Thoughts on Horses, Students, and Teaching



Kathleen Welsch in her last photo with Casey

– Kathleen A. Welsch

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

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

Lesson 1: History Shapes What Happens in the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson 2: Fear of Admonishment Can Produce Mistakes

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

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

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

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

Lesson 3: Willingness to Try an Alternative Approach


Casey using the bitless bridle

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

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

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

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

Lesson 4: Observation

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

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

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

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

Lesson 5: Compassion

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

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

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

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

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What Teaching and Professional Triathlon Have in Common


Kim Schwabenbauer Photo by @mattgreenphoto

– Kim Schwabenbauer

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

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

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

Strive for Balance While Planning Your Season

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

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

Embrace the Grind


Photo by @mattgreenphoto

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

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

Know Your Why

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

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

Don’t Be Afraid, Failure is Only the Beginning

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

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

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

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

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Screen Shot 2018-07-07 at 3.19.53 PM

My Jenga-playing class.

– Jeanne M. Slattery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice their active reflection?

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

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Figure 1. Teacher- and student-centered classrooms.

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

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

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


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

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

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Dear Evaluated Online

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

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




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Dorothy Moments

– Renae Shawgo

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


Renae Shawgo

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

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

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

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

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

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


Her students at work.

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

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

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

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

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


Renae Shawgo

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

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


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

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

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

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“Regular and Substantive” Interactions in Online Courses

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Jeanne M. Slattery

– Jeanne M. Slattery

In 2017, the Department of Education ruled that Western Governors University had to pay back over $700 million in federal student aid (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General [USDOE-OIP], 2017). A key issue in this ruling was the 2008 amendment to the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 requiring that distance education programs provide “regular and substantive interactions” between students and faculty.

Since learning of this ruling, I have worried whether my online classes meet this federal standard. “Regular and substantive interactions” is poorly defined, so feels capricious (thus, my anxiety), although most of us would probably recognize courses that have significant faculty/student interactions and those that fail to meet a reasonable standard.

Will the current Department of Education enforce this ruling? Perhaps not. Nonetheless, I want to offer courses that are as strong and effective as possible, and the frequency and nature of faculty/student interactions is one part of this process (Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Ragan, 2009). This ruling is only an impetus to consider my course’s quality. Lowenthal and colleagues (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2014; Kilgore & Lowenthal, 2015) recommend three types of instructor presence in the online classroom: social presence (to help students see the instructor as a real person), teaching presence (strategies to build student understanding), and cognitive presence (constructing meaning through sustained communication).

I taught Forensic Psychology online this past summer for the first time, which was a good opportunity to consider this issue. Like my only other online course, I used a range of assessments and activities: five tests, optional and ungraded quizzes, weekly discussion boards, and a paper (and a proposal for that paper). Because I use rubrics to give feedback and also give written feedback on discussion boards and papers, I would probably pass muster. (Again, I’m not clear how the standard is being operationalized.) Nonetheless, my goal is not just to meet the requirements, but to do the right thing. On the other hand, I  don’t want to make my classes so labor intensive that I’m overwhelmed and stop teaching online.

What have I done?

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Figure 1.  Entry page for Forensic Psychology course

What am I doing to offer an online course with “regular and substantive” interactions – without creating a course that is onerous for either my students or myself?

1. Personalized D2L site. I have tried to personalize my D2L site in a number of ways to make me more “visible” to my students and them to me:

  • I’ve posted photos of myself in my syllabus, on our course homepage, and in my Overview module on the Content tab (the last of these is the photo at the top of this blog).
  • One requirement of my students’ introduction discussion board was that they include a picture in their profile (I posted directions for doing this on the Content tab). They earned two of 400 points by doing so – so enough points to get them to do so, but not so many that I felt bad about it – but I appreciated “seeing” my students, even when a student had only posted a photo of Brooklyn.
  • In one or two places I use D2L to “call” my students by name. This is easily done using the {firstname} command (see Figure 1). Everyone who goes to the Start Here module, for example, sees their name. I also used this command both in my Welcome announcement and my closing announcement to the class.
  • I intentionally use warm and welcoming language throughout my syllabus. I want my students to feel comfortable “coming to class,” to recognize that I am available to help them, and that I believe that they can succeed. The quote below is from my syllabus, but email me and I’ll share my syllabus – or give you access to my course.

“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, join you in class discussions to help you understand course concepts, 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. (from my Summer 2018 PSY 370 syllabus)

2. Opportunities to meet. In my syllabus and on my D2L site I offer to meet my class in person, by phone, or via Zoom and, while I received many emails, I only had one phone call and two in-person visits (no Zoom). It’s the offer that matters.

I also subscribe to my Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board, where I encourage students to ask their questions about the course (I tell them to email me more personal questions). This Discussion Board makes me accessible and allows me to easily and quickly respond to my students’ questions.

3. Survey of attitudes and beliefs. I surveyed my students about their attitudes on the criminal justice and legal systems at both the beginning and end of the semester (using SurveyMonkey). This survey included questions related to the five weeks of our course. Each week I gave them the results of their survey – and at the end of the semester a comparison of their attitudes and beliefs between the beginning and end of the course. What am I saying to them? I’m curious about what you think and how you’re changing – and hope you are, too.

4. How are we doing? survey. As I discussed in an earlier post (Slattery, 2015), in the last week of the semester, I asked my students how the course had gone: What went well, what didn’t, what should we change? Does it matter to you when someone asks how something went? It matters to me.

5. Announcements. I post frequent announcements in the course: 17 in my five-week course (See an example in Figure 1). Next time I teach this class I might create another discussion board where I post my Announcements – allowing conversations about my announcements.

6. Videos. I created a series of short videos for the class (almost two for each of the 15 chapters assigned). I also recorded a welcome video, a tour of D2L, and videos on formatting papers in Word and using Turnitin. Students can both see and hear me in most of these videos. Early examples are included in an earlier blog (Slattery, 2015).

None of this is rocket science, but it doesn’t have to be. What I did – all of what I did – required a fair amount of time, but it will take less the next time I teach this course.  Many are not time intensive and are tweaks of things that I was already using in my face-to-face courses. Start small and implement the pieces that you’re ready for.

I don’t find teaching online as rewarding as teaching face-to-face, but the things I’ve described here are not only helpful for my students but also make this mode of teaching more rewarding for me. Just as students want real interactions with us, I want and need to have more substantive interactions with my students.

Interested in finding out more? Talk to me – or Darla and Sue in the Learning Technology Center (LTC) – for more information on regular and substantive interactions, additional examples, and help with your online course development.


Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin. Retrieved from

Dunlap, J. C., & Lowenthal, P.R. (2014). The power of presence: Our quest for the right mix of social presence in online courses. In A.P. Mizell & A. A. Piña (Eds.), Real life distance education: Case studies in practice (pp. 41-66). Greenwhich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Kilgore, W., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2015). The Human Element MOOC: An experiment in social presence. In R. D. Wright (Ed.), Student-teacher interaction in online learning environments (pp. 373-391). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Ragan, L. C. (2009). 10 principles of effective online teaching: Best practices in distance education. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Slattery, J. M. (2015). Strengthen an online course: Videos and midsemester course assessments. Hand in Hand. Retrieved from

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

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

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Career Development Across the Curriculum


Erin Lewis

– Erin Lewis

What did YOU want to be when you were growing up?  Thinking back to my own childhood, careers such as pediatrician, teacher, and, of course, rock star all crossed my mind.  Those perspectives changed slightly by the time I was 17, but like most traditional incoming freshmen, I had a limited exposure to careers and did not receive much guidance to conduct any sort of career research as a high school student.  I selected a college major based on something I was good at (music) and something I enjoyed (teaching) and then went through the motions of successfully obtaining a music education degree.  While the degrees may be different; the process I used to plan and prepare for my career is not unlike that of most of our current students.

In career development, we often talk with students about how their majors may not necessarily be their careers.  Like many of the individuals who work at Clarion University, I am a perfect example of this scenario.  Throughout the four years of my undergraduate degree, quality time was spent on teaching me how to be an effective teacher, but very little time on teaching me HOW to actually prepare to find a job as a teacher.  In fact, this was not talked about in my classes – even student teaching. Fortunately, I connected with my career center thanks to a referral from one of my peers, and I became one of the few students who actually felt prepared for teacher job fairs and filling out the standard application.

When do OUR Clarion University students connect with their Career Center?  Well – in most instances, students don’t seek out their Career Center because they think they are already prepared.  However, we know from an Association of American Colleges and Universities survey that employers disagree (Jaschik, 2015).  In 2015, 400 employers and 613 students were surveyed. Students rated their preparedness of career readiness skills—including communication, ethical judgment, critical thinking, teamwork, creativity, and other skills—considerably higher than employers rated students’ preparedness in those same areas. Partnerships between faculty and the Career Center can help students consciously build these skills and more accurately assess their career readiness.

Even before it was trendy or common to do so (Beverly, Hayes-Sauder, & Sefton, 2016), the Clarion University Center for Career and Professional Development staff started to embed career development into the curriculum to better reach our students.  What began in 2007 as a partnership with Dr. Chad Smith—who assigned a résumé review to all students enrolled in Management 120—has become a four-year career development plan for all students across all majors at Clarion University. See Professional Development Plan.


Since this plan got started in a Management course, it may not come as a surprise to know that career development is embedded into the curriculum throughout the College of Business Administration and Information Systems. At every level from freshman to graduate student, there is some sort of assignment, classroom presentation, or a combination of both, in which students must participate with their career liaison, Josh Domitrovich, in order to receive a grade, participation credit, or bonus points.

The same four-year plan that works for Business majors is adapted to meet the varying needs of Psychology majors.  Students who take Abnormal Psychology (a 300-level class) receive classroom presentations on cover letters and résumé writing and are then assigned to meet with a Career Center staff member to receive feedback using a rubric. One thing that makes the psychology collaboration special is how it has evolved and progressed over the years.  What started as just a one-class partnership has expanded to junior and senior Psychology majors meeting with their career liaison for career consultations and mock interviews. Many attend professional development events to earn a digital badge.  Assignments take place in several courses, build across each other, and can be customized to individual students and their needs. For all of these tasks, students earn a grade toward their class requirements.

According to Dr. Jeanne Slattery, this collaboration has benefited both the faculty and students.

“I have always felt our work together to be a true collaboration. Each semester break when we meet, Erin is considering what she can do to more effectively help my students meet their goals. My students and I appreciate that Erin has been willing to tailor her collaboration with them to their particular goals – work or graduate school, interviewing or résumés.  My students, who are generally anxious about graduating and getting jobs, have felt well-prepared as a result of this work, especially relative to their fellow students in other departments and majors.  I don’t have the time and expertise to work intensely with my students on career issues. My heart is in the right place, but I can only do so much. Erin’s “co-teaching” has been very helpful – and appreciated.”

Partnerships and true collaborations extend beyond the classroom for faculty in the School of Education.  They have united resources, contacts and time to partner with the Career Center to create a one-day mock interview event for student teachers.  Additionally, students in ECH 417 and ED417 participate in résumé reviews with their career liaison Diana Brush prior to going on their field experience.

Here’s what a recent graduate, Aubrey Monte, says about her work with the Career Center:

Collaborations are also happening in Nutrition and Fitness.  Bill Bailey, director of the Center and career liaison to Healthcare, Life Sciences, and Exploratory has worked to build partnerships with ATSW 402, Nutrition and Fitness Seminar 402. Similar to the collaborations in Business, Psychology, and Education, Dr. Carol Brennan-Caplan’s students experience a classroom presentation on résumé writing and interviewing skills, complete résumé reviews with Career Center staff, and are required to earn a digital badge by participating in professional development events.

These partnerships and collaborations all have ONE thing in common: faculty endorsement.  Over the past few years, our office has conducted several student-based focus groups to learn more about how to increase student participation at career events and how to engage them to utilize our services , as well as investigating the best ways for students to receive information from their Career Center.  Consistently, students report that when faculty encourage them to go to something, visit an office, offer bonus points, or just require an assignment, they are more likely to do it.

The Career Center staff are committed to growing the four-year plan across Clarion’s campus to reach even more students.  Over the past three years, we have created new curriculum-based collaborations with more than 40 faculty, including faculty in Communication, English, Math, Chemistry, Education, Business, Library Science, Athletic Training, Nutrition and Fitness, Nursing, Speech-Language Pathology, and the Honors Program, to enhance what is already being done in the classroom, without creating additional work for faculty.  We welcome the opportunity to talk with you about how we can partner to help your students!


Beverly, E., Hayes-Sauder, M., Sefton, R. (2016). Embedding career management competency into curricula. National Association of Colleges and Employers. Retrieved from

Jaschik, S. (2015). Well-prepared in their own eyes. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Erin Lewis has worked in career development at Clarion University since 2007. She is the career liaison to Arts, Communication, Languages and Public & Human Services, as well as, Environmental & Natural Resources and Math. Erin lives in Clarion, with her husband Mike, an Oil & Gas Administrator for the US Forest Service, and their three children, Jesse, Tyler, and Lacie.  In addition to her work in Career Development, Erin is a classically trained singer, teaches private voice lessons, and performs on a regular basis throughout Western Pennsylvania.

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