The Flourishing Academic

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

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Dialogue in the Classroom: A Student’s Perspective

by John W. Foster, an undergraduate at Duquesne University

Hello! I hope this post finds you well as you embark on a new semester teaching. Today I’d like to share my perspective on how classroom discussion and flexibility might help you achieve your course goals and objectives.

Throughout my undergraduate courses I acquired and retained more information in courses that had discussion components than those driven by lecture alone. I firmly believe that providing students the opportunity for classroom discussion not only creates a dialogue but also allows for new insights. There are the inevitable initial reservations on the part of students in any classroom discussion but, sooner or later, we adjust and join in.

I am amazed at professors’ ability to have a lecture-oriented course yet still find opportunities to have discussions regardless of field of study or size. Being a current student I can attest to the positive benefits classroom discussions provides. However, not everyone will participate in discussion. This does not necessarily equate to an individual not having interest in the material. For students who may not be comfortable engaging in discussions, I encourage you to have alternatives such as written reflections throughout the semester.

In the same vein, flexibility is an important component of any course and in any classroom. Classroom discussions run the possibility of getting behind anticipated schedules. I observed that there are clear distinctions in professors who solely abide by the initial syllabus without flexibility and others who make adjustments based on classroom discussion and material covered.

One of the main reasons why I chose Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit was the teacher to student ratio. I am one of many students who learn the most by learning through others and their different viewpoints. Furthermore, it provides me the opportunity to think critically and feel more enticed to ask questions and provide insight.

This is truly an exciting time for you as you kick off the year and engage with new students. Throughout my education I have observed that a classroom can be one of three things between a professor and a student: a monologue, duologue, or a dialogue. There is a tendency to fluctuate between a monologue and a duologue; where learning can occur, but I believe learning occurs at its highest degree when a student and a professor reach a dialogue.

As you embark on the spring semester I wish you all the best in your endeavors and hope that you are able to find the value and time for classroom discussions!

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Biography: John is originally from Reading, PA. He is currently in his senior year at Duquesne University where he is pursuing a Double Major in History and International Relations with a dual concentration in Security Studies and U.S. Foreign Policy.

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The Power of Good Questions

photoby Jerry Minsinger, Supervisor of Student Teachers and Adjunct Professor, Duquesne University, School of Education

This past Spring I had the opportunity to attend the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence Inspired Teaching Retreat: “The Olive Tree Effect.”  Using a future orientation, we explored several questions.  How do we motivate our students?  How do we motivate ourselves?  What are our plans for personal and professional growth?  The retreat encouraged reflection of teaching practices; the readings and content facilitated a constructivist approach to learning.  Multiple perspectives represented by various disciplines and experiences contributed to a healthy dialogue, enriching my capacity to learn and grow.

As a teacher, I have observed students who are disengaged from the text and class discussions.  This can be an albatross or an opportunity.  During the retreat, a discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation challenged me to consider my future purpose as a teacher, and strategies to address disinterest.  How can I model intrinsic motivation and promote personal growth, self-acceptance, and generativity?  How can I increase student engagement in the classroom and inspire students to become personally responsible, self-directed, reflective learners?  

Among the many takeaways of the retreat, I was intrigued by “the power of questions” to build relationships, engage students and facilitate learning.  Effective questions are thought provoking, reflective, and inspirational.  In the best sense, questions are motivational devices that elicit ownership and accountability.  Probing, open-ended questions require thoughtful responses, invite alternative viewpoints, and clarify misconceptions.

Good questions require students to analyze, evaluate, and create new thinking.  Questions are used in formative assessment, during instruction, to determine student understanding.  Powerful questions inform, organize, and require students to elaborate and act on their learning.  Examples include: What are you working on?  Can you provide an example?  Why are you doing this work?  How do you know your work is good?  Would you explain further what you mean?  What do you need to know in order to complete this work?  Where do you go for support?

The quality classroom requires rigorous activities that make learning meaningful and fun.  How does the teacher determine that students have learned?  Has teaching occurred if the students have not learned?  Who controls the learning?  What makes learning interactive and personal?  The benefits of powerful questions are numerous.  Good questions engage students in deeper learning and create energy in the classroom.  This is an adaptive challenge that improves the instructional process.

Rather than “telling” students or providing the “answers,” asking the right questions can lead them to “construct” new learning.  When you involve students in the process, they are more likely to take ownership, invest, and contribute.  Active listening and probing become instructional tools to deepen students’ knowledge.  Effective questions are invitational.  Students learn to hypothesize, connect ideas, and think critically.  Learning becomes authentic when students struggle to find the answer or solution to a problem.

“The power of questions” does not apply only to the classroom and my role as professor. As a parent, raising children is a fluid, evolving and exciting adventure.  Rebellion, challenge, and defiance can erode and disrupt healthy relationships.  I have found that questions are powerful tools in helping to work through difficult situations.  A knee jerk, visceral reaction is to tell, demand, or coerce, using parental directives “in the child’s best interest.”  This strategy often backfires or is resisted, causing further deterioration of the relationship, frustrating the participants.

Asking critical, thoughtful questions and allowing time for reflection, demonstrates care and concern.  Examples include: What is your purpose?  What are the benefits of your actions?  What values are you demonstrating in this decision?  What are some other options?  Why is this important to you?  Dialogue respects and honors the thoughts and ideas of others.  This opens the door to resolutions that are creative, synergistic, and most importantly, owned.

As a spouse, parent, teacher, or friend, powerful questions can help build healthy, enduring relationships.  Try it out.  The next time you find yourself making premature judgments about the motives of others, frustrated by situations out of your control, or worried about issues and events, use open-ended, probing questions.  Listen and inquire before responding.  You will empower others to think critically, reason, and practice personal responsibility.


Jerry Minsinger served 38 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools; as a principal at various school levels for 25 years.  Currently, Jerry serves as an adjunct professor and supervisor of student teachers in the School of Education at Duquesne University.

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My Secret Weapon to Creating Effective Learning Experiences

This week we welcome  our first guest blogger, Dr. Susan Hines of St. Mary’s University of Minnesota! In October 2014 Dr. Hines traveled to Duquesne University for a workshop on designing effective adult learning experiences. You can see a synopsis of highlights from that workshop in an earlier Flourishing Academic post. Today we’re excited to offer you a post written by Dr. Hines herself! Here she gives us concrete ideas about how we achieve effective learning outcomes.

By Sue Hines, Ed.D., Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and TeachingSusan Hines
Associate Professor in Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota

There is a well-kept secret that I believe needs to be shared with educators around the world.  I’ve known about this secret for well over a decade and have used it in all my courses and faculty development workshops.  It has resulted in high ratings from my learners and effective learning outcomes.  Whenever I use this secret “weapon”, I can see that they “get it”. How? I see it happen in front of my eyes.  It doesn’t matter if we’re face-to-face or online.  The result is the same.  Learning happens and I see it.

So what is this secret weapon?  I’ll tell you. But you have to promise to pass it on to all the teachers you know.  We can’t keep it secret anymore. Shift from planning what to teach to planning an experience. A learning experience has 4 parts: awaken current knowledge, add new knowledge, practice new knowledge, and apply new knowledge. Sounds simple? Well it is.  It’s also fun to create and even more fun to implement.

Here’s an example.  Imagine you’re teaching a course called Introduction to Management. The topic for next week’s class is management styles. The learning goal for the class is “to be able to analyze and apply management styles.” You need to have a learning goal for my now-not-so-secret weapon to work.

First, awaken the learners’ current knowledge about the topic. Doing so allows you to draw out what they already know and begin to make meaning through their knowledge. This can be done in a variety of ways. For this example, ask the learner’s to write a response to the following question, “Think of a great manager you worked for. What made her so great?” After writing their response, have the students pair up and discuss, then share out as a large group. Capture the key ideas on the board.  I typically mind map their responses. Then debrief on the “findings” to discover key themes being sure to tie it back to the topic and the assigned readings.  It never fails; the knowledge they already have dovetails nicely with the principles you’re trying to teach.

Second, add new knowledge. Now that the “pump is primed,” immerse the students into the key concepts and skills you want to add to their current knowledge. One way to do this is break the class into small groups. Assign each group a management style from the readings. Ask them to create and share out a 5-minute mini-presentation on their assigned management style. Debrief after the presentations being sure to pull out the main ideas and facilitate corrections in thinking when necessary. However you when add new knowledge, the key is have the students involved in teaching the process. Avoid lecturing as much as possible.

The third step is allow time to practice. Given their new knowledge on management styles, give the class a scenario of a real world management challenge. Have each small group develop an approach for addressing the challenge using their previously assigned management style.  Share out to the class. Afterwards, facilitate a class critique of each group’s work. Practice is essential for embedding and guiding newly gained knowledge.

Lastly, have the learners apply their new knowledge. It’s best to apply the learning to an upcoming assignment. Ask them to write a brief reflection on how the management styles apply to their personal roles and rationale. This reflection will be applied to their Management Profile paper that is due in two weeks. Application of the new knowledge is critical for transferring new knowledge to relevant contexts.

I have used this learning experience design for 60-minute to 5-hour sessions.  The key is to adjust each phase to the time allowed.

Now for my final secret. If you are from the field of education or psychology, you probably figured out this approach is a simplification of David Kolb’s experiential model.  Kolb reminds us that humans naturally learn through life experiences. So why not teach our learners in a way that mirrors how we naturally learn.



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Doing Vs. Hearing

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By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs at Duquesne University

I felt like I was a record on repeat. It was late in the day, the sun was going down, and I was daring to begin class with a rather mundane lesson on paragraph formation. I explained to my students repeatedly the value of having one main idea per paragraph and making sure each sentence contributes to the main idea. But it just wasn’t sinking in. I could see the dazed, uninterested stares. They were smart students, but they either didn’t care or couldn’t connect to what I was saying.

Out of a sense of desperation and a need, myself, to do something more exciting than talk about paragraphs, I proposed that the class, with me as their scribe, compose their own paragraph on the spot as a group. I went to the blackboard, chalk in hand, suggested a paragraph topic (in this case the difference between the class I was teaching them and another class in which all of them were enrolled) and began to direct them in the process of paragraph writing. I hadn’t planned this out ahead of time, so this was very much an exercise in spontaneity.

First, I had them brainstorm a list of words and ideas that might appear in their paragraph (the subject of each class, types of assignments, lecture content, etc.). Once we had a sufficient list, I asked students what might be a good topic sentence. This was difficult. I discovered that we needed to identify a purpose for our paragraph before we could begin to formulate the topic sentence – were we trying to convince someone to take one course over the other? Did we simply want to answer a friend who was asking what our course schedule was like? After some deliberation, the students collectively decided that it wasn’t very interesting to write a paragraph demonstrating that these two classes were different. They found it far more interesting to begin by acknowledging the differences but assert that these diverse courses required students to practice the same set of skills (clear writing, critical thinking, public speaking). I enjoyed watching the students discover that they could take a paragraph which originally read like a list and make it a kind of argument by adding interpretation.

Once our purpose was clear, the class composed a rough draft of the topic sentence. From that point, I called on volunteers as they generated ideas about what sentences could fill out the rest of the paragraph. With each sentence, I asked them to describe how it related to the topic sentence. In cases where the new contribution was more interesting than the original topic sentence, we decided to rewrite the original so that by the end of the exercise we had an entirely new topic sentence and a much more complex paragraph than what we had originally set out to write.

The exercise was a bit chaotic. Sometimes I had two or three students shouting out phrases or sentences at the same time. At other times, I supplied phrases during lulls in the dialogue. I did a lot of erasing and a lot of rewriting of both the students’ suggestions and mine, always explaining why I was making the changes I did. It gave me a chance to model making wordy phrases more concise, varying sentence structure, and weighing the value of one word choice over another.

By the time the paragraph was complete, the board was an absolute mess, barely legible, but the students had seen the craft behind writing a coherent paragraph. They finally understood that it took work, editing, planning. And they grasped the need to make sure everything connected back to one main idea. Best of all, all of us, me and the students, were excited and full of energy. The topic of the paragraph was pretty mundane, but we had created something together, something that required spontaneity and hard intellectual work leaving no room for boredom or blank stares.

Who knew that teaching paragraphs could feel exhilarating? Who knew that students could describe learning about paragraphs as fun?

Sometimes I encounter active learning as risky.  I was nervous when I suggested that the class write a paragraph together. I knew it was entirely possible that none of them would offer ideas or that I would have difficulty helping them create a paragraph from scratch that was coherent and yet still incorporated all of their suggestions. It’s often easier to stand in front of the class and explain the concept than it is to either model or engage them actively in practicing that concept. Some level of verbal explanation is appropriate and necessary, but having students do instead of just hear leads to an engagement that increases learning.

It’s your turn: In the comments below, describe an experience where you took a risk on active learning that led to more energy and connection in the classroom.


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From the Director: Possibility and Promise


By Laurel Willingham-McLain
Director of Faculty Development and Teaching Excellence at Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence

I love this time of year – when we are privileged to welcome dozens of new faculty and TAs to our campus. I take this responsibility very seriously because it’s important to set the right tone from the beginning. So, it takes a lot of work. But in return, I receive joy and energy from the new colleagues I meet.

Every year I think, “wow, this is an amazing group of people.” Marathon runners, kayakers, singers, dancers, quilters, gardeners, chefs, bakers, parents and partners… and teachers and researchers. And that’s just this year! At faculty orientation, I listened for themes. I noticed shared academic interests in adolescents among some faculty, and research on mobility and community in others. How good it was to watch people listen to one another and make connections their first day together – across the disciplines.

At the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), we have come to focus on community building. I learned from my mentor, Dorothy Frayer, to focus on people. To encourage them and congratulate them. To take time for a walk or a cup of tea. And in the last five years or so, we at CTE have intentionally shifted our central focus away from teaching technique to teacher identity. When faculty ask us how to lead better discussions and engage students in active learning, for example, we spend time getting to know them. We ask about their interests and concerns, their successes and obstacles, their teaching contexts and aspirations, and out of that conversation emerge strategies for getting better at teaching.

One thing I’m confident of is that the best teachers are avid learners. That’s an identity we all need to share. In fact, when I consider Duquesne’s teacher-scholar model, the primary pursuit that teachers and researchers have in common is deep learning. Brew and Boud (1995) point out that teaching and research require rather different skills, but they share the importance of learning. At the heart of both endeavors is an exploration of existing knowledge and the desire to go beyond it. Both involve the human act of making meaning, of making sense of phenomena in the world (pp. 267-268).

I see energetic learning – in both teaching and research spheres – occurring within community at Duquesne. At CTE we witness motivation and productivity among informal peer-mentors, creative teaching award teams, research partners, workshop panelists, and even committee members (!) – who inspire one another to learn and make that learning public to their students and peers. Who guide students in engaging deeply in their learning, and in turn, sharing their learning beyond the classroom.

Brew, A., & Boud, D.  (1995).  Teaching and research: Establishing the vital link with learning.  Higher Education, 29 (3), 261-273.