Distance Education? A Correspondence Course?


Paul Woodburne

– Paul Woodburne

An event of potentially earthshaking importance occurred recently. This event was the “Western Governors Title IV” ruling (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General [USDOE-OIP], 2017). Essentially, this online university has to pay back over $700 million in federal student aid because the school’s online classes were more like ‘correspondence courses’ than good online, ‘distance education’ coursework.  A key issue was the 2008 amendment to the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 that required distance education programs to provide “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor.” In this key component of education, the interaction needed to be initiated by the faculty member. From the report (USDOE-OIP, 2017, p. 14-15), regular and substantial interaction in synchronous or asynchronous courses should be:

  • Initiated by instructor (who is subject matter expert). Interactions should not always or only be student initiated.
  • Planned and outlined in the syllabus. Course materials did not describe regular interaction between students and course mentors and evaluators.
  • More than just feedback on assessment. Substantive interactions consisting only of evaluator feedback to students regarding performance task is more characteristic of a correspondence course rather than a course offered through distance education.

The US Department of Education defines distance education as (1) education that uses technology (e.g., the internet, one-way or two-way transmissions through open broadcast and other means, audio conferencing, or DVDs, CD-ROMs, etc., (2) to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor, and (3) to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously (USDOE-OIP, 2017, p. 13). The technologies must support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor (emphasis mine).

The same regulation defines a correspondence course as “a course for which a school provides instructional materials, including examinations on the materials, to students who are separated from the instructor.  Correspondence courses are typically self-paced, with interaction between student and instructor being limited, not regular and substantive, and primarily initiated by the student. Correspondence courses are not distance education” (USDOE-OIP, 2017, p. 14). Schools will be found ineligible if ‘correspondence courses’ exceed 50 percent of the total course offerings, or student enrollment in ‘correspondence programs’ exceeds 50 percent of total enrollment. Auditing of Western Governors University revealed that 62 percent of students were enrolled in 1 or more of the 69 classes that the Department of Education found to be ‘correspondence’ classes (USDOE-OIP, 2017, p. 2).

The issue of prime importance is what constitutes regular and substantive interaction between students and instructor. Per the report, 69 of 102 courses were found to not be designed to offer substantive interaction. Specifically, 32 of the 69 offered no substantive interaction, 27 offered one substantive interaction, and 10 courses offered two substantive interactions (USDOE-OIP, 2017, p. 3). Thus, ‘substantive interaction’ appears to be interpreted as more than two interactions.

The USDOE-OIP (2017) offered both positive and negative definitions of ‘regular and substantive interaction.’ The positive definition is if the syllabus and other course materials “described student interaction with a course mentor or required individual submission of a performance task for which an evaluator provided the student feedback” (p. 16). They did not see the following as substantive interactions between students and instructors:

  • Computer-generated feedback. Objective assessments that students submitted for evaluation were seen as problematic because feedback on these objective assessments was computer-generated, was not provided by instructors, and did not facilitate synchronous or asynchronous interaction between students and instructors.
  • No faculty/student interactions. Recorded webinars, videos, and readings materials were seen as problematic if the course design materials did not require the students to watch the webinars or videos and then interact with an instructor. Many course outlines stated only that course mentors were available to students for assistance. Had the course design materials indicated that the recorded webinars, videos, and reading materials facilitated synchronous or asynchronous interactions, such as requiring students to contact an instructor or participate in an online discussion moderated by an instructor, these would have been seen as substantive interactions. (USDOE-OIP, 2017, p. 16)

Further, the report concluded that classes that offered regular interaction with only student mentors, and only at the student’s initiation – and that the mentors did not provide instruction – also did not create regular and substantive interactions (USDOE-OIP, 2017, p. 16).

While there is clearly room for some interpretation and overlap between these two types of courses – distance education and correspondence courses – a university concerned with growing enrollments and that espouses quality education ought to be solidly on the side of the angels in this regard.

I have been approached by the major textbook publishers about using their “products and services for teaching” – as I am sure most of us have. These include interactive learning and assessment products, searchable e-textbooks, and “turnkey solutions” that “offer benefits like self-paced courses and outcomes-based learning” (quotes taken from Pearson Higher Education). McGraw-Hill and other publishers have essentially identical products with the same sales pitch.

I have used some of these products, and have found many to be the product of much time, effort, and expense. Much of the material is very well done and adapted to student learning, offering harder problems as easier material is mastered, and the like. These products offer case studies, video clips, newspaper articles, test banks, and homework assignments with randomized problems. The products can be used to offer an entire course, where, after the instructor sets up the structure, homework, reviews, examinations, and the like, the publisher will calculate and assign grades.

Unfortunately, faculty members who use supplemental materials provided by publishers – even when very well done – may create a pedagogically-sound course, which is also a ‘correspondence class,’ thus putting the university at risk for losing federal financial aid funds.

Using the Western Governor’s report as a guide, it appears that, unless there is actual interaction, feedback, ‘call and response,’ and the like, with accompanying faculty-generated feedback, then many exams, videos, and student mentors would NOT qualify a course as sufficiently interactive to be seen as a distance education course. On the other hand, things like announcements, discussion boards, Skype, chats, Zoom sessions, and emails could facilitate regular and substantive interactions.

Looking at my own classes: I record lectures for my online courses in my face-to-face classes using Media Site Live. I also assign required and optional texts and readings. The three exams are all essays. I also assign one or two other written assignments in a course that are essay responses to newspaper or magazine articles. In all instances, I provide specific written responses, which I send back to the students via email and via the US Mail. During a short term, such as 7-week Summer course or a Winter course, in order to accommodate work requirements or family obligations, I allow the students to work at their own pace.

From the discussion above, my online classes could be classified as ‘correspondence’ classes, because the USDOE-OIG says “correspondence courses are typically self-paced, with interaction between the student and instructor being limited, not regular and substantive, and primarily initiated by the student” (USDOE-OIG, 2017, pp. 9 and 14). In addition, the USDOE-OIG does not consider recorded lectures or webinars as contributing to “substantive interactions” if they did not require student to interact with an instructor (USDOE-OIG, 2017, p. 16). Had my course materials indicated that the recorded lectures facilitated synchronous or asynchronous interactions (e.g., required participation in a moderated discussion), the recordings would have been seen as fulfilling the requirement for substantive interaction.

On the other hand, the nature of my exams and feedback suggests that my courses would meet USDOE criteria. I provide significant feedback to exams and assignments by email and the US Mail. Unfortunately, I use my university email rather than D2L’s email, so would not have documentation of this feedback. The same is true for mailed essays.

Section 481(a) of the HEA, and 34 C.F.R. § 668.3 (USDOE-OIG, 2017, p 28) defines minimum instructional time. The USDOE-OIG found that Western Governors did not adequately show that students received the required minimum 30 weeks of instructional time and 24 credit hours in an academic year for their classes (USDOE-OIG, 2017, pp 28-30). In this regard, I think my online classes are fine. I record the actual lectures that I give in my face to face classes, and cover an identical amount of material as I do in a 15-week semester.

For self-preservation, if for no other reason, we need to think deeply about our online classes. We faculty ought to get ahead of this issue and develop a common set of minimum standards for all online classes.

As luck would have it, Clarion University is starting to define quality standards in our online education. Discussions have centered around the frequency of ‘substantive’ interactions. The OIG decision above (USDOE-OIP, 2017, p. 3) criticized Western Governor’s classes for having only 0, 1, or 2 ‘substantive interactions.’ However, it appears that rather than focusing on frequency, we should consider the nature of these interactions.

Other discussion focused on defining substantive interactions. These seem to include written responses to exams and/or quizzes (e.g., beyond “Nice job!”), and moderated Discussion Boards. No precise definition of ‘substantive interaction is given in the Western Governor’s decision. Thus, whether a written response to an exam, a single post, or a response to a student’s post meets the definition of substantive interaction is unclear.

Looking for a definition of regular and substantive that simply focuses on the number of interactions may be too formulaic and inflexible. Perhaps more useful is thinking about these interactions as on a continuum, as given below.

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 8.53.42 PM

Because my courses are asynchronous, and, particularly in the short courses students can complete the course at their own rate, they would probably be identified as ‘Level 1.’ I do offer meaningful individualized feedback, but only for three exams and a couple of other written assignments. I do have a class that has eight quizzes in lieu of exams and some written assignments, and I write and mail good feedback on these (Level 2).

Closing Thoughts: As a result of the excellent recent workshop on “Regular and Substantive Interactions in Online Classes” organized by Darla Ausel and Suzanne Homan that I attended, I am revising my online classes. While the substance of the modifications is relatively minor, the process of making modifications feels fairly major. I am adding questions that are specific to given recorded lectures that students have to respond to, and I am adding discussion boards, as appropriate.

Principles or Intermediate level Economics courses often focus on abstract theory, and are less open to interpretive discussion. It is hard to discuss how you have dealt with people who have differing marginal rates of time preference, for example. Many people teach economics via math problems. Neither coverage of abstract theory nor math problems lend themselves to discussion boards.

However, a colleague is revamping his online classes by adding discussion boards. His field has many opportunities for good discussion boards, as his area is heavy on discussion and discourse: they can discuss whether they see themselves as a Theory X or Theory Y type of person. Courses in his field are often taught via case studies. This is a natural home for discussion boards. Seeing what he is doing, I can begin to visualize ways of using discussion boards in my classes, especially during the ‘application’ chapters or with respect to supplemental readings.

I have conversed with several people in the course of writing this article. I have been reminded that discussion boards are not the only way to ensure regular and substantive interactions. Skype, Virtual Office Hours, and the chat feature are all ways to help our classes offer regular and substantive interactions between students and faculty, and ensure our classes offer meaningful educational experiences.

Nonetheless, the part that feels most overwhelming stems from the actual mechanics of changing my D2L site. I do not use D2L for non-online classes, and so am unfamiliar with much of its functionality, perhaps even more so after its revision. I’m also overwhelmed by the push to ensure that our class content is accessible to people with disabilities: many documents now need to be updated.

I need and appreciate the support of people who understand the mechanics of D2L better than I do. I really appreciate Darla and Suzanne, who have been and continue to be very supportive and generous with their time.


US Department of Education, Office of Inspector General. (2017, September). Western Governors University was not eligible to participate in the Title IV Programs: Final Audit Report (ED-OIG/A05M0009). Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/auditreports/fy2017/a05m0009.pdf

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 , , | Leave a comment

What is a Leader?

– Jeanne M. Slattery

JMS 0814

Jeanne Slattery

As I write this, I am in Harrisburg. I am on the executive committee of my state organization, a group with almost 3000 members and a budget of more than $1m per year (when our foundation and Political Action Committee are included).

We are hiring a new executive director for our organization, which has me thinking about who we want to hire. We want (in no particular order) someone who:

Manages the business well

  • Understands and appreciates psychologists and their values, goals, and perspectives on the world
  • Is widely read, recognizing problems in management and organizations, as well as strategic ways to respond to such problems
  • Identifies problems early, thinks critically and logically about them, and responds to problems before they become PROBLEMS
  • Thinks outside the box rather than doing something because we – or he or she – has always done it that way
  • Manages our finances conservatively, yet not overly so
  • Recognizes the resources, products, and services that will make our organization more effective at its job
  • Responds to problems ethically, recognizing that both means and ends matter

Communicates effectively

  • Meets and talks easily with new people and diverse constituencies with differing goals and perspectives
  • Listens well to people of diverse values and goals and is willing to be influenced by new perspectives
  • Writes well, thoughtfully, and quickly
  • Speaks easily in small groups and larger ones, both when all is going well or when the agency under fire
  • Assertively expresses concerns, thoughts, and proposed solutions

Handles people well

  • Builds a strong and creative team and healthy alliances, both within our organization and outside it
  • Delegates well, while maintaining appropriate oversight
  • Handles dissent well and can listen to different perspectives without taking differing opinions personally – even welcoming different perspectives
  • Identifies others’ strengths and helps build them further
  • Recognizes others’ weaknesses and helps them and the organization accommodate to these
  • Creates a strong, cohesive, growth-oriented organization that has little destructive conflict (as opposed to constructive conflict)

Has strong self-management skills

  • Is confident, while recognizing that many problems are not simple and easily-solved
  • Handles stress and others’ stress well
  • Enjoys – or doesn’t mind – travel
  • Adapts to and uses new technologies readily
  • Seeks and finds opportunities to grow

No small task! Most of us, no matter our strengths, can do some of these things well and would have difficulties with others.

Many of these attributes are also ones that Clarion will want in our new president. We also want our new president to recognize the healing that our university still needs to do. Our new president will, of course, do some of these things well and will have difficulties with others. We hope our new president can play to his or her strengths, while finding ways to compensate for weaknesses. (Everyone has weaknesses.)

Many of these are also skills that we want to see in our students, although different fields may require additional specific skills. Frequently, my psychology students believe that all they will need to do is listen and “give advice.” I need to help my students recognize the range of skills that they will need, build the skills that are currently relative weaknesses, and strengthen those that are relative strengths. Those of my students who have difficulties with paperwork or finances, for example, will need to hire staff who can help them be successful in these areas. They will need to find ways to handle stress well without distancing themselves from the problems they will face.

Clearly applicants need to have specific knowledge about the organization they hope to join. Our future president will need to know our university. Nonetheless, many of these skills are built in the course of a strong General Education: careful, critical thinking; understanding and appreciating a diversity of perspectives, values, and approaches; written and oral communication skills; and ethical thinking (Slattery, 2018). We need to help our students and other constituencies recognize the ways that our General Education curriculum helps our students build these skills and helps prepare them for future challenges and responsibilities both inside and outside the workplace.

The US has increasingly emphasized job training at the university level; however, the national conversations on job training have focused on specific skills needed in a job/profession/career, not the more general skills that are also needed (e.g., empathy, critical thinking, ethical thinking, problem solving under pressure). As we hire a president, as we prepare to graduate another class of seniors, as we network with our community, let’s make sure that we consider, require, and build ALL of the job-related skills needed.


Slattery, J. M. (2018, Spring). “I don’t work in the field.” Eye on Psi Chi, 22(3), 14-16. Retrieved from https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.psichi.org/resource/resmgr/eye_pdf/22_3SpringEye-Web.pdf

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 jslattery@clarion.edu


Posted in State of the university, Teaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Reflecting on Reflection

– Melissa K. Downes

Children's Reading 1

Melissa Downes reading poetry to an audience of children and adults.

When I first started teaching, my enthusiasm, content knowledge, emphasis on discussion, and strong emphasis on reflection were my primary teaching strengths. It took me some time to realize that reflection was not something that every novice teacher did. I would define reflection as the time and practice taken to think about thinking (metacognition) and about feelings and to review what one has done (and why) and what one has learned. Such reflection reinforces both content and skills and makes students more aware of their own learning. Similar reflection on a teacher’s part helps build a stronger teacher. From my perspective, such reflection forms an essential part of good teaching in my discipline.

Many of the assignments I create (especially team assignments and presentations) have, as a final part of the assignment, a required two-to-three-page reflection. In these essays, students describe their strengths and weaknesses as tied to the assignment, what they learned, what they valued, and what they would do differently if faced with a similar challenge. Here’s an excerpt from such a reflection assignment (for a College Writing  team paper studying Clarion University students):

Consider the strengths, and weaknesses of both your process and your product in terms of your team-built essay, your primary research, your scholarly research, and your group skills. Reflect on and discuss your own work and performance and reflect on the work of the group as a whole. What were the hard parts of the research? Of building the essay? Of working as a group? Did everyone share the work equally? Was there a leader in the group or did you share out leadership roles? Did the leadership work or were there difficulties? What were the strong parts of what you did? What were the valuable things about the experience? What did you learn about Clarion University students? About your chosen topic? About the skills you had to practice to be successful for this paper/project? Do you have new or different insights after the experience? If you could go back and do the paper/project again, what would you do differently? Concrete details, please.

How do students respond? Here’s a student response from one of my inquiry seminars:

I learned that inquiry is all about asking a lot of questions. Some questions may not be as solid as you hope they are, but with practice you can fine-tune your questions. I think that inquiry is about trying out your ideas in the form of a question and then re-asking that question in a different way to see if you get different answers.

I learned that research comes in many forms, some more credible than others. I now know that looking over a journal or website before using it is important to do so that you know the material is useful and proves your topic.

Sometimes they tell me what I should do differently, which itself requires reflection and some metacognition on their part and also encourages it in their teacher:

I wish I would have spent a little more time on really connecting and relating both my primary and secondary research together. I asked a lot of questions in my interviews and gathered a lot of information in my secondary research that I wish I would have had more time to elaborate on. I feel like connecting my research together is important, I think I did the best with the time that I had but I would have liked to spend more time presenting this.

I learned the importance of using primary research alongside secondary research to help prove a thesis. Analyzing and comparing results from both secondary and primary research make your point stronger.

I like helping my students think about how an assignment might apply outside of the classroom or outside college. I also believe that reflecting on feelings helps my students intellectually. I am delighted when I get responses like this:

From this project, I learned some new things about my family and friends. Based on my interview questions, I learned what makes them laugh and how laughing makes them feel. I never realized how laughter can make someone feel, or how much of an impact laughter had on people’s attitudes.

While I was finishing up my project I was thinking about how important laughter is in life, it makes you focus on the little things and to not take things so serious sometimes. I realized that I need more laughter in my life, I need that little laugh every now and then to boost my mood and make my day better.

I think that this project has helped me academically, by introducing a new way to research as [well] as personally, by showing me to enjoy life and laugh.

I also have students practice personal reflection as an early assignment in a number of my classes. For example, my Introduction to English Studies students write personal narratives/reflections on why they have chosen to be English majors and what they think that means. I want my students to think about their choice of the major and to expand their understanding of the discipline they have chosen to study. I ask them to write a focused personal essay reflecting on the issues at the heart of questions like the following: What does it mean to study English? How would you define the field? How did you come to this field? What events and experiences motivated you? What do you think being a student of English is and why do you value it? Do you? My students write an initial version of this essay early in the term, but they return to it and revise it after they have had more experience with being an English major. Thus, they get to revise the essay not only to build better sentences or a stronger thesis but also in light of what they have learned about being an English major in a semester of being an English major

While I like the more extended and insightful  responses that come from a reflection essay, I have been practicing doing more with short-answer reflections turned in at various points during projects. Such short reflections prompt metacognition, but they also hold my students accountable for keeping up with their work and alert me to possible difficulties or misunderstandings.

Reflection works well in many of my courses and fits well with my discipline, but I believe it must be a valuable component in many courses and many fields. What are you already doing in your classes to promote student reflection and metacognition? What would you like to do? If you want to bounce around some ideas, I’m happy to have coffee and a conversation.

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching. She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dear Best Intentions

Dear Ms. Scholar, Last semester, despite my best intentions, I had some real problems with cheating. I had a student who plagiarized on a paper, another who repeatedly took exams late, and students in an online course who requested much longer testing times than my face-to-face students receive, yet felt rushed (presumably because they were looking up all of the answers). Any suggestions?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Best Intentions, You are not alone. All of us have been affected. We have had either minor cheating/plagiarism problems (e.g., phrases “stolen” without attribution) or major forms (e.g., the same answers given by two students or, my “favorite,” a student who turned in a Science article as a research proposal).

All of us have heard and use a variety of suggestions. These include:

  • Developing a positive rather than a confrontational relationship with students;
  • Educating students about what plagiarism and cheating are;
  • Building assignments and exams that make plagiarism and cheating more difficult;
  • Creating scaffolding exercises that build toward major projects. Good design of these can relieve some of the stresses that can lead to cheating, make cheating more difficult, and allow one to discover it early in the process, when one can use it as a teaching moment without necessarily making it a failing moment;
  • Setting manageable and developmentally-appropriate tasks in class and building intermediate skills to teach complex tasks over the course of the semester or their undergraduate degree;
  • Discussing growth mindset with students (Dweck, 2006), so they recognize that they can develop the skills to succeed in a course, and continue to use “growth language” over the course of the semester;
  • Teaching study and time management skills in a course so that students have the skills to succeed. Ms. Scholar likes and uses the skills described in McGuire’s (2015) book.

One of the most interesting suggestions Ms. Scholar has seen comes from Maryellen Weimer (2018). She sends her students a memo to help them consider the personal consequences of cheating and recognize how cheating hurts them. She encourages faculty to revise this memo, make the language their own, and use it as they see fit. I’d encourage you to do the same. The following memo is my version of her ideas.

To: My Students
From: Ms. Scholar
Re: Cheating

You’ve heard it before: Don’t cheat. Yet despite knowing that it’s wrong, many students still cheat. Why? In response to a survey about cheating, one student compared it to speeding: “Everybody knows you shouldn’t speed, but most of us do. And when the weather is good and the road is clear, there is only a small risk of an accident. I might get caught, but that risk is also low.” This student reasoned, cheating is like speeding.

No, it’s not!!! Here are seven reasons why you shouldn’t cheat that you may not have considered. Getting caught isn’t one of them (you already know this).

  1. I don’t know what you really know. When you cheat on an exam, it looks like you know the content. When you’re confronted with that material again, you’ll have to fake it. Because I think you understand it, I move on. Because knowledge in one part of a course affects later sections – and later courses – you’ll either be unprepared or need to work twice as hard later. 
  2. You don’t develop the skills you need. When you cheat, skills that employers assume college graduates have remain undeveloped or underdeveloped. You learn problem-solving skills by solving problems, not by copying answers. Your writing strengthens as you write, not when you recycle someone else’s paper. Your abilities to think critically, analyze arguments, and speak persuasively develop as you practice these skills, not when you parrot the thinking, arguments, and persuasive ploys of others. Standing around exercise equipment does not build muscle mass, borrowing others’ work does not build mental muscle.
  3. Cheating can become a bad habit. Don’t kid yourself, a small cheating problem seldom stays that size. It’s more like a malignant tumor that starts small and quietly grows into something big and ugly. The research is clear. Students who cheat generally don’t do it just one time or in just one course.
  4. Cheating can become a bad habit, not only in college. Cheating in college sets you up for cheating in life. Maybe you’re telling yourself you’ll stop when you graduate. The research says otherwise. People who cheated in college are more likely to cheat their employers or employees, fudge their taxes, and use unethical business practices. Cheating becomes a lifetime habit right – along with the lying to cover it up.
  5. You can accomplish what you need to without cheating. Some students cheat because it’s easier than working for the grades. This is a short-sighted rationale with serious consequences. Others cheat because they don’t think they have what it takes to get the grades they need. Success in college is a function of your study habits, not your brain size. You can develop and use good study habits. Start with one course – this one – and try an experiment. See if regular class attendance; short, regular study times alone and with a friend; and daily work on your classes make a difference. Use the study skills we discuss in class. Bottom line: you are probably smarter than you think.
  6. Cheating puts your personal integrity at risk. What kind of person do you want to be? The actions you take now are defining who you are and what you will become. Consider how you feel when people you care about lie to or cheat on you. Do you hold them in high esteem? You wear your personal integrity every day of your life. You can wear it with pride… or not.
  7. Cheating doesn’t just hurt you, but hurts your professor, fellow students, and the larger community. Faculty who discover students cheating often become more cynical about students and education. Your classmates who “followed the rules” are hurt by your cheating, particularly if your professor grades on a curve or creates a more difficult test for future classes. The community as a whole is hurt when one of us does anything that hurts any of the rest of us: we trust less, become more cynical, and withdraw from each other. As someone said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I’ll do the same.

Ms. Scholar particularly likes this type of response to preventing cheating, as it addresses the real issue: cheating is not just about the grade, but how it affects you and the people around you. We can use our start to the semester to remind students to reflect on who they are and who they want to be.

Ms. Scholar doesn’t read Faculty Focus and other teaching resources daily (e.g., Inside Higher Ed, Chronicle of Higher Education), but she does read them regularly. You can sign up to receive a regular newsletter from Faculty Focus filled with great ideas in your email by completing the form on the top right of the Faculty Focus page. Or you could wait and read our next issue of Hand in Hand. Have a good week! – Ms. Scholar


Dweck, C. J. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Balantine Books.

McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Weimer, M. (2018, January 17). A memo to students on cheating. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://tiny.cc/jg3cqy

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

When the Task Calls for A Hammer

Jeanne Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

– Jeanne M. Slattery

When I was an undergraduate, my faculty used chalk and chalkboards: they were Sages on the Stage. That works well for some faculty and some students, but this strategy often falls short for students who are not initially engaged by the material. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

The new learning technologies, when used well, open doors for both faculty and students. When I first started teaching Abnormal Psychology, I used chalk, overheads, and a few videos – which limited the kinds of information I could share. Now I use PowerPoints to help me organize the vast amount of information we’ll discuss, YouTube to give my students a range of perspectives on a single diagnosis, and Discussion Boards so my students can continue the conversations outside of class. My students use Google Docs to collaborate on projects outside of class, either side by side or across the state. The newer technologies allow me to use the right tools for the task.

Screen Shot 2018-01-21 at 12.58.33 PM

Part of the check list posted in D2L for my seniors’ research project.

Our learning management system allows me to post assignments, handouts, rubrics, videos, and grades in one easily-accessible place. This can put my students in charge of their learning, as they know their grades, can identify when an assignment is due, and can find the readings they need – even at 2am! Last Spring, my seniors had a multi-part, semester-long research project. They asked whether I would create a map of the process for them; I posted a checklist for the process on D2L, with all of the small details that I mistakenly believed they knew.

I use technology to support my teaching and help compensate for my weaknesses (and those of my students). I use technology to engage my students and to help them access information more easily. However, I don’t only use technology. I use multiple approaches and strategies, and I don’t use technology just for show or because it’s there. In Abnormal Psychology, for example, I partially flip our classroom: we are spending the semester finding research to solve real problems (and building critical thinking, information literacy, writing, and research skills). One example:

Vic and Vac Scene are new parents of their first child. They are excited and trying to do everything “right.” They just watched a TV interview with Jenny McCarthy, who argued that children should not be given vaccines, because she believes they increase the risk of autism. Their pediatrician strongly recommends vaccines, and their daycare requires them. The Scenes want to know what the research suggests about vaccines and autism. Should they give their child any vaccines?

This project uses technology – online library resources to find research answering their question; Google Docs to collaborate; GroupMe, texts, and email to stay in touch; and PowerPoint to present their findings – but only when that technology helps solve a problem more effectively.

Is technology necessarily better? I think it helps me do my job more effectively (e.g., show examples, present figures and tables from published research, stay organized in my teaching); however, I have colleagues who sit on a desk, occasionally write a word or two on the chalkboard, and are very effective at what they do.

Technology can be used at the wrong place, at the wrong time, or in the wrong way: a hammer can’t do a screwdriver’s job. Still, in my own teaching, technology has often been freeing: it allows me to imagine different ways to approach things – which keeps both me and my students engaged.

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 (with C. Park), and Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

Posted in Teaching, Technology | Tagged | Leave a comment

Self-fulfilling prophecies

Jeanne Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

— Jeanne M. Slattery

Yesterday my freshmen and I were talking about optimism, pessimism, and the role of thinking: “No one can make you feel any particular thing without your permission. It’s your thoughts that make you feel a particular way.” Their eyes were wide as I shared that I had gotten angry when my college boyfriend gave me large, beautiful diamond earrings — until they learned that I don’t like diamonds and had told him that. He didn’t listen.

Still, this idea that no one can make them feel anything is one that they only tentatively believe — and primarily about other people. Many of my students are also in a class where they’ve heard Professor X say that they won’t be successful, that they won’t learn this material, that they will be back. (I don’t know that this is what Professor X says, but this is what they hear.) “Professor X makes me want to give up.” “I don’t even want to go to class.”

Some students, however, note that they work harder in such situations. I’m not sure I believe them, but the mind is a powerful organ that interprets and responds to information based on its worldview. Did they already believe they could be successful in such situations?

When I asked my students about their high school experiences during the first week of class, two students said that they hadn’t liked anything. Anything. They felt that their teachers hadn’t cared. They felt that their teachers hadn’t believed that they could be successful.

They also believe that Professor X doesn’t believe that they can be successful – even though I know that isn’t true. Like many of our faculty, this person would bend over backwards for our students. I’ve seen Professor X do so.

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 8.46.34 AMI don’t think we should praise students for poor work. I don’t think we should give everyone A’s. In fact, Crocker and Nuer (2003) suggest that praise and focus on self-esteem can be counterproductive and create people with fragile self-esteem, problems in meeting competence needs, maladaptive behaviors such as lying and stealing, and avoidance of situations that could potentially lead to failure. On the other hand, as my friend and colleague Miguel Olivas-Luján has observed, we need to consider whether we are fostering maladaptive self-fulfilling prophecies. Have Professor X’s comments encouraged such self-fulfilling prophecies without intending to do so?

Do we really believe that our students can learn? If so, we need to find ways to talk to them using the language of growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). We need to communicate that it takes effort to complete tasks, that challenges and criticism are good things, and that we believe that they can learn. When we talk to them, we need to compliment the work they’ve done, rather than lead them to believe that their successes or failures say something central about who they are.

They are neither their successes nor their failures. With effort, with our support, they can achieve more than they believe they can.


Crocker, J., & Nuer, N. (2003). The insatiable quest for self-worth. Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 14, 31-34.

Dweck, C. J. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Balantine Books.

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 (with C. Park), and Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Dear Not Working as a Team

Dear Ms. Scholar, Last semester, I had a class that had a group project worth about 1/3 of the overall grade. One team member was frequently absent and didn’t actively participate when they were in groups. The team was unhappy, but unfortunately did not express their concerns until the end of the semester. Any suggestions about how I could handle this better next time?

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Not Working as a Team, This is an ongoing concern for faculty teaching courses with significant teamwork requirements. Often groups need much more support than we expect they need – and they end up floundering without that support.

Let’s start with the simplest problem. Perhaps, as in your question, the problem belongs only to a difficult student – perhaps one who is depressed and withdrawing, overwhelmed, has poor social skills, or weak academic skills and goals – while the group members are conscientious and hardworking. Ms. Scholar has sometimes been good at working with such difficult students, but at other times has had more difficulty. Four factors have contributed to her success:

  1. Interest in change. Does the student recognize a problem? Does the student want to handle things differently? If the answer to these questions is yes, intervening seems to be easier and more appropriate. Not all students are interested in contributing to a group project, however, even when the project is worth a considerable proportion of the grade.
  2. Faculty/student relationship. Ms. Scholar finds it easier to give a student difficult feedback on group performance when she has a good relationship with the student. When she genuinely wants the student to do better, the student is more likely to listen to her. When the student genuinely values Ms. Scholar’s input, the student is more likely to solicit and respond to feedback.
  3. Assertiveness. Giving difficult feedback can require significant assertiveness from the faculty member. Can you find a way to give feedback to the student – and team – that is positive, hopeful, and respectful? When Ms. Scholar’s first response comes from anger or frustration, she first goes outside and takes a walk around the building, then tries again.
  4. Time. It’s easier for Ms. Scholar to give difficult, but helpful feedback when she has the time available, in or out of class. When her course load is especially heavy or she has taken on too many responsibilities, though…

In Ms. Scholar’s experience, however, problems often go in both directions – both the “problem student” and teammates – and feedback has to go to all parties. Both “sides” may have surprisingly different perspectives on the problem. Often, but not always, one of the parties feels left out while the other party complains that the student did not pull his or her weight. These problems may be due, in part, to differences in expectations about work habits and communication. When groups communicate and meet regularly and respond quickly to emails and texts, they are generally happy, even when, from an outsider’s perspective, they did not all pull their own weight. Those groups that are least happy are those where one or more parties fail to meet with the group – even when they had good reasons to miss (e.g., work, illness, travel constraints, problems with babysitters).

Sometimes different members of a group may perform different tasks, with all believing they’ve pulled their weight – and that their peers did not. For example, in one recent group, two members collected their data (poorly), while a third pulled together the final written products (somewhat well). All members believed they had done their share and pointed fingers elsewhere.

Figure 1. Part of Ms. Scholar's instructions to class teams, posted in Announcements.

Figure 1. Part of Ms. Scholar’s instructions to class teams, posted under Announcements in D2L.

The most difficult piece: Ms. Scholar believes that both teacher and team must take responsibility for problems with teamwork and creating solutions. More and more Ms. Scholar attempts to educate students about ways to perform teamwork well. For example, Ms. Scholar posts this list describing successful teamwork skills under D2L’s Announcements. See Figure 1. She tries to regularly debrief after teamwork and encourages students to reflect on the group process throughout.

Ms. Scholar wishes that she had talked more frequently with a recent team having problems. She had been concerned about their work quality from the very beginning. She had talked to the group throughout the semester, received interim feedback on the group mid-semester, and had talked to individuals on several occasions. Nonetheless, these discussions were often during class or when students/Ms. Scholar were rushing from one place to another, situations that did not foster the kind of assertiveness needed to identify and address problems with team functioning. She had responded better to teams with “squeakier wheels,” those groups more clearly identifying problems.

The point is that, as you note, teamwork is difficult. If it were easy, we wouldn’t need to give our students opportunities to work on their teamwork skills during their college careers. Teamwork, though, can both be a challenging aspect of teaching and offer many rewards both to faculty and students, as many teams can produce products that are stronger than what any single student could do on his or her own. – Ms. Scholar

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com


Posted in Teaching | Tagged , | 1 Comment