The Flourishing Academic

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

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Office Hours: Meeting Students Where They Are

This post is drawn from CTE’s Teaching & Learning Tip on Effective Office Hours, written by Erin Rentschler.

Many students, especially freshmen, do not realize the value of one-on-one interaction with their instructors.  When done well, instruction during office hours benefits both students and instructors. Office hours help improve teaching and learning by:

  1. Facilitating deeper learning by sharing additional resources and engaging in dialogue with students, especially those who might be excelling in your course.
  2. Coaching students before they have performance problems to help them grasp key concepts or clarify assignment expectations.
  3. Working with students who are performing poorly to learn how to guide or assist them.
  4. Fostering  important “critical connections” between student, instructor, and material by providing an opportunity to get to know one another—not for the sake of personal relationships, but to create “a positive and productive working relationship” (Kreizinger 2006).connecting puzzle pieces

So…how to make this happen? Read on for some tips on effective office hours.

Get Them There

  • Explain what office hours are on the first day of class, but remind students throughout the semester where and when they can find you. Post your hours and location on the course syllabus and consider publicizing office hours on Blackboard and/or in your email’s “signature” so that students see this information regularly.
  • Group sessions can ease some pressure, establish rapport between students (increasing class time collaboration), and streamline providing feedback. Topic-based office hours model productive individual sessions.
  • Consider requiring students to meet with you early in the semester, especially if you have smaller classes. Once they surpass initial anxiety, students are likely to come on their own. While it’s wise to have students schedule these visits around a course assignment, a brief meeting to discuss their personal goals for the class can also be effective. Other ideas for required visits
    • Davis (1993) suggests that writing “see me about this during office hours” gets a 75% response rate. However, you can avoid making office hours punitive by centering the requested visit on both praise and constructive criticism.
    • Nilson (2010) suggests having students drop off or pick up assignments during office hours rather than during class time.
  • Consider alternative “office spaces
    • “neutral spaces” may alleviate anxiety, and meeting in a working space, like the library, provides space to model learning or disciplinary practices.
    • Walk and talk. Requests for general information or clarification can be addressed “on the fly,” as you walk from one class to the next.
    • Supplement office hours with technology. Email, discussion boards, twitter or other online spaces “are most efficient when communications are brief and to the point and offer ‘easy answers to easy questions.’” (LASTA).
  • Allow time spent in office hours to count toward the course participation grade.
  • Plan office hours carefully. Avoid what James Lang calls “the Early Bird approach” (or variations of it) by
    • waiting, if you can, until the semester begins and polling your students to see when  a majority of them will be free. When teaching in one of Duquesne’s Learning Communities, for example, it doesn’t make sense to schedule office hours during the time slot during one of the other courses.
    • Holding office hours after class, so that “questions and concerns can be  addressed immediately” (LASTA).


      What not to do when scheduling office hours. 

Be Productive Once They’re There

  • Instruct students on how to prepare, and ask them to reschedule if they haven’t.
  • Segment your office hours and ask students to come during a particular time slot; the new Starfish calendaring tool in Blackboard could be helpful in managing time slots. Set clear guidelines as to what can and cannot be accomplished within the specified time frame.
  • If students come to office hours eager to inform you of their latest dormitory exploits, set clear boundaries without dismissing the students entirely. LASTA suggests “reflect[ing] on the role you can play in students’ lives.” Remember that your primary responsibility is to foster learning, but be empathetic. Provide students with additional campus resources (Writing Center, Wellbeing Center, etc.), but make certain that they understand you aren’t ignoring them or denying a request for help.
  • “To maximize the value of your consultation, make it as student-active as possible” and make it clear to students that office hours are not a condensed version of class (Nilson 2003).

Get them to Come Back

  • Follow up with students on issues raised during office hours. Send an email with an additional resource that might be of interest or ask about an exam/event mentioned in passing.
  • Make students feel welcome and comfortable: “Interact with students with intentional time and depth” (Robertson). Close your books, silence your phone, and turn off the computer.

  • Validate the points students make in office hours. In Tools for Teaching Barbara Gross Davis (1993) suggests bringing students’ outside comments into the classroom: “If they make a good comment, check with them first to see whether they are willing to raise the idea in class, then say: ‘Jana, you were saying something about that in the hall yesterday. Would you repeat it for the rest of the class?’”

Learn from Students during Office Hours

While taking advantage of office hours to work on research or grading may sound appealing, not meeting with students can actually put you at a disadvantage. Once you have students visiting your office hours, you’re likely to learn from your students. Use the time to solicit feedback about the course and instructional materials. Ask students what they like about the course and what confuses or challenges them. Students are more likely to be honest if you demonstrate genuine interest in hearing what is working well and what needs improvement.

Davis, Barbara Gross (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Kreizinger, Joe (2006). “Critical Connections for the First Day of Class” The Teaching Professor. 20.5
Lang, James M. (2003). “Putting in the Hours: You Can Tell a lot about Faculty Members by How They Set Up Their Office Hours.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Liberal Arts and Sciences Teaching Academy (LASTA). University of Illinois. “Making the Most of Office Hours”
Nilson, Linda (2010). Teaching at its Best. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Robertson, Douglas (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

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Representation Matters

IMG_4948by Taylor Cavalovitch, a recent graduate from Duquesne University’s School of Education. Taylor was this year’s recipient of the Award for Undergraduate Research offered through the Center for Teaching Excellence.  He was recognized for is research project, “Representation Matters: How Representation in Children’s Literature Influences Children of Different Ethnicities,” presented at the 2016 Undergraduate Research and Scholarship Symposium.

Representation Matters

In a society where all students are subjected to watching and reading the same stories about white men, why and how can educators break past this single story narrative and share the manifold stories of our diverse student population? As a future educator, I have seen firsthand the lack of a diverse curriculum being taught in our schools. Through this realization and reflecting on my own schooling, I wanted to gain insight on how I can better serve my students, understanding that they too come from various backgrounds.  With the help of my professor, Dr. Sandra Quiñones, I was able to develop an action research project that I hoped would improve the engagement of a student from a non-dominant population. The idea for this project was cultivated over the course of an eight-week field placement in a first grade classroom at a suburban Pittsburgh school.

Through my initial observations, I noticed that my host teacher was selecting literature that represented the dominant population: the white students. While this was not a conscious decision my host teacher made, I could tell that three students who were part of non-dominant groups, Venezuelan, Korean, and Chinese, were tired of hearing the stories of one group. In particular, I noticed that my student participant, the student from Venezuela, was much more disengaged than his fellow classmates. I believed it was because this was his first year in the United States and his first experience being under-represented in a classroom. To test my hunch that under-representation and internalized oppression might be the reason for his disengagement, I showed my student participant two pictures, one of Joe Biden and the other of Leopoldo López, and asked him who he thought the smart man was. He selected Joe Biden; although, he was unable to provide a rational reason for his selection.

To positively impact his engagement and self-perception, I decided to read children’s literature that represented this student during the read-aloud portion of the day. As I was searching for appropriate literature, I found texts about Venezuelan culture but had difficulty finding a text that focused on a Venezuelan main character. Therefore, I decided to select the children’s book Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales; a book about a boy from Mexico pretending to wrestle his toys as his twin sisters slept. I thought this title would be a perfect choice due to it mostly being about the imagination of a young boy. However, I did make the decision to adapt the book to make the boy from Venezuela instead of Mexico. During my reading, the student was unable to take his eyes off me. When I asked a discussion question, his hand was the first hand raised.

The following week, I decided to read the book Dream Carver by Diana Cohn; once again, I needed to adapt this book to better represent my student participant. As with my previous read-aloud, the student was much more engaged with the text because the book acted as a mirror, my student participant could see himself in the text.  I then revisited my “Who is smarter?” question. This time, however, he selected Leopoldo López to be the smarter man. I believe that since my student participant was able to see himself represented in the classroom, he then in turn believed that Leopoldo López could be smarter than Joe Biden. My student participant and I developed what I would call an authentic relationship, because he could tell that I took a genuine interest in his culture; therefore, validating his existence in the classroom.

But my student participant was not the only one who benefited from this exposure these books. The other students were able to experience a perspective other than their own, and truly appreciate a different story. I believe that representation encompasses many facets of students’ lives: their linguistic and cultural background, gender identity, sexuality, differences in physical and mental abilities, family dynamics, etc. No student should feel lesser because they may appear to be different. As educators it is our responsibility to value and validate each and every one of our students. Representation matters, and it does play a pivotal role in students’ self-worth and engagement.

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Sketching to Sharpen Writing

By Allie Reznik, Teaching Fellow and English PhD Candidate at Duquesne University

How many of our students are visual learners? Even if the majority of students are, we might be apprehensive to bring creative lessons into our classrooms that engage visual learning. I’d like to offer one example of how we can inspire our students’ creative potentials to sharpen their writing and perspective regardless of discipline.

While reading Alison James and Stephen D. Brookfield’s innovative pedagogical text Engaging Imagination (2014, Jossey-Bass) for the Center for Teaching Excellence’s Book Study, I began brainstorming artistic, visual exercises for my UCOR102 class. And it was perfect timing: we were reading Marjane Satrapi’s powerful graphic memoir The Complete Persepolis (2007, Pantheon) which presents a personal perspective of Iran beyond what we might get from news and social media.

James and Brookfield’s “Three Axioms of Student Engagement” encourage us to think about creative ways for our students to sharpen the work that we’re already expecting them to do. What assignment is your class currently working on? Think of this assignment in terms of the “Three Axioms” here in abridged form:

1. Student learning is deepest when the content or skills being learned are personally meaningful, and this happens when students see connections and applications of learning.

2. Student learning “sticks” more (in other words, retention of knowledge and skill is increased) when the same content or skills are learned through multiple methods.

3. The most memorable critical incidents students experience in their learning are those when they are required to “come at” their learning in a new way, when they are “jerked out” of the humdrum by some unexpected challenge or unanticipated task. (6-7)

For my UCOR102 paper assignment, I had students create a list of questions that The Complete Persepolis personally raised for them in order to determine their thesis statements. My students—ranging from biomedical engineering, physician assistant, business, and pharmacy majors—expect lectures and worksheets in their classes. Asking them to sketch in the UCOR102 classroom would definitely compel them to “come at” paper writing in a new way. They’d be able to see the moving parts of their argument, as well as realize some moving parts that they would need to add or clarify.

Equipped with blank computer paper, I walked into class and announced we’d be sharpening our arguments about The Complete Persepolis. I asked students to write down their argument in 1-2 sentences. Students were then “jerked out” of the anticipated lesson: I asked them to draw—to the best of their ability— exactly what they wrote down.

Students first drew their argument to see their ideas tangibly. After they drew visual representations of their arguments, I encouraged them to consider what was still absent and invisible. Acknowledging the absences in their argument highlights potential blind spots that they needed to clarify. I asked them to write down what else they needed to specify to make their visual perspective sharper to create a more vivid textual argument. Here’s a gallery of student sketches here for you to see how their perspectives began to transform once they saw an artistic rendering of their argument.

Alex pic 1After sketching their argument, students saw what was apparent and what they needed to clarify. In image 1 the student reflected on “what do I mean by women’s rights? What does women’s rights look like?”

Alex pic 2Image 2 yielded questions of “Whose expectations of women am I assuming? How does age affect representation of rebellion?”

Alex pic 3Image 3 led to further clarification of “What does government control mean and look like in this specific case?”

Alex pic 4Image 4 pushed the student to consider “What is the spectrum of how Satrapi’s family members treated her that influenced her? What does Satrapi’s family’s impact look like specifically?”

Alex pic 5Image 5 moved beyond assumptions of childhood and into questions such as “What is Satrapi’s childhood perspective look like specifically? How and why does her perspective change specifically?”

Students moved forward from this exercise—after temporarily stepping into Satrapi’s position as graphic artist—thinking consciously about the creation of visual and academic arguments. Most importantly, students visualized their argument in a new way to see what they needed to clarify.

In what ways have you engaged your students’ creative potentials in your classroom, regardless of discipline? I’d love to hear more about it.

Allie Reznik is a fourth year PhD candidate in English studying the intersections of race and music in American literature. She writes #TSWBAT blog and tweets about food, music, and popular culture at @alliebgolightly.

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Summer Classes: Opportunities for Teaching and Learning

by Steve Hansen, PhD. Associate Director for Faculty Development at the Center for Teaching Excellence at Duquesne University

For Faculty and TAs

Use summer classes as an opportunity to try something new in your teaching repertoire.Summer classes are often intensive in nature.  This requires that you employ a purposeful sequencing of the course to increase students’ learning.  In a non-summer class, the sequencing of the course usually looks unfortunately like this: 

Class Time:       <Lecture> <Lecture> <Lecture> <Lecture> . . . <Exam>

Homework:       <Reading> <Reading> <Reading>      

Several problems arise when an instructor employs this approach during the summer.  First, the intensive nature of summer classes do not allow for lecturing in a relaxed pace because each class meeting is equal to about a week’s worth of lectures in a traditional course.  Lecturing for three hours or an extended period is pedagogically problematic because studies of students’ attentiveness during lectures show a flagging of interest within fifteen minutes.  A second problem with the lecture-reading sequence is that students in summer classes have less time between classes to read the equivalency of a week’s materials.  Finally, a third problem with this sequence is that it depends on summary assessment and lacks formative assessment.  When professors assess student learning in this manner, they miss the opportunity to influence student learning through giving constructive feedback that benefits the overall retention of the materials.

Your summer courses will benefit through employing a different sequencing that is more dynamic and builds active learning strategies into the lectures that allow you informally to assess students’ learning and adjust your teaching:

Class Time: <Mini-lecture + Active Learning + Mini Lecture + Group Activity> . . .

Homework: <Carefully Selected Readings Highlighting Key Information>

To make your summer course more dynamic, intersperse lectures with active learning techniques such as icebreakers, minute papers, think-pair-share sessions, group work, and discussions.  In addition, you should trim the readings to essential key texts.  Interspersing your lectures with active learning that focuses on key readings will allow you to monitor student comprehension of materials and give students feedback that is constructive, frequent and timely.  For a successful summer class, intersperse your lectures with active learning and focus on essential readings that you employ in class activities.

Hamster summer

For Students

Students take summer courses for a variety of reasons.  Some take summer courses to lighten the load of the regular school year; others take summer classes because they want a particular course they cannot fit into the regular term.  Whatever your reason for taking summer classes, there are some strategies that will help the summer go more smoothly.

Summer classes are usually intensive by nature.  You will cover a semester’s worth of materials in a shorter period.  Here are some types for surviving the intensive nature of summer classes:

* Plan your summer.  Be sure you find time for vacation, rest and personal well-being before or after your summer class.

* Prepare to give your summer courses all your energy. When classes are in progress, you will need to focus exclusively on course work because of the rapid pace of summer classes.

* Put forward a strategy to accomplish what the course requires.  Know the deadlines, assignments and readings that are scheduled.  To avoid becoming overwhelmed by the pace, make a calendar that keeps you ahead.

* Participate in every class.  When you participate, you learn more because you are actively engaging your brain which increases your memory.

* Plan to enjoy the experience.  Since summer classes meet so frequently for longer periods with smaller enrollments, you will find the opportunity for more interaction with instructors and fellow students.  You will find that the summer experience is more personal.

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Lecture Pain Reduction

A Learning Tip from Steve Hansen, Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

Lecturing is a key component to higher education, but sometimes lectures stifle learning.  McLaughlin and Mandin describe the phenomenon:

Lecturalgia (painful lecture) is a frequent cause of morbidity for both teachers and learners.” Medical Education 35 (2001): 1135.However, lecturalgia is preventable for students and teachers if you:

Remember the Attention Span of Students

The perennial advice about student attention is that attentiveness starts to decline after 10 to 15 minutes of lecturing.  McKeachie reports that research shows that “attention typically increases from the beginning of the lecture to ten minutes into the lecture and decreases after that point” (Teaching Tips, 10th Edition, p. 62).  While some scholars have questioned the veracity and specificity of the claim, most teachers know from their own educational experience that one’s attentiveness wanes regularly during lectures.  When you occasionally have found your thoughts wandering from a lecture, what were the prompts that reawakened your attentiveness?  Good speakers intentionally infuse their lectures with prompts to maintain and reinvigorate interest.  These prompts can be divided into two broad categories:

1. Organizational prompts help maintain and reinvigorate interest by previewing and reviewing main points, intentionally pausing for questions or discussions, and outlining key points via the white board or PowerPoint.

2. Content prompts sustain and awaken attention by using appropriate humor, anecdotes, stories and factoids to flesh out concepts.  They help students to relate new knowledge to their preexisting understanding.  A story can sometimes allow the student to grasp an idea in a way that s/he can relate.

Reinforce the Lecture Material with Other Learning Strategies

Another way to reinvigorate attention while incorporating sound learning theory is to intersperse your lecture with learning activities to reinforce key concepts. Real learning occurs through practice and reflection.  “Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves” (Chickering and Gamson, “Seven Principles for Good Practice,” AAHE Bulletin 39: 3-7).  Give students opportunity in class to talk, write, relate and apply materials.  Group work, one-minute papers, think-pair-share activities and discussions are ways to incorporate other learning strategies into the framework of your lecture that will promote learning.  CTE has a resource page on common active learning strategies that you can employ.

Segment the Lecture into Smaller Blocks

The benefit of incorporating other learning strategies into your lecture is that it alleviates you from talking for the entire class session.  Try dividing your class time into manageable blocks, which consist of several mini-lectures that are interspersed with discussions, worksheets, group activities, etc.  While segmenting the lecture into smaller units and incorporating learning activities saves your voice, remember, more significantly, it engages students and increases learning.

Practice Good Learning Theory by Making Course Material Relevant

Vivien Hodgson’s analyses of student learning during lectures reveals the significance of “the vicarious experience of relevance.”  Greater learning occurs when professors are able to communicate their material in a way that students can relate.

So, as we reach the middle of the semester, when energy begins to wane and attention wander, let us commit ourselves to creating dynamic and engaging learning environments. Remember ending lecturalgia begins with you!


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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!

Image result for discussion

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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Fizzle or Finale: The Final Day of Class

by Steve Hansen, Director of Faculty Development at Duquesne University’s Center for Teaching Excellence

Many courses end with a fizzle.  Frank Heppner (2007) aptly says, “In most classes, The Last Lecture was about as memorable as the rest of the class had been – that is, not very.”  The final class should bring the course to an appropriate conclusion or finale.

“For many. . , the last day of class comes and goes without ceremony, yet it provides an opportunity to bring the student-teacher experience to a close in a way that students appreciate and enjoy” (Lucas and Bernstein, 2008).

How can you make the final day into a finale?

Summarize the course content

“Ask students to create concept maps illustrating major aspects of course content and showing how they are interrelated” (Lucas and Bernstein, 2008).

Give a Memento

Mementos do not need to be expensive to be meaningful.  An instructor of Ecclesiastical Latin distributed postcard-size copies of da Vinci’s Last Supper to her students.  I still have the memento on a bookshelf in my home.

Pass the Torch

Invite your current students to pass on advice about the course by writing brief letters to students who will take the course in the future.  Instructors can use the letters to improve their teaching or excerpt the best advice into a section for future syllabi about “Succeeding in the Course: Advice from Former Students”

Make Emotional Connections

Christopher Uhl (2005) ends his large (400 students) Environmental Science course by inviting students to explore the emotions that they have encountered over the semester.  He organizes reflection around four ideas: acceptance, gratitude, integrity and hope.  In exploring acceptance, Uhl asks his students to be truthful about their performance during the semester and to think about how they will change their study habits for future classes.  “I invite my students to reflect on their disappointments.  Specifically, I ask: How did you let yourself down?  When did you hand in ‘BS’ instead of honest work?  In what ways did you fail to honor your own potential?”  Uhl then asks students to reflect on “what new action they might take in future courses to enhance their learning, given what they acknowledge as their shortfall in my class.”  Next, Uhl asks students to explore their feelings of gratitude.  He invites students to talk about what they might be thankful for because of the class.  After exploring acceptance and gratitude, Uhl invites his students to explore integrity.  He asks students to consider how taking the class will impact their future thinking, actions and behaviors.  Finally, Uhl concludes class by expressing his hopes for the students and asking them to share “their hopes for themselves and for each other.”

Encourage and Inspire

Frank Heppner (2007) describes Richard Eakin’s final lecture for a course in embryology: “Eakin’s Last Lecture was legendary, and students who had taken his course in previous years would come back to hear it again and be inspired.  The lecture was a reminiscence of a life in science and the joy and thrill of having the opportunity, as a young man, to work in laboratories where discoveries about the fundamental nature of life were being made.  He made a point of the fact that he had not been some sort of geeky super-genius as a youngster, but had instead been blessed with a strong sense of curiosity.  I can still recall being amazed by that – surely such a man must have been an exceptional student?  Why, that might mean that I might do such things some day.”

Celebrate Students’ Work

In writing-intensive courses, end the semester by celebrating the writing of your students.  Before the last day, assign students to select a piece of their work to read aloud in 2-3 minutes.  On the final day of class, each student reads the selection, and the class responds to each reading with applause. (


Heppner, F. (2007). Teaching the large class: a guidebook for instructors with multitudes. San Francisco: Joosey-Bass, 2007.

Lucas, S. and Bernstein, D. (2005). Teaching Psychology: a step by step guide. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Uhl, C. (2005). The last class. College Teaching 53(4): 165-166.

What do you do to end your course with a flourish? Leave a comment telling us what you do to make your last class of the semester something to remember. The Flourishing Academic and your colleagues would love to hear from you!