Inquiry Seminars: Am I Teaching?

– Paul Woodburne

Paul Woodburne

In the fall of 2018, I taught my first Inquiry Seminar on computer games.  I first discussed this class some years ago when Shannon Nix was still here. 

Usually when I start a class in a 15-week semester, the first couple weeks are hard on my voice.  I don’t use my ‘teacher voice’ in the previous summer or winter term, and my throat hurts for the first week or two of the new term.  This did not happen. 

Had I not taught this past term?  What had I done this whole semester? 

I have defined ‘teaching’ in my last 20 years as lecturing.  I am pretty good at condensing ideas, showing connections between those ideas and others that may not seem obvious.  I think I am pretty good at teaching.

This past term caused me to rethink the ways that I see myself and teaching.

Economics, as a field, is full of facts/data, correct interpretations, ideology, revealed knowledge, received wisdom, and ‘stylized facts.’  See Table 1. Near as I can tell, this is true in every academic field.  Most of our teaching is very top down, very authoritarian.  Faculty bestow our seal of approval when the learners have proven sufficiently adept in what we tried to teach.  As students progress, the goal of teaching is, in part, to enable students to apply and extend the field via research.  The method used in most fields is revealed while teaching content. 

Table 1. Differences between my standard courses and inquiry seminars.

This contrasts sharply with what goes on in Inquiry Seminars.  In these classes, the pedagogy – the method – is the content.  What would normally be considered the content of these classes, in the case of my course – monetization within video games and the proliferation of e-sports – is merely a vehicle to have students work in groups to learn about information literacy and source validity, to work collaboratively to conduct research and inquiry (asking of questions), to synthesize information and to present findings that answer a central question. 

What Do They Learn?

Celebration of Learning

At the Celebration of Learning, where all Inquiry Seminar posters are presented at the end of the semester, I heard some faculty deriding some presentations: students did not clearly delineate between a continent made up of many countries and various countries within the continent, or made, perhaps, too sweeping statements in their summaries.  Others rebuked the presentations for being shallow (interviewing grandparents or 20 fellow students about a topic) and the like.  I think that this sort of critique often misses the point (misses the forest for the trees), and is made without recognition that these students are freshmen, and without appreciation of the place from which these students started upon entering Clarion. 

All fields have their method of analysis, and their own important issues.  Often I am ignorant of the importance of their issues and am likely to deride these issues as not being important.  I have to remind myself of the time when Sarah Palin ranted about wasteful government spending, on “I kid you not, on fruit flies” (Siegel, 2009).  It turns out that at least three Nobel prizes have been won in fruit fly research.  It is also the case, something I had not known, that fruit flies can be used to research Alzheimer’s and autism, among other diseases.  It is easy to miss the consequences of someone’s work in a quick overview.

I urge my colleagues to take these students, classes, and presentations where they are.  My students, for example, wrote in their reflections that they were glad to find out about the Library’s EBSCO portal where they can do research and can filter it by academic work, as well as by important and valid popular sources as well.  They were used to simply googling and accepting the first five things that popped up. 

It is true that many freshmen show fairly limited research in their projects, and that their questions and answers can be superficial.  It is also true that the themes of some of inquiry seminar classes are better suited to this kind of research/inquiry seminar class than are other classes.  However, we hope that these freshmen will bring skills that faculty will notice in their own sophomore level classes.  Faculty should ask themselves “how are these students compared to previous years of students?”  I don’t believe their work will be perfect, but I do believe it will be better than it has been. 

Was I Teaching?

Three of Paul’s students

I began this piece by reflecting on whether I really taught anything in the fall.  I did not lecture in my normal style, that is for sure.  However, I did teach nearly 50 students how to use the library’s research portal to do better research than they have ever done.  I did guide students to ask and refine questions, to create an argument for why some sources were good, and why others were not.  I showed nearly 50 students to do an admittedly simple annotated bibliography.  (I did not have to do even a simple version of one until graduate school).  I got students to think about the economic concepts of price discrimination and market power in a framework they would not otherwise have been exposed to.  They were able to meet and interact with these topics in a milieu (video games) where they lived.  Students did four presentations in front of their peers.  They evaluated each other’s work, and evaluated their own work within the group, and the group’s work as a whole, at the end of each presentation.  Two of the presentations were electronic (PowerPoint or the equivalent), and two were poster presentations where each member of the group had to present the entire thing, and could not rely on groupmates to bail them out. 

I do not think I can teach my principles or intermediate level economics courses as an inquiry seminar.  I can, however, use aspects of the freshmen inquiry seminar in my intro and intermediate level classes.  Particularly useful will be the methods I used to teach question creating and source obtaining and checking.  The inquiry seminar brought home to me just how much time I have to devote to building research skills, if I want them to exhibit high-quality work. 


Siegel, V. (2009). I kid you not. Disease Models and Mechanisms, 2(1-2), 5–6. Retrieved from

Paul Woodburne is an associate professor of Economics at Clarion University. He challenges his students to think critically and deeply about economic issues. He has written an intermediate money and banking text that he uses in his classes. About six years ago two freshmen in the dorms heard horror stories about how difficult his classes were and got together for mutual support and study. They found they liked each other and, having graduated and gotten good jobs, are now happily married.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Race in the Classroom

– Jeanne M. Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

When I first started teaching in the 1980s, I was well-intentioned and, per discussions on campus, had begun addressing race in my classes. Doing so, it was argued, should help address issues of retention and graduation. I don’t have these numbers for that period, but our current 6-year graduation rate for White students is 53% – and appallingly low for Black and Hispanic students, respectively 17 and 28% (Institute of Education Sciences, 2018).

After class in about 1987, one student (kindly) noted that all of my examples had been negative in tone. Shortly after that I had a dream where I was talking to him. Naked. Clearly, I believed he had seen through me in a way that I hadn’t understood myself.

Since then, I have tried to identify more successful ways of considering race. Our daughter is biracial, which has helped me see/understand race on a more intimate level. I am a member of my state association’s Committee on Multiculturalism. I have written two books that directly focus on race (among other things).

I am still, however, trying to identify more successful ways of talking about race. These are some of the things I’ve been considering on this journey.

Can our students see themselves in our courses?

Can our students “see themselves” in the stories, pictures, authors, and issues discussed in class? My colleague, Brian, teaches August Wilson’s play Fences in his Drama as Lit class. Fences explores how race and racism impact a Pittsburgh family. Can his African American students see themselves in this play? Almost certainly. In Forensic Psychology, my students discuss the roles of race and racism in the criminal justice system – how Whites have difficulty making accurate eye witness identifications of Blacks, how Blacks are over-represented in traffic stops and prisons and receive disproportionately more severe sentences. Failing to mention these issues would likely make my class feel irrelevant to my African American students, who know that one in three African American males end up in prison at some point in their lives.

It may be easy for students to see themselves among the criminals we discuss in class, some, like Richard Cotton, falsely accused and later exonerated, but what do students take from such discussions? If we want our course to be seen as relevant to our racial minority students, I believe we must present both positive as well as negative images. I include Bryan Stevenson’s moving TED talk, but not until the end of the semester, when we’re discussing the death penalty. What does that say to my students? Is this enough to counter all of the negative images presented in class?

Is this an inclusive image?

I gave a well-received workshop at a community college in New Jersey, where one of the participants came up during a break to comment on a photo I had used (on the left). I had chosen that particular photo because I believed it had a diverse group of students in the photo – by my count, probably five of the ten students. He argued that at a very diverse school like theirs, he would choose a much more representative photo than this one. Sometimes you can’t win, even when you try – yet, I also understand his concerns about this photo.

Similarly, my friend Melissa observed that one White student complained that “all the authors are Black” in the first section of her composition course (in fact, four of seven were). Does making space for minority students necessarily come at the expense of White students? Can we help each feel heard?

These are not easily resolved issues.

Do students believe we listen to them?

Another strategy for addressing race and increasing graduation rates is to consider how we communicate with our students. Do our students – all of our students – believe they can ask questions, be heard, and receive help?

As we were discussing perceptions of being heard or not, an assertive African American woman with a QPA near 4.0 talked about having her hand ignored or sometimes dismissed in a science course. How might such an experience influence how she saw the class material, herself, and her future success? Would she see our university as a good fit for her?

We can review our syllabi and ask ourselves to what degree our syllabus communicates that we will show genuine respect for students and a belief in their abilities (Finley & McNair, 2013). Do we communicate that we expect our students to succeed? Do we offer opportunities to succeed? This is from my online Abnormal Psychology course:

 I am looking forward to working closely with you this semester, and you can expect me to play an active role in our course. Our correspondence will be primarily through the Discussions and Announcements areas. I will post announcements regularly, answer questions in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board in D2L, and provide detailed feedback on major assignments. I will email you when there is a time-sensitive issue.

If you have a general question, post it in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board so everyone can profit. Answer each other’s questions if you get there first. If your question is more specific, email me. I generally respond to email within 24 hours. If I don’t, I missed your email – try again. Please reach out if you need help—that’s why I’m here!

I will set up in-person meetings – for those of you in or near Clarion – and meet with you on Zoom. If you would especially like to “talk” with me make sure that I know when works for you. If your group wants to talk, identify at least two options for times and let me know. I’ll try to make this work.

Pro Tip: I check the Virtual Office Hours and Announcements regularly! I want to help you stay on track!

Are our classes relevant to their goals?

Another way of responding to this issue of addressing race in the classroom is to consider whether students will likely perceive our classes and assignments as relevant to their future goals (Finley & McNair, 2013). I know why my students should complete my assignments, but do they see them as important and relevant? Do they understand what they will gain from them? Of course, addressing relevance is not the same as catering to a simplistic perception of college as only job preparation.

How can we help our students recognize that their goals and ours are consistent? As I’ve considered this issue, I’ve begun consciously identifying my goals in class and on assignments. This, for example, is from my media analysis assignment in Forensic Psychology:

Why this assignment? The ability to think critically about what you read and see is an important skill that will benefit you in many different parts of your life, not just in your understanding of the court and prison systems. This assignment will help you build this important skill.

Some final thoughts

Although I’ve been talking about our minority students, these strategies seem likely to increase our White students’ success, too. All of our students need to be seen, to be heard, to find their education is relevant to them, to believe that their professors expect they will be successful, to believe they belong (Escarcha, 2019).

We can’t make everyone succeed, but we can increase the likelihood that our students will be successful. What do you do to help your students – majority students or otherwise – become successful?


Escarcha, K. (2019, January 24). 5 inspiring messages every student needs to hear. EAB. Retrieved from

Finley, A., & McNair, T. (2013). Assessing underserved students’ engagement in high-impact practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Institute of Education Sciences. (2018). IPEDS. Retrieved from

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill; and most recently, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice. She can be contacted at

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on Horses, Students, and Teaching



Kathleen Welsch in her last photo with Casey

– Kathleen A. Welsch

Horses and students are a lot alike. To the average individual that may seem a strange comparison, but it’s one I learned to recognize from working with my thoroughbred, Casey, and one that has contributed to my effectiveness as a teacher. Let me explain.

When I met Casey, he was the craziest lesson horse I had ever seen. He did everything wrong: his pace was too fast, his balance off, his head too high, his posture stiff. “Who would want to ride a horse like that?” I thought, as I watched riders struggle with him. Then one day, my riding instructor told me I needed the challenge of riding that horse. Initially, I approached him as other riders had: as a recalcitrant horse that needed strong handling. Yet despite the difficulties we encountered when I was in the saddle, we had great chemistry on the ground – so much so that I decided we’d benefit from a trainer teaching us to communicate better and work as partners. As training began to unravel our difficulties, I began to perceive the parallels between Casey and my students.

Lesson 1: History Shapes What Happens in the Classroom

Before being demoted to the lowly position of a lesson horse, Casey had been a show horse trained in various disciplines. Yet in spite of his years of show experience, there were elements of equitation that didn’t come easily for him and which he truly hadn’t mastered. When asked to do something he wasn’t particular good at, he would get so anxious about making the mistake that he’d make the mistake. “Now that,” the trainer said, “tells a story about his previous training.”

Just as Casey brought a history of lessons, instructors, riders, successes and failures prior to the moment I climbed into the saddle, students arrive in classrooms with a variety of previous experiences. Of course, I “know” that, but I’d never considered its effect on students in the present moment in my classes. College students, we hope, arrive with a foundation of skills and knowledge they will build on in their college courses. While they may possess a sound grounding in some areas, deficits may exist in others and mis-learning in still others. It’s not surprising then that some courses are easier for some students than for others and that some courses are downright frightening.

As someone who teaches first-year writing courses, I’m well aware that students perceive writing courses as very scary. (Math courses, I think, also fall into this category.) It’s the rare student who says they like writing and is eager to begin. More likely, students describe themselves as terrible writers, incapable of organizing their thoughts, having anything to say, or mastering the accuracy of grammar and punctuation. When people say: “I don’t know how you teach those classes!” I hear myself thinking: “Who would want to ride a horse like that?”

Students are surely smarter and more capable than most of them imagine; it’s the history about themselves as learners that creates such doubts and shapes their approach to learning. In a first-year writing class, they are skittish, anxious, fearful of failure and looking stupid. At those moments, they remind me of Casey. I don’t know the details of their history and they don’t know me. Yet I am climbing into the metaphorical saddle with them and asking them to trust me as I encourage them to let go of negative histories and their grip on the high school five-paragraph essay. They’re not sure what it means to use their thinking to define the shape and length of an essay. “Try a new approach,” I say. “Go slower, plan, be more methodical and the result just might surprise you.”

Revising a history of learning experience is not only a challenge for students, but also one for the teacher. After years of classroom experience, we’ve learned to trust our professional judgment as we size up situations and categorize students quickly. And yet that history can lead us in the wrong direction, too. Quite a few years ago, I identified a student as recalcitrant. No matter what instruction I gave, he refused to follow it. His essays appeared to have no rhyme or reason to them. By the time I returned his second essay with a failing grade, we were at an impasse. He thought I was just unreasonable and because he was a little older than a traditional college student, male, and from a Middle Eastern country, I thought he was resisting a female teacher. When we finally sat down for an extended conversation, I learned that he was a successful writer in his native language and was following the patterns of thought valued by his culture. Those patterns, however, didn’t translate into a successful, linear American essay. Once we established the difference in expectations, he was the kind of talented writer who could shift his pattern of thinking to achieve a different kind of success. I, too, had had to shift my pattern of thinking. Where I had thought he needed strong handling, what he needed was my attention to his history.

Lesson 2: Fear of Admonishment Can Produce Mistakes

As a lesson horse, Casey had been continuously ridden by riders with any range of experience: from inexperienced ones banging around on his back and yanking at his mouth to experienced ones who used force to make him comply. Because the methods and demands shifted from one rider to the next, expectations regarding his performance also shifted.  Given the circumstances, it wasn’t surprising that some of his equitation skills didn’t reflect his level of experience. As I watched Casey struggle to relearn certain basic skills, I realized that it required him to trust that he wouldn’t receive the same admonishments he had in the past – that he needn’t be anxious – that a mistake merely meant let’s try again.

Students, too, have encountered a range of methods and instructors that can result in confused learning and insecurity in basic skills. When you’re a college student, knowing you’re weak in skills everyone assumes you should have developed long before arriving in college – writing, reading, study skills, math computation – is particularly painful and humiliating. Fear of being discovered, embarrassed in front of peers, or punished, and producing low/failing grades are all too real – even for strong students. So rather than seek out the professor during office hours or use support resources offered by the institution, they struggle alone, cheat, stop attending class, or drop out. Like Casey, they produce the negative outcome they were so fearful of creating.

In my first-year writing classes, students have regular, short writing assignments before tackling an essay. This allows me to learn who they are as writers, identify and address weaknesses, and encourage them to repeat specific successes. In this way they are also practicing and developing skills needed in an extended essay. During one fall semester, a student whom I knew not to be a strong writer turned in an essay that didn’t reflect the voice or skill level demonstrated in daily homework. When I pointed out the discrepancy to him, he sheepishly admitted that his girlfriend (who was very good in English) had “helped” him – only help in this case was clearly a case of collusion.

I could have punished the student severely, but his attempts to complete daily assignments to the best of his ability and his willingness to own the truth of the essay’s composition were not evidence of a cheater. He was embarrassed by his lack of skill, fearful of failing, and – now – worried about the repercussions of his actions. As with Casey, rather than punishment, we proceeded by trying again. For the rest of the semester, instead of going to his girlfriend, he met with me several times in the planning and drafting stages of writing essays. In the process, he developed both skill and confidence. He wasn’t a great writer, but he’d become a competent one.

Lesson 3: Willingness to Try an Alternative Approach


Casey using the bitless bridle

Since Casey never knew who was going to be climbing on his back in a lesson or what would be expected of him, he developed the habit of grinding his teeth on the bit as soon as it was put in his mouth. He did this for years, even after he had become mine and I was his sole rider. What could I do to relieve him of that anxiety? Doing some research, I discovered a “bitless” bridle. Instead of giving commands through a metal bit in his mouth, this bridle applied gentle pressure to his cheeks for specific cues. It did the work of a bit but in a more soothing manner.

Students, too, develop anxieties regarding any number of academic demands, and how we choose to approach them can make all the difference. Early in my career, I viewed first-year writing courses as “gate-keeping” classes: if students couldn’t pass a college-level writing course, then they shouldn’t be in college. It was my equivalent of using a harsh bit on students. What I came to see, though, from work with Casey was that I can be demanding and hold students to high standards without taking a harsh approach.

Over the years, I’ve shifted my perspective of entry level courses from gate-keeping to gateway. I imagine myself holding a large ring of keys, each of which – once mastered – allows students to open the door to the next level and so on. It’s up to the students to decide whether they will master them. If they don’t, they don’t move forward but I have done my best to show them the way. Some might think this a simple trick of semantics, but it’s more than that when it shifts how you see students and think about the best ways to teach them.

This same shift has helped me address testing in content area courses I teach. Without a doubt, test anxiety ranks high among students so what alternatives are possible? One that I use is the open book/notebook test. Because the questions require students to apply their understanding of key concepts, they won’t find answers in their notes. However, permitting them to refer to course materials to construct responses is still an academic challenge and alleviates test anxiety. Another alternative I sometimes use (this one learned from retired Sociology professor Bob Girvan) is giving the students the option of taking a test individually or with a partner. In this scenario, students receive a list of test questions ahead of time. They may create a set of notes to bring to class with them for reference. What they don’t know, however, is which of the questions they will be asked to address at test time. This means they have to be prepared for all of them. I admit I was skeptical about this approach at first, but watching it in action convinced me it was a productive review and learning experience. It also alleviated test anxiety as students felt they had a degree of control and didn’t need to cram.

Lesson 4: Observation

Anyone who has ever had the care of an animal knows the value of observation since animals can’t tell us in words what we need to know. Unlike small animals, you can’t just run your horse to a veterinarian and farm calls are expensive. The key to caring for Casey was daily observation and remembering similar situations or behaviors and how they were dealt with so that if they appeared again I knew what to do. In some instances, Casey conveyed very clearly what a problem was, like dropping his head and waggling a sore foot at me or drawing himself up to his full height as I approached with a bottle of fly spray that irritated him (but which I hadn’t yet noticed), and staring pointedly at it and then at the hives on his flank.

Teaching, too, requires careful observation of student behavior, and just like Casey, sometimes students let us know outright what they need and other times not so clearly. Looking out into a sea of faces daily and noticing facial expressions and body language tells me whether someone is paying attention, drifting and needs to be brought back into focus, is confused and requires further clarification, or has a response and needs to be called on even though their hand isn’t raised. I can ignore the student who is in her seat on time but tearful, or I can approach her before class begins to make sure she’s okay or needs to be excused for the day. I can ignore the student who never hands in homework – after all, it’s his grade, or I can take him aside to address the issue.

For life-long academics, the world of the university is familiar terrain where we take much for granted. For a great number of Clarion students who are first-generation in college, however, it is foreign territory they haven’t yet learned to navigate. Asking for assistance by raising a hand in class or going to a professor’s office hours may feel daunting because, just by being here, they assume that everyone else assumes they know what they’re doing. This is college so they need to appear smart – whether that means fumbling about without guidance or attempting to look smart in classes in bumbling ways.

I see the latter a great deal in first-year writing courses: students writing in what they imagine to be an academic voice and inaccurately employing unfamiliar vocabulary. I could simply be critical of these efforts and grade them harshly, or recognize them for what they are: insecure writers attempting to produce what they imagine as university language. I had a discussion once with a student about the need to trust his own voice when he wrote rather than trying to write “fancy.” He was so relieved that he could use his own words that, for the rest of the semester, he joked about how he’d try to write “all fancy.” When students attempt to “do” college in the myriad ways they do, we can best help by remembering that this is new terrain for them and observing the cues their attempts reveal about what they need in the way of assistance.

Lesson 5: Compassion

Casey, like all animals, lived in the present moment, which challenged me to be in that moment with him. And since he, like all horses, could recognize and respond to facial expression and voice tones just as humans do, it meant letting go of the day’s baggage and seeing the world simply as it was when we were together.

Maybe in Plato’s perfect classroom it’s possible to teach in the moment free of the crush of deadlines, professional and daily living demands, and the messiness that is human behavior, but in reality we, students, and the space of the classroom are anything but perfect. On any given day, all we can do is our best and extend that same understanding to students, who try our patience, make dumb choices, and are juggling a range of responsibilities of their own. How we choose to present and extend ourselves to students shapes the type of relationship we have with them.

Casey and I never achieved perfection either, but we did learn to work together as partners because I chose not to see him as a “dumb” animal that needed to accept my authority. In my 41st year in the classroom, he’s still very much alive in the lessons he taught me about students and teaching.

Kathleen Welsch is a professor of English at Clarion University and also teaches in the Women & Gender Studies Program.  She challenges students in all her classes to consider issues of power of language, gender, and class. Her areas of specialty are composition-rhetoric and women’s and working-class literature. She has edited the book Those Winter Sundays: Female Academics and Their Working-Class Parents.  The passions in her life include teaching, writing, and life with equines and felines.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , | 2 Comments

What Teaching and Professional Triathlon Have in Common


Kim Schwabenbauer Photo by @mattgreenphoto

– Kim Schwabenbauer

I never wanted to become a teacher.  I saw my mother put in long hours during weeknight evenings and weekends during the semester, preparing her lectures and grading assignments.  I often asked her why it was worth it, and she always talked about preparing future generations to be successful or improving the lives of others, neither of which were very important to me during my self-absorbed high school years.

As life would have it, I took some very twisty roads to arrive in front of a class as an adjunct instructor at the very school my mother had spent over twenty years of her career.  I had done so after running my own business and competing all over the world as a professional triathlete.  After that class, I realized that my mother just MIGHT be on to something: I felt a fire in my belly when a student grasped a concept or came to me with a new idea for a paper.

With both parents as college professors, teaching was in my blood.  I could tell that was the case as I started creating new ways to engage the students and get them excited about nutrition.  I had spent over fifteen years committed to understanding how the body utilizes nutrients and developing my own expertise.  “Surely teaching wouldn’t be that hard,” I thought as students were clearly sleeping in the front row of my first class.  That was when it occurred to me that I had much to learn about this new endeavor.  Now, as an assistant professor, I have come to realize the parallels between my former life of swimming, biking, and running and my current teaching endeavors.

Strive for Balance While Planning Your Season

The semester has some very distinct phases, just like the triathlon season.  In the early season, there is the preparatory phase, which usually involves lots of long cycling rides on the indoor trainer because it’s still cold outside.  Your time is spent staring at the wall trying to figure out why you just aren’t getting anywhere even though you’ve been training and sweating for hours.  It takes tenacity, grit and a long-term vision to keep your pedals turning when you know the rubber won’t meet the road for months.

Teaching requires this same preparatory phase as well when it comes to planning the semester and researching new materials, videos and activities.  While time-consuming, and sometimes tedious, I’m always thankful that I have spent this extra time preparing during the semester so the students can benefit from and enjoy their time in class.  When the rubber meets the road, you’ll want to be ready!

Embrace the Grind


Photo by @mattgreenphoto

During the middle of the triathlon season, you’ve been racing for months and the travel, training and tri life start to take their toll.  While you should be gearing up for the championships, you’re struggling not to throw your bike off of a cliff and just drink margaritas all day.  Similarly, during the mid-terms of the semester, with finals seeming VERY far away, the mental and physical exhaustion can start creeping in.  Whether I have been training the 28+ hours required to race 140.6 miles at a breakneck pace or keep the pace with all of the committee meetings, class preparation, grading and community contributions that this career path requires, this phase requires special motivation.   I strive to focus on embracing the day instead of dreading it.  During training, I’ll pull out that motivational “Chariots of Fire” movie that always gets my competitive juices flowing or I’ll take a couple of down days to sleep more and think less.  I find it to be energizing, giving me the extra boost for an early morning jump into a cold pool or the will to push my heart rate up for the fifth hour of the bike ride of triathlon training.  I’ll change up my route and attempt to see something new that invigorates my love of cycling.  Sometimes I will ride or run with a friend and talk about what’s going well and what I know I can do better going forward.

Do not be afraid to watch the motivating teaching movie, take the couple of days away, look at things from a new perspective or get some support from a colleague.  It is better to be prepared with some strategies to “embrace the grind”!

Know Your Why

In every race, there is a point when I want to walk off the course and go home.  The pain seeps into your body and your psyche is screaming “UNCLE!!!”   At this point, I’ve always told the athletes that I coach, it is important to “know their why,” or their reason for racing.  Steve Prefontaine once said in one of my all-time favorite quotes, “to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” I have always believed that our abilities are nothing if they are not shared with others to improve their personal journey.  By racing through my own limitations, I’ve learned about my core values and what I’ve found to be most rewarding in my life.  I enjoy sharing this gift with others by helping them achieve their dreams, to do something they, and the world, originally saw as impossible.  It has allowed my clients to achieve things for the rest of their lives that they couldn’t conceive at the beginning of their journey.

The same is true with teaching.  The more clarity I have about my own “why,” the more often I can navigate the situations that challenge me and would normally make me want to throw in the towel.  The good news is I’ve never regretted making it through those difficult moments, in triathlon or in teaching.  It reveals to me my true character and helps solidify my foundation.  I would encourage you to take a few minutes to jot down your “why” before the semester begins and revisit it throughout.  I think you’ll find the path clearer in the moments of occasional frustration and remind you why you started your own journey in the classroom.

Don’t Be Afraid, Failure is Only the Beginning

In thirteen years of racing triathlon, there has only been one race I did not finish.  During my first professional Ironman race in Lake Placid, NY, I had stomach issues that eventually got the better of me, and I was transported to the medical tent at mile 136, 4 miles short of the finish line.  It was demoralizing and disheartening, as I questioned my reasons for even becoming a professional.  My coach explained that failure is inevitable when taking on any upper level activity.  It was not a question of if it would happen, it was a question of whenThe process, he explained, is the valuable part.  With time, the learning that takes place during the process turns every day athletes into champions.  I subscribed to not being afraid of the process or of failure, and in fact, I learned to welcome it with open arms by trying new things and not being afraid of the outcome.  I became obsessed with the mastery of each individual element and it pushed me to continue to learn and grow as an athlete.

On the heels of a teaching retreat featuring the book Small Teaching, by James Lang, I have committed to incorporating at least three new strategies in my class sessions this semester, “minute thesis,” “retrieval practice,” and “leveraging peer learning power.”   I’ve tried other approaches that haven’t had the desired impact I’d hoped, but I’m excited about using some new techniques that may turn on the light bulb for students and help them in their journey to academic excellence.  I enjoy employing proven methods with my own creative spin in my process of long-term mastery in this new discipline.  While it may take the students out of their comfort zone of passive learning, the goal is better critical thinking not just a grade or a credit.

I hope that by sharing how triathlon has helped shape my teaching, you’ll find that a few of these ideas may be applicable to your teaching strategies as well.  Remember, there is no finish line in learning!

Kim Schwabenbauer, MS, RD, LDN, CSSD has over 16 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian.  Her work as a triathlon coach, professional triathlete and Board Certified Specialist in sports nutrition drove her to found her personal sports nutrition counseling and endurance coaching business, “Fuel Your Passion.” As an assistant professor of nutrition at Clarion University, Kim shares her love and passion for health and wellness with the bright young minds of tomorrow.  Kim has appeared on national TV as a dietitian and coach for the hit show, MADE, and in 2014, she was ranked among the top twenty female professional triathletes in the world.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged | Leave a comment


Screen Shot 2018-07-07 at 3.19.53 PM

My Jenga-playing class.

– Jeanne M. Slattery

I walked into my Introduction to Counseling class last semester and, after doing announcements about upcoming assignments, set up a game of Jenga. I didn’t introduce it, didn’t say what we were doing or why. I didn’t even say what I expected my students to get out of it.

This is a class of 27, most of whom are junior and senior psychology majors. We played a spirited game with lots of Ooh-ing and Ah-ing as people attempted to make a risky move and peers suggested better moves. This class is a good and supportive community, so even when the tower fell, no one complained.

We played two rounds, then spent the rest of the class debriefing: Why did we do this?

My students spent 30 minutes talking about the role of social support, the importance of drawing your own metaphors, and the challenge of change and risk-taking. These explanations largely match my own goals.

However, my students went further than this. They also talked about how different it was to actively engage with the material than to be lectured at. Kaitlyn considered the importance of those Oohs! and Ahs! and what it would have been like if everyone’s backs had been turned, and they had been silent. They talked about the places where people – including faculty – had criticized their comments in class and how that criticism affected their motivation for an assignment or class.

Melissa observed that I hadn’t introduced the game to the class; instead, I just said that we were going to play Jenga. She observed – as did Kaitlyn – that my not saying anything got them wondering why we were playing. What were my goals? Logan noted that she has been increasingly considering her “why” and what she wants to get out of a situation and how that has affected her process of preparing to go to graduate school and related this to my frequent questions about why we’re doing what we’re doing throughout the course.

Notice their active reflection?

I like to lecture and enjoy working with PowerPoint. However, sometimes less is more. I want my students to learn to write, think, take different perspectives, gain in empathy, analyze research, and work effectively in groups (and more). These are not skills easily built in passive students. They have to get in and engage with the material. They have to get  their hands dirty. I can’t tell them what they learned playing Jenga, but I can support their active search.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 6.37.24 PM

Figure 1. Teacher- and student-centered classrooms.

I’m reading Maryellen Weimer’s (2013) Learner-Centered Teaching. Weimer discusses a wide range of strategies that help students become active, questioning, and engaged, students who identify what they want to know, how they want to get there, and how they might apply those ideas. In teacher-centered classrooms, we have to do all the work: we faculty bring the knowledge and experience to the classroom. In student-centered classrooms, students are encouraged to work individually and collaboratively. See Figure 1. While we continue to bring knowledge and experience to the classroom, students are also expected to be active contributors to the learning process.

It’s easier for many of us – including me – to lecture, to tell our students what we want them to learn; nonetheless, I suspect that I am more successful in meeting my students’ goals – and my own for them – as I step back and away from lecture mode. This was the major reason we played Jenga: I want them to recognize how powerful the change process can be when we step away and our clients step in to take responsibility for their change.

It takes a lot of trust to step back and believe that my students can rise to the occasion, but this class, this day has me trusting.


Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill; and most recently, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice. She can be contacted at

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dear Evaluated Online

Dear Ms. Scholar, I am thinking about going up for promotion in the near future, but a significant part of my teaching load is online, where students do not regularly complete student evaluations. I only received six responses from one course last term! I suspect that these students overly represent those students who either love or hate me. What should I do?

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Evaluated Online, Low response rates should be a real concern for online faculty, especially those early in their careers and planning on going up for tenure or promotion, as they are likely to not be representative of the whole class, with unusually happy and unhappy students over-represented. This matters, as student evaluations and your discussions of them are worth 13.33% of the total in our promotion process (twice that of research).

Can you reasonably argue that a small sample of your class is representative of the whole? If not, who are your evaluations likely to exclude? Who will you be hearing from (or not)?

Discussing your concerns about student responses with members of your department and other online faculty may be an important first step, as they may help you identify a useful strategy for responding to this problem.

Ms. Scholar has not heard such discussions in her department, but she has read concerns about online student evaluations on teaching blogs and in the teaching literature. Sundstrom, Hardin, and Shaffer (2016), for example, reported their observations of moving from paper and pencil evaluations (57% response rate) to online only (less than 30%). When they moved to using micro-incentives for completing the survey, response rates rose significantly – to 84%!

There are a variety of microincentives that one can use to increase response rates to online student evaluations. One of the authors of this last study described her strategy in a response on a teaching listserv:

I am personally a fan of making a content-relevant extra-credit quiz available to the class contingent on at least 70% of the class completing the evaluations.  This way, students aren’t getting credit [solely] for the act of completing the evaluation (credit is tied to demonstrating mastery of course concepts), but the opportunity to demonstrate that mastery is tied to completing the evaluations. (Erin Hardin, February 3, 2017)

Weimer (2016), a respected faculty development guru, questioned whether student evaluations collected using microincentives were done for the right reasons and, therefore, were arguably of questionable validity. She argued that students should complete assessments because

Their instructors benefit from student feedback the same way students learn from teacher feedback. They should be doing ratings because reflecting about courses and teachers enables students to better understand themselves as learners. They should be doing these end-of-course evaluations because they believe the quality of their experiences in courses matters to the institution. (para. 7)

Ms. Scholar believes Weimer’s goal is good, but her logic questionable. How many faculty would collect student evaluations without some incentives? On the other hand, her arguments are a good frame for discussing student evaluations, online or otherwise, with students.

Another approach is drawn from a recent thread on a teaching listserv:

Even a low response rate can provide a faculty member useful information to reflect upon and improve teaching. Faculty should strive to have as high a response rate as possible by letting students know the value of the feedback received. But I’d rather give credit to a faculty member with a low response rate that actually reflects on the feedback and makes appropriate improvements than a faculty member who get a high response rate (even if glowing reviews) and ignores the feedback. (Tom Pusateri, October 14, 2018)

How might you reflect on your student evaluations? Consider what strengths and weaknesses your students describe. Are these realistic? Are you willing to do things to address concerns raised? Will members of your departmental tenure and promotion committees perceive your evaluations – both the number collected and ratings – as demonstrating your commitment to strong teaching? How have your evaluations changed across time or across courses?

Your promotion and tenure documents can frame your concerns about non-representative evaluations in a positive way: being thoughtful about the problem rather than defensive and whiney. Let your discussion help you illustrate that you are a strong and reflective faculty member. The process of identifying a problem and going about resolving it well in a manner supported by the literature can be one aspect of a compelling argument for promotion. – Ms. Scholar


Sundstrom, E. D., Hardin, E. E., & Shaffer, M. J. (2016). Extra credit micro-incentives and response rates for on-line course evaluations: Two quasi-experiments. Teaching of Psychology, 43, 276 – 284.

Weimer, M. (2016). Course evaluations: How can should we improve response rates? Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o Jeanne Slattery <>




Posted in Professional development, Teaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dorothy Moments

– Renae Shawgo

There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


Renae Shawgo

As one of my mentors is fond of saying, teaching should always include “Dorothy Moments.” As her Teaching Assistant many years ago, I once watched mesmerized as she demonstrated this sentiment on the first day of class by showing a scene from The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy was snatched from her black and white world and suddenly (re)deposited by a tornado in the magical, colorful land of Oz. She said to her students after viewing the clip, “You are Dorothy, and my class is the tornado. It doesn’t matter to me if you think I’m Glinda the Good Witch or the Wicked Witch of the West, since either one is a powerful woman. What does matter to me is that your black-and-white view of the world will grow more complex once you start viewing it through Technicolor!” This rang true for me, for how can any student learn if s/he doesn’t have some disequilibrium or that epiphany, that “Dorothy Moment” of, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!”

I have lived those moments in the classroom, both as a student and as a teacher. Disequilibrium is a challenging, but necessary, part of the learning process, and the “Dorothy Moment” is a concept I try to re-create in my own classrooms each semester, where my students are continually challenged to think critically, write passionately, and read voraciously, but more than anything, they are encouraged to latch on to those “Dorothy Moments” that have the power to change their worlds.

In English 110 classes at the Venango campus, I am often met with students who come to class intimidated by both the college classroom and the writing process. My approach to English 110, following my department’s student learning outcomes for this course, focuses on skill-building in terms of invention strategies, drafting, revision, and editing. We typically do so through a series of inter-related assignments, focusing on writing as a “recursive process”: assigned readings, in-class writing assignments, revisions of those assignments into college-level essays, and class discussions contribute to the bulk of what we “do” in English 110. Oftentimes, in English 110, students have elected to take the course as a means by which to immerse themselves into a new academic life. Many times these students are returning adult students who lack confidence upon returning to an academic setting. This course aims to help them feel more comfortable in an academic setting while also helping them to build or rebuild their writing skill set.

To assist with this transition, I typically frame the class with a common, recurring theme that will unify all of our writing and reading assignments. I then divide the classroom time into a variety of teaching/learning modes—lectures, collaborative learning groups, discussion, individual writing exercises, media demonstrations, etc. I seek to make connections with my students, to open dialogue with them, and to build community through collaborative learning groups that might facilitate critical thinking and authentic discussion.

One of my most memorable cohorts entered my English 110 classroom in the fall of 2016; the class consisted of a group of “displaced” workers from the local community (largely those back in the classroom due to downsizing and plant closures at Joy Global and General Electric). They were a cohesive cohort of students, all enrolled in English 110, a course designed to help students get more comfortable with college-level writing before taking English 111, our required core course in English.

Most of the students in that section of English 110 knew each other “from work” and most ended up in the same English class in the fall of 2016 in hopes of forging paths toward new careers. I witnessed a massive transformation that semester; I watched 20 students—who’d been quite literally ripped from their comfort zones (jobs, income, families) and tossed into an academic setting—attempt to salvage their lives from the wreckage that layoffs can bring. What this group had in common, I picked up on immediately and used to our mutual educational advantage: work ethic and determination. So we “worked” to build something new.


Her students at work.

I believe good writing takes practice, and that it is indeed “work.” I always ask my students to shy away from romantic notions about writing being “inspired” or related to a “divine” or “muse-like” experience. Instead, I ask them to engage with writing as part of a practice to develop or a skill to hone. For this reason, I also frequently write with my students, and I share my works-in-progress with them. This again creates a sense of common ground where students are encouraged to engage with me, their writing, and writing as a process. My hope is that through my emphasis on students’ active engagement in class, as well as an emphasis on writing as a “process,” students will embrace writing as a positive activity and as a gateway to their future successes both inside and outside of academia.

We “worked” that semester. A lot. They wrote about their job losses, their financial struggles, their disappointments, their fears, their families, and then they wrote about where they saw themselves next. We focused on the rebuilding process, so we researched their majors and potential fields of study, and then we wrote cover letters and crafted resumes. This group met every challenge; they changed dramatically; they blossomed, and it was my pleasure to see the majority of this cohort walk across the graduation stage last spring with their various associate’s degrees, smiling boldly because they’d done it; they made something new!

One of those students from that same cohort wrote me an email a couple months back. In it, he updated me on his job search. He wrote:

“I just wanted to thank you for all the help and knowledge I got from your classes. […]. Opportunities have opened up for me in the past few months. I had been welding for 20 years [before the layoff] and figured my next step was to become a welding instructor. I had an interview at Corry High School to take over for the teacher who [will be] retiring after 30 years [of service]. The interview was a professional interview, one like I never had before, [and] out of 6 finalists I was the chosen one… On Tuesday I was approved from the school board. They will emergency certify me for a year, but then I have to get 70 teaching credits I think within the next ten years. ][…] I sure didn’t expect to be going back to school, but after being at Clarion and with your help, too, Dr Shawgo, I am ready to take it on. As far as the welding, I know I can get the kids ready for the working world. I can’t believe that I will be molding the minds of the next generation. […] I just thought I would let you know [that] being in your classes had a big effect on me moving forward, [toward the] next step of my future. Oh, and I think I did remember some of the FANBOYS in my writing from the “Comma Kings” presentation!”

Now, there’s a “Dorothy Moment”! For my student, yes, but also for me.


Renae Shawgo

In her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, bell hooks appropriately quotes Parker Palmer: “Education at it’s best – this profound human transaction called teaching and learning – is not just about getting information or getting a job. Education is about healing and wholeness. It is about empowerment, liberation, transcendence, about renewing the vitality of life. It is about finding and claiming ourselves and our place in the world” (Palmer, quoted in hooks, 2003, p. 43). Education is powerful and transactional; it transforms lives and moves us from our black-and-white worlds to, instead, worlds filled with Technicolor!

Inevitably, just as some of my mentor’s students viewed her as the Wicked Witch, troubling their comfortable worldviews, no matter how problematic these might be, some of my own students, of course, view me that same way. Some, however, see me as the Good Witch, not as someone who tries to rob them of their power, their comfort zones, or their worldviews, but as someone who guides them to the power within themselves to transform their lives—or even the world around them—through knowledge and education and who helps them find those life-changing “Dorothy Moments.”


Baum, L. F. (2012). The wonderful wizard of Oz. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.

hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. New York, NY: Routledge

Dr. Renae R. Shawgo is an assistant professor of English at Clarion University where she teaches writing and literature classes on-site in Oil City, Pennsylvania, at the Venango Campus. She resides in rural Grove City, Pennsylvania, where she shares a two-story dwelling with eight other people, yes, eight, including four teenagers, three rambunctious kiddies under the age of eight, her awesome husband, and the family pet, Buddy the Dog. If she’s not found grading papers, she is usually in the kitchen making some calorie-filled dessert for the family; her baking hobby is only slightly offset by her obsession with running 5Ks. Dr. Shawgo thoroughly enjoys coffee (and other highly caffeinated beverages), good books, and good conversation. Though teaching and being a wife and mother take up most of her time, she continues to dabble with poetry and prose and vows to someday publish a novel of her own. She is obsessed with Dystopian literature, film, and television, and it wouldn’t be uncommon to find her discussing the latest episode of The Walking Dead or HBO’s Westworld on a Monday morning, that is, if she’s not discussing baseball and the Cleveland Indians instead.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment