthesized place. Your students will develop connections between courses and their major they once thought impossible.
  1. Letter Writing to the Subject: One of the not-so-well-kept secrets of KAIROS are the letters. At the retreat, the letters highlight how the community sees the retreatant. At first, this may come across as clumsy; however, asking your students to write a letter to the subject of your daily or weekly lecture provides a space for them to highlight what it is they enjoyed about that particular day or week’s lesson(s). If you choose to collect these via Blackboard, it also provides you insight into what it is your students struggled with or what they really appreciated in your lectures. The exercise should also be completed and shared by you, as it demonstrates to the students your continued enthusiasm for the subject.

These reflective ideas are only a few of the possibilities.
In the comments, feel free to share what reflective practices you might try with your students.

Lastly, the KAIROS retreat concludes with the affirmation, “Go and Live the Fourth!” The Fourth Day is the culmination of the retreat. It is the reminder to the students to reflect again on what they learned and commit to living a life that is mindful of their experience, the impact it had on them, and the commitments they have made to themselves and their community. Asking your students to “Live the Fourth” in your lectures should mimic this.  Although learning to incorporate the reflective process into daily learning may be difficult at first, it ultimately aims to provide a deeper learning experience for your students.  The reflection process means that you are asking your students to apply what they have learned to their daily lives, majors, and future career aspirations, providing further value and meaning in the education process.

Additional Reading:

“Learning the Art of Reflection,” Duquesne University, Center for Teaching Excellence,

Barbara Larrivee. An Educator’s Guide to Teacher Reflection (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

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Early Course Evaluations

-by Rachel Luckenbill and Dr. Steven Hansen

A few semesters ago, I noticed that one of my classes was not engaging actively in the large group discussions I was attempting to facilitate.   I tried asking different kinds of questions and moving chairs into a circle rather than having them face forward. None of my efforts prevailed. I decided to see if early course evaluations could determine what the problem might be.
Before mid-term, I asked students to tell me anonymously what aspects of the course helped them learn the most and what least contributed to their learning. I discovered that roughly half of the students preferred small group work to large group discussions. I acknowledged their feedback and began regularly incorporating small-group activities while making large group discussions less frequent. Having seen that I would listen to their feedback, students’ engagement increased and the class became much more lively.
The following is adapted from a “teaching and learning tip” authored by Dr. Steven Hansen:
In her research, Carolin Keutzer identifies “five distinct benefits of midterm evaluation: a) The information can he used to make changes during the current course; (b) students feel empowered to help design their own educational process; (c) it allows an assessment of specific behaviors rather than a global “quality of teaching” rating; (d) instructors can ask for the information most pertinent to them-even soliciting criticism without fearing any adverse consequences from the administration; and (e) the evaluations go directly to the instructor.” (Keutzer, 1993).
Peter Cohen’s meta-analysis of studies on the impact of early-course evaluations on end of term evaluations concludes, “Instructors receiving mid-semester feedback averaged .16 of a rating point higher on end-of-semester overall ratings than did instructors receiving no mid-semester feed- back” (Cohen, 1980). In a more recent study at Brigham Young University, the authors show that the impact of midcourse feedback on end-of-term feedback depends on what instructors do with the early course evaluation: “Student ratings showed improvement in proportion to the extent to which the faculty member engaged with the midcourse evaluation. Faculty who read the student feedback and did not discuss it with their students saw a 2 percent improvement in their online student rating scores. Faculty who read the feedback, discussed it with students, and did not make changes saw a 5 percent improvement. Finally, faculty who conducted the midcourse evaluation, read the feedback, discussed it with their students, and made changes saw a 9 percent improvement” (McGowan & Osguthorpe, 2011).
The table, adapted from an article by Buskit and Hogan (2010), offers guidance on how to process midsemester feedback. 
Throw out the off-the-wall comments that do not provide you with useful information and forget about them. “She needs a haircut and a new pair of shoes.”
Set aside the positive comments that don’t tell you anything specific. “Best class ever”
Divide the negative comments into two groups: those you can change and those that you cannot change. Can Change: … redistributing the points for different assignments because of the amount of work that they perceived were required for each assignment.
Cannot Change: … let students out of
class early rather than keeping them the entire class period.
Work on perceptions and learn to be explicit. As we look at our evaluations, we often think, “But I do that!” If we feel we are doing the things that students say we are not doing, then it maybe that we need to address students’ perceptions.
Savor the comments that are meant to be negative, but let you know you are doing your Job. “She made us think.” “Dr. S. is a very influential
teacher, but I didn’t come to college to be influenced.”


Karen Lewis (2001) says, “Perhaps the most important part of conducting a mid-semester feedback session is your response to the students. In your response, you need to let them know what you learned from their information and what differences it will make. ”

Some Early Course Evaluation Ideas:

Pluses and Wishes
“As this course progressed, I was able to get it back on track by using a mid-semester evaluation process called “pluses and wishes.” Students divided the evaluation sheet in half and placed all the positives about the course on one side and suggestions for improvement on the other. For the most part, the students were satisfied with the course, but the one “wish” that was prevalent was to increase student interaction” (Ladson-Billings, 1996).

Traffic Light Survey
Nakpangi Johnson (Pharmacy Graduate) uses a “One Minute Traffic Light Survey.”


More Early Course Evaluation Methods


Connie Buskist and Jan Hogan, (2010). She Needs a Haircut and a New Pair of Shoes: Handling Those Pesky Course Evaluations. Journal of Effective Teaching 10 (1), 51-56.

Peter Cohen, (1980). Effectiveness of Student-Rating Feedback for Improving College Instruction: A Meta-Analysis of Findings. Research in Higher Education 13 (4), 321-341.

Carolin Keutzer, (1993). Midterm Evaluation of Teaching Provides Helpful Feedback to Instructors. Teaching of Psychology 20 (4), 238-240.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, (1996). Silences as Weapons: Challenges of a Black Professor Teaching White Students. Theory into Practice 35 (2), 79-85.

Karen Lewis, (2001). Using Midsemester Student Feedback and Responding to It. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 87, 33-44.

Whitney Ransom McGowen and Russell T. Osgathorpe, (2011). Student and Faculty Perceptions of Effects of Midcourse Evaluation. To Improve the Academy 29, 160-172.





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Adding Variety to Your Instructional Repertoire

Dr. Steven Hansen
Associate Director for Faculty Development at the Center for Teaching Excellence

detectiveprofile  An item that students consistently rank with a low average on teaching evaluations is “the instructor used a variety of instructional strategies.” In all honesty, sometimes I get stuck in a teaching rut where I conduct every class in the same way with the same instructional strategies. I become formulaic in my teaching. My pedagogy becomes liturgically predictable (i.e. – PowerPoint with mini-lectures and think-pair-share activities). It gets old after a few class sessions for the students and the instructor. How do I enliven my teaching routine?

I occasionally teach naked.

Of course, I am not being literal here. The idea comes from Bowen’s Teaching Naked (2012) where he makes a case for using technology outside the class to inform learning and focusing class time on authentic face-to-face interactions between faculty and students. If you regularly teach using PowerPoint, try to occasionally send the information electronically to students ahead of class for review, and spend the class time solving an intriguing problem or discussing issues that the material raises. This approach works particularly well for topics that you have seen students struggle with in previous semesters and allows you to spend more time coaching and allowing students to practice during class time.

I occasionally have the class play a game.

I recently had to teach a nuts and bolts session to graduate students on giving feedback and grading fairly. Wanting to break away from the monotony of PowerPoint, mini-lecture and discussion, I decided to design a game that I entitled “University Clue.” Like the traditional game, students were asked to solve who, where and what of a mystery: “A professor is hurting students with negative feedback. The morale in the professor’s class is at an all-time low. You must put the clues together to discover who the professor is, where the professor teaches, and what weapon the professor is using.” While students worked through a series of worksheets to solve the mystery, they were analyzing types of feedback that an instructor can give and examining how approaches to grading impact learners. Academic games are a great way to add some variety to your teaching repertoire.

I occasionally employ spy tactics.

According to Sun Tzu in The Art of War, an ancient Chinese military treatise, “Be subtle! Be subtle! And use your spies for every kind of business.” Students are great sources of information to enliven your teaching repertoire. From the first day of class, try to learn as much about your students as you can. Discovering their interests, hobbies, majors and talents allows you to think of new ways to relevantly teach your discipline. You can also ask your students to spy on you and give you feedback about how the course is going.   In my experience, students will often tell me what will help their learning and make suggestions about classroom activities they would find useful.

While we do not have to change our instructional strategies every class, occasional changes to our teaching routine reduces the likelihood of receiving low ratings on teaching evaluations, and more importantly, makes learning interesting for students.