Mixing It Up in the Classroom

– Jeanne M. Slattery

JMS 0814
Jeanne Slattery

Like you, I am already overextended: I’ve been making large revisions to one course, writing a second edition of one of my books, serving as secretary and a committee chair to my state association, writing/co-editing Hand in Hand, as well as working on several other large projects.

With this in mind, I approached James Lang’s (2016) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning thinking about how I can tweak my courses to strengthen them – that’s all I can afford right now. Luckily, this is exactly how the book was intended to be used. What am I already doing well and how can I do it better?

Small Teaching is a thoughtful book that describes the what, how, and why of teaching, especially the “small changes” that we can make to make our teaching and our students’ learning more effective. I was reading Small Teaching as part of a faculty development project led by Leah Chambers and Rich Lane and am grateful to them for introducing me to it.

Mixing it up…

A number of things caught my eye as I went through the book, although one of these was interleaving, an intentional sort of “mixing it up” in order to strengthen our students’ ability to recall and use material later (rather than doing a “brain dump” at an exam, where students never return to that material). Lang (2016) identified two aspects as important:

  1. Spacing out learning across time (i.e., distributed rather than mass practice). For example, my online class this semester has five tests and 15 quizzes (three quizzes for each test). By necessity, their learning cannot be crammed, as they must see material at least twice
  2. Mixing up the practice of skills you are trying to develop (e.g., discussing Chapter 1, then 2 and 3, returning to Chapter 1). Many faculty use cumulative exams in this way.

I have already been doing some interleaving without referring to it as such. Some examples:

  • Most of my courses have themes that I develop and refer back to over the course of the semester. For example, in Abnormal Psychology, I repeatedly refer back to earlier discussions of risk, as assessed by the Adverse Child Experiences Quiz, in later discussions on substance abuse and antisocial personality disorder.
  • I often use the same or similar PowerPoint slides when I’m talking about a theme that I want my students to recognize, revisiting and enlarging ideas we discussed earlier in the semester.
  • I often refer to topics from previous courses that my departmental colleagues – or the rest of you – have discussed. For example, when discussing childhood disorders, I show this video drawn from Funniest Home Videos, then ask students how they would explain the child’s behavior using things they’ve previously learned. (My answer can be found at the asterisk, after the References.)
  • I also use previous cases in different contexts. For example, in my Intro to Counseling class, I discuss Andrea Yates repeatedly and in different contexts. Initially, they see her as horrific. By semester’s end they see her behavior that way. Repeatedly circling back to this case allows us to approach our ideas in greater depth at different times.
  • img_0262
    The last time I taught Psychology of Personal Growth, I explicitly asked students to make connections in end-of-class writing responses between what we had discussed and what we had been discussing earlier in the course (here’s one example of a response). Typically, I asked three questions: (a) What was the most important thing for you from today’s class? (b) What would you guess I would say was most important? and (c) How did today’s class expand on or develop what we’d talked about in the past weeks? Identify at least three connections.

So, I’m already doing interleaving in all sorts of ways, but I want to do so more intentionally to help my students recognize what I see as important. I want to do so more intentionally so my students’ learning and recall become more effective.

My tweak?

I suspect interleaving is more effective when we tell our students what we’re doing and why (as I did with my in-class writing assignment). In fact, I think we should generally tell our students what we’re doing and why more often. I plan on telling my students in our syllabus that at least 10% of each exam will be drawn from previous sections of the course – and why.

When I first started teaching, I “taught”: I had the information that I planned on sharing with my class. Across time, my focus has shifted from that type of teaching to student learning. I want to take the small step of using interleaving to help my students learn more effectively.


Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

*I would describe this child’s behavior in terms of operant conditioning, specifically that he has previously received positive reinforcement for tantrumming in the form of parental attention and laughter.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill, and Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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Pell Grants and Our Graduates’ Success

Jeanne Slattery and Randy Potter

– Randy Potter and Jeanne M. Slattery

Recently, Third Way released a report on the financial outcomes of US institutions of higher education, specifically, they examine three measures of success: 1) college completion; 2) post-enrollment earnings; and 3) loan repayment. They argued, if colleges and universities are successful, most students should graduate, earn a decent living, and pay down their loans over time (Third Way, 2019, para. 2). These are good outcomes, but we believe they can be evaluated more meaningfully.

Clarion University’s success, if we are using these outcomes, is near the bottom of that for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). (The data discussed are drawn from this spreadsheet, with Clarion in row 1525.) Third Way reports 68.2% of our students graduate in 8 years (only Edinboro and Cheyney are lower). Only 56.68% of recent graduates earn more than $28,000 (what an average high school graduate in the US makes). Of State System schools, only Edinboro, Cheyney, and Mansfield have lower earnings. And, only 67.8% of Clarion graduates have paid at least $1 toward their student loans. Of State System schools, only Edinboro, Cheyney, and Mansfield are lower. Finally, 39% of Clarion University students receive Pell Grants. Federal Student Aid (n.d.) observes that Pell Grants are reserved for students with “exceptional financial need.” Only six PASSHE schools have 39% or more of their student body receiving Pell grants: Cheyney, California, Clarion, Edinboro, Lock Haven, and Mansfield.

Looking more closely at these data, we found some interesting things. We have omitted Cheyney University from these analyses, as Cheney is a notable outlier on many of these variables. Correlations are even higher when Cheney is included. We found very high correlations between the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and other financial indicators:

  1. Percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and eight-year graduation rates (–0.93)
  2. Percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and rate of loan repayment (-0.968)
  3. Percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and reported salary of graduates (-0.898)

In other words, schools with a large number of students hailing from financially-challenged families have more graduates with poor financial outcomes.

To put these correlations in some context, we can look at two measures of what appear to be the same thing in the same realm. Lo, Ho, Mak, and Lam (2011), for example, reported substantial although much lower correlations between self-reported and actual height among Chinese teens – correlations of about .75. We would argue that the four variables in the Third Way data are so highly correlated because they are simply different measures of the same thing, that is, financial stress.

Correlation ≠ causation

Figure 1. The correlation between graduation rates and Pell Grants in PASSHE schools.

We cannot infer a cause-and-effect relationship between two variables solely on the basis of the correlation between them – but these data do suggest that the variability among PASSHE schools in eight-year graduation rates is quite highly related to financial issues and the relative advantage of the student body. A more advantaged student body – at least as measured by the number of students receiving Pell Grants – experiences greater success.

Figure 1 shows the percentage of Pell recipients plotted against eight-year graduation rates and brings this point home quite well. All 13 schools cluster quite tightly around the regression line, with schools with more Pell recipients having poorer outcomes (as assessed by Third Way, 2019).

Clarion University’s success, at least as measured by graduation rates, is on the low end for the PASSHE system, but our students are facing greater economic disadvantages coming into school. These pre-existing economic disadvantages probably explain a large part of the problem Clarion University has in post-graduation outcomes. Given our student body, we do as well as expected, as well as more privileged schools in the System would be expected to do if they had the same sort of student body (see Figure 1).

What can we do?

Some of these disadvantages can likely be mitigated by making college more affordable, but it is likely that there are additional social and environmental factors affecting our students that negatively impact graduation rates, employment, and loan repayments.  Our students frequently face significant financial stressors, often are attempting to financially and emotionally support their parents and siblings, and likely have relatively lower rates of financial literacy. Financial difficulties make it difficult for students to schedule for classes on time, attend class when a car breaks down, and study if they also need to hold down one or more jobs. If we are going to examine the success of our schools in a meaningful manner, we should look at schools with similar populations rather than compare very different schools using the same rubric.

We could improve our numbers by gaming the system – by restricting the number of financially-challenged students we admit. PASSHE’s mission is to make a university education accessible and affordable to the population of Pennsylvania. Choosing to game the system would be advantageous to Clarion, but we believe it would also be wrong-headed and betray our mission and the people of Pennsylvania.

Instead, we believe that if we value creating an equitable society, one where opportunities are available to all, barriers to academic success must be addressed in a serious, ongoing manner. Rather than throw up our hands and give up, we can do things that will increase our students’ success. We can:

  • send text messages to prod students to start and stay in college;
  • use data analytics to identify students at risk;
  • offer experiences that promote resilience, growth mindset, and a sense of belongingness in the university community; and
  • revamp courses that are frequent stumbling blocks for students (Kirp, 2019).

Our students have poorer financial outcomes than we would like – which is understandable given their backgrounds. Nonetheless, there are things we can and should do better.


Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). Federal Pell Grants. Retrieved from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/pell

Kirp, D. (2019, July 26). The college dropout scandal. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190726-dropout-scandal

Lo, W. S., Ho, S. Y., Mak, B. Y., & Lam, T. H. (2011). Validity and test-retest reliability in assessing current body size with figure drawings in Chinese adolescents. International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, 6, e107-13.

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Dear Mentor

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Ms. Scholar, I am worried about the new faculty in my department and want them to be happy. I want them willing to stay here and be productive members of our department. Any suggestions?

Dear Mentor, The university is a strange beast. Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said:

“Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

This apt description of university life is perhaps more accurately attributed to William Sayre; regardless, Ms. Scholar believes we can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. We can approach university life from a perspective of each one for herself – or intentionally create a more supportive community for students, faculty, and staff. Those faculty who feel supported emotionally and financially are more likely to make positive contributions to their university and respect the university’s mission (Walmsley, 2016).

How can we help our new colleagues feel supported and respected and meet their professional values and goals?

Recognize new faculty members’ needs and concerns

Like first generation students, new faculty may struggle to fit in their first year. New faculty may question their competence, have a weak support system, and feel that they are the “only one” not fitting in or having difficulties in their new environment and with their new tasks. Some of these fears and concerns are normal and will subside when their fears are acknowledged.

A mentor’s listening and support can be invaluable, especially when that mentor helps the new faculty member problem solve, identify resources, network, and recognize that their problems are typical for this point in their career – and will change.

Communicate clear expectations

What are we communicating to new colleagues (and our older ones) through our words and actions? That they are where they are (fixed mindset), can get stronger (growth mindset), or don’t matter? Are we being supportive or competing with and feeling threatened by them? How might these responses influence their careers and the culture of our department?

Expectations for some parts of our job are clearly outlined, but other expectations remain unclear. Does your department expect faculty to focus on teaching, service, research, or all three? How does your department define effective teaching? What kinds of service does your department value? What kinds of publications?

Are you intentionally communicating departmental and university-wide expectations? Just as a good syllabus can help students succeed in class and in college, such intentional communications can level the playing field for new faculty and increase the probability that they will stay, be tenured, and be promoted.

Walk the walk, too

When we are mentoring well, we are also modeling the kinds of behaviors we expect. Don’t just say that good teaching is expected – put in the time and effort, too. If research is expected, engage in research yourself. Engage in meaningful service.

Ms. Scholar had people who intentionally mentored her, but she also had people across campus who she watched to consider what they did. She learned from the best – and worst – both what to do and what not to do (and still is). Help your mentee find such models.

Offer your new colleagues opportunities, especially opportunities for success. Point to grants available, suggest good committees to serve on, and ask them to join you on research projects. Invite them to dinner or university socials. Such sharing is one way of telling your colleagues that you care about their future. Such sharing creates a more supportive atmosphere in your department or college.

What makes a good mentor?

Good mentoring doesn’t just happen. Good mentors commit the time necessary for effective mentoring and are willing to devote the energy to reviewing their mentee’s work (Columbia University, 2016). They have the skills and willingness to share their understanding of university life and can help mentees develop an effective vision and goals for the future. They have the resources in teaching, research, and service to help new faculty succeed – or know where to find such resources. They can help faculty network within and outside the university. Perhaps most of all, they work from where their mentee is; listen to their mentee’s values, goals, and concerns; and frame their responses to what their mentee is ready to hear at a particular point in time.

Providing faculty members mentors, training, and a clear path for career advancement is a win/win strategy for all parties: good for the faculty member, the department, and the university. And, intentional mentoring is important for new faculty, but is arguably as important for faculty approaching tenure and promotion – and for mid-career and senior faculty considering career transitions and new directions (Columbia University, 2016).

Maybe you’re thinking that you have not been assigned a mentee. You don’t need to have been formally assigned to be an effective and appreciated mentor to a new faculty member. We can each support each other. – Ms. Scholar


Columbia University. (2016). Guide to best practices in faculty mentoring. Retrieved from https://provost.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/content/MentoringBestPractices.pdf

Walmsley, A. (2016). Improving the ties between faculty and administration. The EvoLLLution. Retrieved from https://evolllution.com/managing-institution/operations_efficiency/improving-the-ties-between-faculty-and-administration

If you have questions or comments/suggestions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other university-related topics, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o Jeanne Slattery <jslattery@clarion.edu>

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A Special Moment

– Suzanne Boyden

Suzanne Boyden

This speech was given at Clarion University’s Freshman Convocation, 2019.

Good afternoon, everyone.  I’m happy to have this opportunity to welcome our new students, and to say a few things on behalf of the faculty.  I have been struggling with what exactly to say today, because in addition to the normal bits of advice and welcome, I’ve been asked to address a more serious topic: sustainability and climate change.  I hope I am up to the challenge.

I am an ecologist, so I study how natural ecosystems – specifically forests – function, and also how humans are changing those systems, and how to best manage and restore them.  Sustainability is central to managing our forests, and our planet.  So, what is sustainability and why are we talking about it? 

Each year Clarion hosts a series of events tied to a particular cultural theme, called the Mary Seifert Series. This year’s theme is Conservation and Sustainability.  I hope that many of you read and discussed Falter this morning, our Common Read by Bill McKibben about the crisis we face in a warming climate.  For this talk, I’d like to think more broadly about the theme of sustainability.  Something is sustainable if it can continue to exist in perpetuity, if the natural, human, and cultural resources required to support an activity or a population, are not depleted faster than they are naturally renewed, and can therefore meet the needs of future generations.  Globally, our earth systems depend on sustainable use of the planet’s resources: energy, clean water and air, land, and soil that can grow us food.  The fact that four planets would be required to meet the needs of humans if they all lived like Americans, is the opposite of sustainable. 

I also believe that our needs are not just about subsistence.  The human spirit needs nature, and the knowledge of wilderness- of the existence of wolves and whales, of mountain streams and dense jungles, to not just survive, but also thrive.  The ultimate goal of sustainability is to maintain and enhance our existence in balance with the natural resource capital of the planet.

Why talk about sustainability?

So why we are asking the University community to engage in this conversation?  I’d like to take this question in two parts.  First, why are we asking you, as new college freshmen, to have a conversation?  Second, why is this conversation, about sustainability, so important?

The answer to my first question is that we want you to engage.  You are about to embark on a new academic journey, and one that hopefully continues long after you graduate from Clarion.  Even in our best school systems, it is likely that you have been passive recipients of information for most of your lives.  Teachers talk, and you listen, memorize, and give them back the facts they considered important.  Parents have taught you in a different way. They have shaped your beliefs, your values, have laid a foundation of who you will become.  But here’s the exciting thing.  That future self is not predetermined: starting now you have the opportunity to take over the reins and to determine your own path and define your own values. 

The key to that journey is knowledge.  Knowledge is understanding gained through education and experience.  In philosophy, it is defined as beliefs based on truth rather than opinion.  Yes, we want you to be smart, and have skill sets that allow you to get a good job and have a meaningful career, but we also want something more.  We want you to seek knowledge, and truth.  This is more urgent than ever because we live in a time, in a society, that seems filled with opposition and disagreement and unwillingness to listen and hear those who don’t share our opinions.  We face so many challenges, climate change being one of them, and do not seem to be pulling together to solve them. 

How can you contribute?

How will you contribute in a meaningful way to the solution to those challenges?  Knowledge.  To understand the facts, to engage in dialogue with people who have different interpretations of those facts or different opinions of what we should be doing about them.  Just because we can agree that the climate is changing does not mean we will all agree about what we, as a society, should do.  We want you to create informed decisions not because an authority figure told you what to believe, but because you have weighed the evidence and alternatives, and ultimately made a deliberate choice.

What I describe is not easy for any of us at any age.  It is our job, as educators, to help you start developing the tools and critical thinking skills to seek knowledge, in its truest sense.  What better way to begin than by asking you to show up today to discuss a topic that many of us have banned at dinner parties and family holidays because it might offend somebody?  Climate change, welcome to college, everyone! 

So, as for my second question, why this particular topic?  Our rapidly changing climate, in addition to the depletion and degradation of resources caused by an exponentially growing human population, threatens the earth system that we rely on.   So this topic is critical, and is increasingly – finally – becoming the focus of not just environmental scientists, but lawmakers, military leaders, urban planners, CEOs, you name it.  The facts of our environmental crisis are overwhelming, paralyzing even.  I worry that so much about our current world; if you even pay a little attention to the news, it could make your generation feel powerless.  It could make you want to crawl in a hole, go about your daily life, and ignore all the bad stuff.  That is the final thing I’d like to address today.  ­­

Bill McKibben wrote an article many years ago entitled, “A Special Moment in History.”  The special moment he referred to is the tipping point we are approaching where we will learn exactly what the limit is to the size of the human population.  Dire stuff.  However, that title, “a special moment,” makes me think of something more hopeful.  You live in a special moment in history where I believe we will see the next great transformation of our society, and you will be the agents of that change.

The greatest examples of social change have been born from need, from a sense of urgency, from facing what appeared to be insurmountable challenges. Those social movements happened not because of our government or leaders, but because people came together to work towards a common goal, to raise their voices and demand change.  Unions sprang from workers demanding protections and a piece of the wealth they created for their employers.  Mothers and wives fought and sacrificed to secure my right to vote.  The NAACP was founded in 1908 by activists, and battled over a century to secure civil rights for people of color. When people are passionate, and care about a common goal, I believe that anything is possible. The amazing thing is that all of the movements I mentioned came from a minority, a group of people who were disenfranchised, but who nonetheless prevailed. 

So, what about the environment?  I believe that politics and economic interests aside, in their hearts, everybody wants to protect this planet, to continue breathing clean air and drinking clean water, to have global stability, and to safeguard that privilege for their children’s children.  That means that all humans, regardless of religion, race, gender, or country, have a common threat and should have a common goal. That makes this a special moment in history.  This new challenge is not just to tackle climate change, but to rethink our relationship with the planet. To redefine what progress means.  To not just consume and grow and expand, but to build sustainable enterprises, schools and business.  To develop sustainable models for how we farm, what we use, how we dispose of our waste.  I believe this will be the challenge underlying every one of your careers, whether you want to major in Chemistry, Economics, Education, or Sociology.

So, what is my hope?  Not to make you think a certain way, or to vote a certain way.  I’d be pretty psyched if you all started recycling and stopped buying bottled water.  Nothing too crazy.  What I really want is to engage you in the conversation.  To have you lift your heads, open your eyes, and understand this crisis.  To gain knowledge, start a dialogue, and debate the solutions.  Knowledge of the world is power, and powerful people can change the world.  So, go get started.

Suzie Boyden received her bachelor’s degree in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology from Dartmouth College. She received her PhD in Ecology from Colorado State University after a three year stint teaching ecology and natural history for a high school on the coast of Maine.  She was a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Forest Resources. Her research, done in collaboration with the State and Federal Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy, and Research Institutes in Michigan and New York, focuses on the impact of deer, invasive plants and climate change on eastern forests. She teaches a number of basic, applied, and theoretical ecology courses in the Biology Department.

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Syllabi: A tool to build success

Jeanne Slattery

– Jeanne M. Slattery

I spend a good part of my summer reflecting on last year and looking forward to next. I began editing my syllabi last semester during our course, more seriously edited them at the end of the semester, and now that the new semester is less than a week away, I’m reconsidering my assignments and rubrics, the pace of my semester, and where we’re going. My internship class required few edits, while my capstone course is being significantly redesigned.

I have been part of a national project collecting psychology syllabi for more than 22 years, chaired this project for two years, organized more than a dozen symposia considering syllabi, and have been performing research with colleagues across the country on what makes syllabi effective.

I care about syllabi, but all of us who care about our teaching and our students should also care.

Why do we need syllabi?

On the crassest level, syllabi are a contract between faculty and our students – one that administration holds us to (Slattery & Carlson, 2005). When a student has a complaint, administrators should pull out the class syllabi to consider whether the faculty member had deviated from the syllabus. It helps to identify the late penalty, for example, rather than make this up on the fly.

But syllabi also serve more altruistic and high-minded purposes. They orient students and help our students stay on track. They level the playing ground, helping students recognize strategies for success when they might otherwise fail to understand how they can become more successful (Collins, 1997). They can engage students (Richmond, Slattery, Morgan, Mitchell, & Becknell, 2017). Writing syllabi can help us plan where we want to go and meet our goals (Slattery & Carlson, 2005).

And, they are the first impression of us that our students have. Does this first impression matter? Even half a minute of a video without sound of professor predicts student evaluations at the end of the semester (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1993). That’s not surprising, as by the time our students meet us, they’ve had a lot of time with good teachers (and bad) and can predict what works (and not). Our syllabi can make that same sort of first impression.

What I’m saying is that our syllabi are an opportunity to increase our students’ success in college – and that of a class.

Writing a syllabus helps me consider where I want a course to go and what course and life goals I hope to achieve. My goals for my face-to-face section of Abnormal Psychology include: (a) developing greater understanding and empathy for other people, especially people with psychiatric problems; (b) using psychological principles and theories to understand client problems and direct treatment, considering the strengths and weaknesses of each explanation; (c) building research and information literacy skills for answering questions about psychiatric disorders; (d) building skills in working as a member of a team, writing findings, and presenting ideas effectively; and (e) strengthening career skills consistent with success in graduate school and the workplace and take steps toward making your career goals happen.

Knowing where we want to go matters, but so does knowing who your students are and what they need. You might consider what barriers your students face in this course, how your course design helps your students see themselves as effective and capable learners, how your design choices help your students meet our learning goals more effectively, and how your course design meets the needs of a range of learners, not only students “just like me.”

What should we consider?

There are a number of things that we might consider in our syllabus design that are discussed much more extensively elsewhere (see Gannon, 2019). These things include basic course information (e.g., name and prerequisites), required texts and readings, assignments, grades, and university policies. In this discussion, I’ll focus on tone, strategies for success, accessibility, and our students’ meaning and purpose.


One thing that seems to make a difference in how our students perceive us and our course is the tone we use. My colleagues and I have been doing research on syllabus tone, especially that in learner-centered syllabi – syllabi that build a sense of community, communicate a shared sense of power and control, and use student-centered strategies of evaluation (Cullen & Harris, 2009; Richmond, Morgan, Slattery, Mitchell, & Cooper, 2019). We have found that tone affects perceptions of faculty as flexible/open-minded and creative/interesting (Richmond et al., 2017). Students reading a more learner-centered syllabus perceive the professor as caring for and about their students, having a positive attitude, and being enthusiastic. They rated a learner-centered syllabus much more positively and indicated much higher levels of engagement (Richmond et al., 2017). Tone did not affect perceptions of knowledge, competence, or preparedness.

This section of my online Forensic Psychology syllabus is an example of learner-centeredness, as seen in a syllabus, clearly addressing community issues and shared power and control.

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

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

I will also set up in-person meetings – for those of you in or near Clarion – and scheduled discussions online. If you would especially like to “talk” with me, make sure that I know when works for you. I’ll try to make this work.

Note that some aspects of this syllabus are particular to an online class rather than a class I would meet in the classroom (e.g., the photo at the top of the syllabus and my use of Virtual Office Hours). Write your syllabus to meet the unique needs of your students and class.

Strategies for success.

Our syllabi can include strategies for success. In addition to a list of strategies for doing well, I’ve also begun including Pro Tips throughout my Abnormal Psychology syllabus. I know how to be successful, but my students often do not. Here are two examples from this semester’s syllabus.

Pro Tip: You get the most out of assignments when you make them your own. What do you want to learn? Where do you need help?

Pro Tip: Please don’t text in class. The research suggests that even having your phone out interferes with your learning and that of your classmates (Ward et al., 2017).


When prompted, many of us think about what we can do to accommodate our students with disabilities. Many of these accommodations are things that we can do for all of our students to help them be more successful. DocREADER in D2L will now read a page to students. This will obviously be helpful for students with learning disabilities and recent concussions, but maybe it would also be helpful for others. (My husband and I watch all TV, not just TV in a language we don’t know, with captions turned on. Neither of us has an identified hearing problem.) Rather than only telling my anxious students how to handle the course well, I tell all of my students how to handle anxiety and the course effectively. My resources are always available, not only available when a student gives me a form from Disability Services. And, I offer help proactively, rather than only after my students request it.

Of course, there are other things that are part of a student’s accommodation that I don’t spontaneously offer (e.g., testing in a quiet place). I don’t have time and energy to do this effectively. If student ask, though, I let them take exams in a quieter place in our building.

Finding their why.

I think our why matters – and our students often have difficulty identifying that why. In grade school and high school, their why was ignored. Because they don’t know why they are doing something, they often see the task as busywork – when we know better. I try to prompt them to find their why in my assignments, as with this Media Analysis assignment in Forensic Psychology, but also in my syllabi, as in my first Pro Tip.

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 your understanding of the court and prison systems. This assignment will help you build this important skill.

There are other ways that we can help our students see their why – and ours. I identify the relationships between my learning goals and assignments in my syllabus. I try to be clear about the progression of assignments across the semester and how earlier assignments build success in later assignments.


Syllabi are not just a document to meet contractual demands (although you can see some of the “contract” language in my syllabus posted in the Cloud), but an opportunity to help our students become more successful. Syllabi can be a social justice document, helping all of our students obtain the skills to become successful – and to help them recognize that we are their allies to help them succeed.


Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 431-441.

Collins, T. (1997). For openers . . . An inclusive syllabus. In W. E. Campbell and K. A. Smith (Eds.), New paradigms for college teaching (pp. 79–102). Edina, MN: Interaction.

Cullen, R., & Harris, M. (2009). Assessing learner-centredness through course syllabi. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education34(1), 115-125.

Gannon, K. (2019). How to create a syllabus: Advice guide. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-syllabus?utm_source=at&utm_medium=en&cid=at

Richmond, A. S., Morgan, R. K., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N. G., & Cooper, A. G. (2019). Project Syllabus: An exploratory study of learner-centered syllabi. Teaching of Psychology, 46(1), 6-15.

Richmond, A. S., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N., Morgan, R. K., & Becknell, J. (2017). Can a learner-centered syllabus change students’ perceptions of student-professor rapport and master teacher behaviors? Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2, 159-168.

Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching, 53, 159-164.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. 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 jslattery@clarion.edu

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Adulting 101

– Jeanne M. Slattery

When I write a syllabus, I usually identify course goals such as critical thinking, application of theory, oral and written communication skills, career development, and information literacy. I don’t say that I want to prepare my students for the next stage in their lives – I want them to be more ready for adulting – but that’s another important goal on my radar.

Intro to Counseling students at their “final”

One way that I meet this goal is by holding “finals” at Michelle’s Café, where I’ve had finals for inquiry seminars, writing-intensive courses, and interns. These groups have ranged from 7 to 27 students. I buy them drinks, then we sit and talk and talk. We take over Michelle’s and use almost every free chair. Other people often ask who we are and what we are doing.

Hard to miss Clarion when we meet for our final, as we make quite a stir.

What am I doing?  

I want my students to see themselves as competent, capable adults. Taking them off campus and, as I do, seriously asking my students about the class and their academic careers – What went well? What could work better? – communicates just that (and often becomes part of our assessment report). As Makenna said in December, “this thing” is one of the things we do that fostered her personal and professional development.

I want my students to take ownership for their education. Here – and in my seniors’ Education papers (Slattery, 2014) – I’m asking them to identify what they’ve learned and consider where they have fallen short.  I want them to identify themselves as capable of setting (and resetting) their course in the future. As Jordyn observed, this process of reflection helps consolidate what they’ve learned over the last four years.

I want them to reflect and learn from their experiences. And that what Jordyn recognizes is happening: we are reflecting on what we did, albeit not in writing. And, it’s clear that I assume that their reflections will make the course more effective next time. My Spring 2018 interns, for example, asked that I request mid-semester evaluations from their supervisors in addition to our end of the semester evaluations. They also suggested that all of my discussion boards include references in APA format. My last batch of interns suggested that they should visit my classes to talk up the importance of doing an internship. Easily done. My seniors suggested that I reorganize Senior Seminar so that they have more time to complete their research projects. I’m not sure that I can make more time in the class – really, I don’t think there is enough time in one semester to go from a germ of an idea to final presentations – but I will try.

A “final” at Michelle’s???

Seniors at the Undergraduate Research Conference

Must it be a final at Michelle’s? I think there are many other ways that we can help students take ownership of their education and recognize their own competence. The Celebration of Learning (for inquiry seminars) and Undergraduate Research Conference (for research of all sorts) both do this effectively. So do the BFA art exhibits, study abroad trips, honors projects, and class presentations opened to the general public.

I ask them to step outside their typical definitions of education – and what they expect for themselves – in other ways, too. Midsemester, I ask my online students to tell me what’s working and what’s not, which allows us to change the course of our semester (Slattery, 2015). I meet out of class with my student teams in Abnormal Psychology to discuss drafts of their presentations (in person with my F2F students and by Zoom with my online students). They come with questions and wonder whether their organization and presentation is effective. I ask them what they think is working and where they are running into problems. When my writing-intensive classes were smaller, we would discuss class ideas in a large circle. Now we use smaller ones.

What makes these things work?

I’ve given you disparate examples. What do they have in common? Any student-centered approach seems to help students begin to identify themselves as competent and capable adults. As Makenna observed, our “finals” are helpful because it was very clear that I was invested in her and her education: “You don’t really have a choice.” (I think this was meant as a compliment, that I was incapable of stepping back, incapable of demanding less than their best.)

I am not asking you to hold your finals at Michelle’s (although you might), but that you consider how you can help move your students from passive consumers of information to active architects of their education. Some of you already do so, others might recognize yourself in this essay and choose to do so more intentionally.

What do you do to help your students transition to see themselves as young professionals? I’d like to know.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves her students, 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 jslattery@clarion.edu

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Dear Bully in the Classroom

Dear Ms. Scholar, How do you deal with difficult, confrontational students who blame you for everything and get angry when you (very politely, and in the most tactful manner) give them negative feedback on their work? I have such a student, and I am at the end of my rope with her. This student, nothing short of a bully, was difficult during the first two or three weeks of the semester, but things got better. And now this.

Her teammate commented that she was very difficult to deal with – and she is her friend! I just don’t want to finish the semester on a sour note.


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Bully in the Classroom, I wish that there was an easy answer. Bullying clearly impacts you and often impacts your students. It can interfere with both teaching and learning by spoiling classroom climate and creating maladaptive group norms.

When do people bully? Most people are more “difficult” when they are frustrated and feel a situation is unfair (because they aren’t doing as well as they believe they should be doing, for example). We are often more difficult in one situation when we are having difficulties in other settings – her behavior may have nothing to do with you or your course! Your student may be having a bad day or be someone who holds the belief that aggression is necessary to get ahead in life (Grant, 2019).

At the same time, it seems helpful to think about what you can do to de-escalate problems and increase the frequency of better times. When we pay attention to our contributions to problems, we can put our best foot forward and recognize what part of the problem is ours and what is our student’s. This may prevent overreacting or responding  inappropriately to her behavior.

To what degree, for example, do her concerns make sense? Have you, for example, fallen into a negative feedback cycle, where it is much easier to focus on her “misbehaviors” (e.g., texting despite classroom rules)? To what degree have negative communication patterns become normative? Are you remembering to give her positive feedback for the things that are working? Effective communicators cool down before responding and help the “bully” cool down, too (Grant, 2019).

Let me repeat: recognizing your control doesn’t mean that problems are your fault, but Ms. Scholar does believe you can identify the control possible in this clearly difficult situation.

Ms. Scholar has a “bullying” student this semester. This student does not accept No for an answer and repeatedly asks the same question until he gets what he wants. He has turned in most assignments late. After failing the first two of three exams, he asked if it was still possible to earn a B! Listening helps in our interactions, but the only thing that really seems to settle him down is when I give in – which I only want to do when he’s right.

But Ms. Scholar’s student is sometimes right. She was irritated one class when he was holding his phone up and texting in class. When she challenged him about this, he said that his computer was broken and that he needed to take notes on his phone. Ah! Ms. Scholar calmed down and class went smoothly from that point on.

Ms. Scholar’s best efforts do not always work, however.

Ms. Scholar has had students post things in discussion boards that appeared quite rude. Open texting in class feels rude, but Ms. Scholar’s students typically don’t see this as a problem. She is fascinated by rules of courtesy and tone, so wonders how much classroom incivility is intentional bullying and how much is a student taking on the cultural (bullying) tone of, say, the comments section of social media. Perhaps our students do not intend to be bullying and a reminder of good Netiquette would be sufficient.

Ms. Scholar finds that she is most likely to be reactive to rudeness and bullying of any sort when she is tired, stressed, and overworked; the end of the semester can be an especially dangerous time. To the degree possible, make sure that you are sleeping and engaging in regular self-care so that you can be your best self, so that you can respond toward your student in the way that you want to respond. 

Regardless, talk to your chair (and others) to make sure that you have people who know what’s happening, people who you trust who can give you support and advice. They can also help you obtain other perspectives on her behavior and your responses. – Ms. Scholar.


Grant, A. (2019). How to deal with a jerk without becoming a jerk. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/05/smarter-living/how-to-deal-with-a-jerk-without-being-a-jerk.html

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

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