The Flourishing Academic

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


When Questions Are the Answer

By Dr. Danielle A. St. Hilaire, Assistant Professor of English and Interim Director of First-Year Writing at Duquesne Danielle St. HilaireUniversity

In my training of new graduate teaching fellows, a frequent topic of conversation is class discussion: how can we, as teachers, encourage students who seem reluctant to participate to be more involved in classroom conversations. There are no magic bullets here, but I thought I’d share my experience in dealing with this problem and one approach that developed out of that experience—an approach that not only encouraged greater participation, but also, I think, fostered a culture of inquiry in the classroom.

In a previous job, I had two sections of the same class, which I taught back-to-back. The first section was exceptionally quiet: every question I asked was met with a prolonged silence, to the point where it was difficult to advance through the text because no one but me was willing to talk about it. My second section was the opposite—talkative, even boisterous. The disparity was so glaring that, after three weeks of struggling forward with the first section, I decided it was time to have a conversation with those students. Why, I asked, were they so reluctant to respond to my questions in class? The answers I got boiled down to fear: the students in my first section felt so unsure of their comprehension of the texts (which admittedly were not easy), they were afraid to venture answers to my questions—for fear of appearing “stupid” both to me and to their peers.

After talking with them for a while and brainstorming some possible solutions to help them get over their fear of putting their ideas on the table, I decided to try something new: instead of me coming in with discussion questions, I made the students responsible for coming up with the questions, and then we as a class together would try to wrestle with some answers. I started asking students to come in with 5-6 questions they had about the reading each day, then to work in groups: which questions could they help each other solve, and which seemed harder to answer? Then we tackled the harder questions as a class, making a discussion out of grappling with the things that genuinely confused the students.

The class relaxed visibly when I turned to this approach, and conversation improved immediately—again, not in a magic-bullet kind of way, but my students became more wiling to overcome their fear of participation.  This worked, I think, for a couple of reasons. First, if the questions are coming from the students rather than from me, we avoid the problem where students suspect I’m looking for a particular “right” answer. This alleviated a certain amount of fear of being “wrong.” Second, it’s easier to ask a question than to find an answer, because it feels like the stakes are lower. Of course, having students bringing discussion questions to class is a well-known tool in the teacherly toolkit, but making these questions the center of the class—making them drive the entirety of the conversation—meant that the subject of the class shifted from the text and to how to inquire into the text.

As time went on, I realized that this approach needed more structure to be entirely successful. Not all questions are created equal: asking “How old was Milton when he wrote Paradise Lost?” is a very different thing from asking why a poem with an explicitly religious purpose would open by presenting a very sympathetic-seeming Satan. For these lessons to work, we needed to have a conversation about the different kinds of questions a person can ask about texts we were reading. So I asked the students to look at their group questions and to develop a taxonomy. What would it take to answer each question—closer reading of the text, or research outside the text? Which questions seem like they will have single, right answers, and which seem like they could be answered more than one way? Once we’d discussed the different kinds of questions they were asking, I was able to direct them towards the kind that are specific to the discipline of literary study, while at the same time validating the other kinds of questions as legitimate topics of inquiry in other settings. No questions were “bad,” but some were better suited to the task we were engaged in than others. And now the students could start to understand how to frame their inquiry to be most productive in class.

I’ve adapted this approach in subsequent classes, and I like the results I get: in classes where I use this approach, I consistently have more engaged students who seem more excited about the material than I see in my more traditional classes. When I reflect on why this might be, I come to the conclusion that my question-based classes teach inquiry and are thereby much more empowering than my other classes. By focusing on asking questions first and then working in class together to find answers, I am trying to overcome the misperception that not-knowing is a disabling problem or a sign of deficiency. Instead, I want students to see what all of us who engage in scholarly work know: that not-knowing is the first step on the way to greater knowing. Not-knowing means that you have a question: and questions are how we get to answers. We learn through questions. By putting the emphasis on these rather than on answers, we can show students who are afraid to answer that it’s okay to ask, and thereby move forward together.

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The Pygmalion Effect

By Dr. Steven Hansen, Associate Director for Faculty Development at the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

Image courtesy of Self Leadership International at

Image courtesy of Self Leadership International at

I’m saddened whenever I hear a group of faculty members complaining about the abilities of today’s students. While I realize students are not flawless paragons of learning and that honesty about the challenges students bring to learning is necessary to address the current situation, I also know that how I think about students and their abilities influences how I teach them. Be careful of those jaded student-bashing conversations, not because students are perfect, but because research shows that your perceptions about students’ abilities influence how you act toward them.

The work of Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968), among others, shows that teacher expectations influence student performance. Positive expectations influence performance positively, and negative expectations influence performance negatively. Rosenthal and Jacobson originally described the phenomenon as the Pygmalion Effect.

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur”  (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985).

In terms of teaching, faculty who gripe about students establish a climate of failure, but faculty who value their students’ abilities create a climate of success. What kind of learning climate are you creating through your expectations?

Pygmalion in Tradition

Pygmalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book X) was a sculptor who fell in love with an ivory statue of his own making. Enamored by the beauty of his own making, Pygmalion begs the gods to give him a wife in the likeness of the statue. The gods grant the request, and the statue comes to life. George Bernard Shaw adopted Pygmalion for the title of his play about Professor Henry Higgins whose sense of self-efficacy is grandiose:  “You see this creature with her curbstone English . . . in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.”

Pygmalion Research in the Classroom

The original research of Rosenthal and Jacobsen focused on an experiment at an elementary school where students took intelligence pre-tests. Rosenthal and Jacobsen then informed the teachers of the names of twenty percent of the students in the school who were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and would bloom academically within the year. Unknown to the teachers, these students were selected randomly with no relation to the initial test. When Rosenthal and Jacobson tested the students eight months later, they discovered that the randomly selected students who teachers thought would bloom scored significantly higher. Rosenthal insists that the Pygmalion effect also applies to higher education: There’ve been experiments looking at college algebra classes at the Air Force Academy, a study of undergraduates in engineering; there’ve been lots of studies at the college level since the book came out confirming the findings . . . In fact, the original research conducted when I was at the University of North Dakota was all done with graduate students and under-graduates (Rhem, 1999). Why does the Pygmalion effect occur? “If you think your students can’t achieve very much, are not too bright, you may be inclined to teach simple stuff, do lots of drills, read from your notes, give simple assignments calling for simplistic answers”  (Rhem, 1999).

Pygmalion on the Department Level

Susan McLeod argues that the Pygmalion effect can infiltrate departments. She describes the potential impact on a composition writing program where the faculty have developed a culture of low expectations, “Departments and institutions develop their own cultures; the prevailing attitudes of teachers toward students tend to become organizational norms. If most teachers in the department have a low sense of efficacy and tacitly agree that certain groups of students (sometimes even all students) can’t learn to write, then newcomers are pressured to accept the same low sense of efficacy and accompanying low expectations” (McLeod, 1995).

Practical tips:

1. Never forecast failure in the classroom. If you know a test is particularly difficult, tell your students that the test is difficult but that you are sure that they will do well if they work hard to prepare.

2. Do not participate in gripe sessions about students. Faculty members who gripe about students are establishing a culture of failure for their students, their department and their own teaching.

3. Establish high expectations. Students achieve more when faculty have higher expectations. When you give students a difficult assignment, tell them, “I know you can do this.” If you genuinely believe that your students cannot perform the assignment, postpone the assignment and re-teach the material.


  • McLeod, Susan. “Pygmalion or Golem? Teacher Affect and Efficacy.” College Composition and Communication 46 (3): 369-386.
  • Rhem, James. “Pygmalion in the classroom” NTLF 8 (2): 1-4.
  • Rosenthal, R, and L. Jacobsen. Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.
  • Rosenthal, R., and E. Y. Babad. 1985. Pygmalion in the gymnasium. Educational Leadership 43 (1): 36–39.

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What You Say and How You Say It: Student-Faculty Interactions

confident student

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By Rachel Luckenbill

During one particular semester, I had an opportunity to teach a class for adults who wanted to bridge an educational gap between high school and higher education. As a writing instructor, I know well that having to translate thoughts into print while attempting to follow grammar rules is often an anxiety-producing experience for students of any age. For the adults in this class, the experience was even more stressful because some of them had not written an academic paper in over 15 years and many of them felt self-conscious about being working professionals without strong writing skills.

In order to alleviate some of the anxiety, I positioned myself as a coach and deemphasized grading, I designed hands-on in-class activities so the students could practice skills while I was at hand to offer guidance, and I even started one of the classes with breathing exercises.

One student who felt overwhelmed by the material and doubtful of her own abilities shared that she didn’t feel smart enough to keep up with the rest of the students and was experiencing such strong writer’s block that she felt as though she needed to drop the course.

Dialoguing over email did not help to quell her anxiety, and so we met together face-to-face before the next class. I encouraged her to deliberately say no to any thought that she was not as intelligent as others and to practice thinking positively about her own potential. We chatted about her home life, especially the pressures of raising children while balancing work with school. After identifying strategies for overcoming writer’s block and offering the reassurance that everyone experiences it at some point, I told the student that I had every confidence she could persevere through the course and complete it successfully.

By the end of that evening’s class, the student approached me and said she was going to give the rest of the term a solid try. From that point on, she began turning in quality writing assignments and participating actively in class. She needed affirmation in order to realize and confidently exercise her thinking and writing skills.

This is just one example from one semester, but research suggests that interacting with students outside of the classroom is a key factor in improving student performance in the classroom. Multiple studies throughout the last few decades confirm that positive interactions with faculty outside of class frequently result in better student engagement and productivity in class. In particular, Joseph Lowman suggests that a faculty member’s ability to “create positive relationships with students” beyond the class has a direct connection to the student’s own confidence about his or her capabilities in the classroom (12). Likewise, David Fusani asserts that “students’ self-esteem” is directly affected by the instructor’s “interpersonal rapport” (233).

Unfortunately, as numerous other studies show, the majority of students do not seek interactions with faculty outside of the classroom. Sheila Cotten and Bonnie Wilson recorded observations from students who said they “see no reason” to seek faculty interaction; this indicates that they “are simply not aware of the potential benefits of engaging faculty” (514). In fact, the students they surveyed said “they often choose not to interact because they are uncertain whether faculty are willing to entertain their queries and whether faculty will be receptive to their ideas” (514).

You might be thinking, then how do I get my students to come to my office hours or stop to talk when they see me walking across campus? Approachability is key. Cotten and Wilson contend that students need “continuous and active encouragement in order to feel comfortable approaching faculty” (514). Consider taking time to talk to your entire class about the value of interacting with you outside of class, letting students know that you are available, that you care about and want to answer their questions, and that you are also more than willing to converse about life apart from class. Research also suggests that even, and sometimes especially, positive social interactions with instructors boost student performance and self-esteem (Cotten and Wilson 515).

These interactions might sound taxing to faculty members with heavy course loads and numerous other departmental obligations. Or they might sound outside the scope of a faculty member’s tasks. After all, encouragement and confidence-building should come from parents, coaches, counselors, and friends. While this is true, the reality is that how students perform in class could be directly affected by what and how faculty speak to them in the office, on the sidewalk, at the snack bar. All students, whether adults going back to school while raising a family or youth finishing out their teenage years at college, benefit from being treated as whole people who need both instruction about content and skills as well as affirmation and encouragement when it comes to believing in their own ability.

Now it’s your turn. I invite you to leave a comment sharing an example of a time when interacting outside of class boosted a student’s performance in class. No names please: we want to protect students’ privacy. For more on student faculty interactions, checkout CTE’s teaching and learning tips on effective office hours and helping distressed students.

Cotten, Sheila and Bonnie Wilson. “Student-Faculty Interactions: Dynamics and Determinants.” Higher Education (2006) 51.4: 487 – 519.

Fusani, David. “’ Extra-Class ‘Communication: Frequency, Immediacy, Self-Disclosure, and Satisfaction in Student Faculty Interaction outside the Classroom.” Journal of Applied Communication Research (1994) 22.3:232 – 255.

Lowman, Joseph. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1984.