He Made a Difference

– Jeanne M. Slattery

JMS hugging 2012 or so

Jeanne Slattery

I heard a story recently that got me thinking. A student emailed a faculty member asking him whether he was going to go to graduation. He was not her advisor and had never had her in class. He couldn’t even remember who she was, but thought maybe they’d met to resolve an academic problem she was having.

He went to graduation, at least partially because she’d asked him. She was happy to see him there and excitedly introduced him to her parents. He was glad to meet them.

There are two ways that I look at this story. On the one hand, sometimes the little things are all that’s needed to make a real difference for our students. Making eye contact with our students, learning their names, and recommending opportunities that suit them well, each of these things – and more – can make a significant impact in our students’ lives.

On the other hand, I wonder about this student’s experience  – in life, at our university. How could such a small contact make such a large impact? Could this really have been one of the most important interactions of this student’s tenure?

In the weeks and months since first hearing this story, I’ve gone back and forth between these two perspectives. I now believe that he really did something meaningful for her (perhaps not for him), but that other people probably did as much or more for her each and every day. Perhaps he helped her resolve some problem that she thought couldn’t be resolved. Perhaps he was just in the right place at the right time: it was one of those terrible, awful, no good, very bad days that we all have, and he happened to listen to her, take her seriously, and make a difference.

There are things that people have said to me at various points in my life – both good and bad – that have stuck with me and made a difference. Sometimes little things do matter.

We never know when we will make a difference: we can treat each moment with our students as if this is the one that will make the difference. And this one and this one…

Who was he? He was a history professor, but it could have been any of us. On this Thanksgiving, we thank him and all of you for what you do.


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: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

 

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Dear Devastated and Embarrassed

Dear Ms. Scholar, I received my first grade complaint this year, and I don’t know what to do. I am devastated that my student would complain, as I bent over backwards for her at several points this semester. I’m also embarrassed that my department chair and dean might believe the really outrageous complaints that this student made. Any suggestions?

writing

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Devastated and Embarrassed, Grade complaints are really uncomfortable (really, really uncomfortable). Just remember: Students are not their grades, and you are not their complaints.

I wish handling the uncomfortable feelings was that easy. Given that it’s not, here are several things to consider:

  • Avoid acting impulsively. Speaking in the heat of the moment can lead you to say things that you don’t mean. When responding to their complaints, make sure that you choose a time and place when you can respond calmly and assertively rather than aggressively and impulsively.
  • Stop and reflect. Is there a kernel of truth to what the student said? Did you really act fairly? Did you provide the necessary information to help them understand why they lost points and how to do better next time? If the student had a reasonable complaint (or partially reasonable complaint), admit it, learn from it, and move on.
  • Document, document, document. Administrators adjudicating a complaint can only respond given the information available. What do your syllabus, assignment, and rubric say? How did you respond in emails and other communication trails?

Ms. Scholar recently had a student make a complaint about her final grade and struggled with many of the issues you describe. Some parts of the student’s complaint made sense, while other parts didn’t. For example, she complained about how Ms. Scholar determined test grades, clearly not understanding what a percentage means. Her email complaint to the dean – completely bypassing the chair – was unfocused and not written in standard English.

On the other hand, while Ms. Scholar has and uses many rubrics, she didn’t use one for a particular reflection assignment. The student didn’t understand why she only earned 9/10 for the assignment – because you didn’t develop your ideas to the degree that earns 10/10. In this case, the student’s complaint was at least partially valid. As a result, Ms. Scholar developed a rubric for the next time she teaches this course and uses this assignment. We can use student complaints as opportunities to identify problems and strengthen our teaching.

People responding to student complaints cannot see our behaviors in the classroom; they can only make inferences about the fairness and accuracy of these complaints. They can read our syllabus, then determine whether our grading system was fair and whether we follow the rules outlined in our syllabus and assignments. They can determine whether the student complaint is consistent with their own observations of our teaching or our discussions of our students and teaching. They can look at our communications on D2L or via email to see whether we were fair and respectful.

At some level, then, to respond effectively to a grade complaint, we have to be proactive. Before a complaint is ever made, we need to cultivate a reputation of being thoughtful, hardworking, fair, and unbiased – as well as be each of these things. Any student complaint to the contrary would go against the evidence built up over the course of our careers.

Finally, Malcolm Gladwell (2005) described research on which doctors are sued. He argues that being sued has very little to do with whether or how many mistakes a doctor makes; instead, “patients file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care and something else happens” (p. 40). People are less likely to complain about physicians they like. Ms. Scholar is not recommending that you give As regardless of student performance; however, she believes it is wise to listen carefully and thoughtfully to students and respond assertively rather than aggressively to their complaints.

These recommendations don’t necessarily address your uncomfortable feelings, but perhaps they do offer some ways of responding to the complaint that will be less painful or that will prevent future complaints. – Ms. Scholar

References

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.


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

 

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It’s November

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Mel Michel

– Mel Michel

It’s November. It’s just past midterms and there are still three weeks ‘til the Thanksgiving break.

And everybody is getting squirrelly.

I started the semester so full of enthusiasm this year. Fresh from the Partners retreat, where I learned all kinds of new techniques especially for freshmen, I initially was only supposed to teach upperclassman this semester. At the last minute I was assigned a large section intro class of mostly freshmen. Hot diggity! I got to use all the new tools I just learned!

I jumped in with so much energy – it felt for weeks like my first semester as a college professor. From double entry journals to new ways of taking attendance I felt a connection with my teaching and these young first year students that I hadn’t felt in years.

And now, it’s past midterm. I still have a pile of mid-term papers to finish while also preparing a theatre production that opens in ten days. Attendance has been a little more spotty in my classes, despite my pretty harsh attendance policy, I’m behind on grading homework, students are beginning to send panicked emails about passing the class and in general the shine seems to have worn off.

And yet… November also reminds me to be grateful. If I can continue to drum up my enthusiasm for what I refer to as “the Mel Michel show, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 10 am,” maybe I can model to the students the power of showing up. In my class, attendance is actually about ¼ of the total points for the semester, so it is indeed important. But it goes beyond just trying to tow the line. I try to model to the students the joy of creativity, laughing at one self, working with one another and the awe of an open mind. And in seeing them wake up (sometimes literally) in class, the trudge toward Thanksgiving break seems a little less steep.

November. Three more weeks ’til break. The novelty has worn off, I’m trying to keep my eye and my students’ eyes on the prize, and the clichés are flowing thick and heavy. How do you stay grateful? How do you face the faces in the daily-ness of life? We can all benefit from each other’s stories and ideas.

And there’s always turkey and pie to look forward to.


Mel Michel is professor of theatre at Clarion University. In addition to coordinating the musical theatre program, she is a yoga teacher and holistic life coach. Check out her website livelivelybewell.com

 

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Dear Dress Code

Dear Ms. Scholar, I am a new faculty member and started the year off wearing blue jeans, but now that I’m looking around at my colleagues, many of whom are wearing ties or dresses. I’m now questioning my dress code decision. What do you think?

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Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Dress Code, The choices you make in your first professional position are always a bit risky, including in how you dress: you want to be true to yourself, but also fit in.

Some departments have clear messages about what one should do in a number of realms (e.g., how you  dress, how long to be in your office each day, how to talk to students, how active to be on campus committees). They may actively mentor new faculty into the departmental culture.

In other departments, this isn’t as clear. Who do they expect you to be? What do they expect from you? As there are many ways that you can behave that are true to you, it can be helpful to ask your colleagues about their expectations. On the other hand, you can observe those people on campus who you look up to and use them as models.

Clothing tells people about us. Many of our students are particularly aware of dress, fashion, and style. What we wear may help us announce that we are competent adults rather than the kids that many of us look and feel like when we first enter academia. More professional dress may help create a boundary between students and faculty, when little initially differentiates the two in terms of age or culture. It may also communicate your respect of your students or your field. Maybe this attitude is left over from my Catholic church-attending days.

On the other hand, how much of a barrier do we want between our students and ourselves? Perhaps this is a personal choice tied to our ideas about pedagogies. Ms. Scholar has three friends who are all respected faculty members, each of whom make notably different decisions about teaching apparel.

When Ms. Scholar first took a position in academe, there were repeated stories about the relationship between dress and student evaluations. As the story went, men wearing ties earned stronger student evaluations, as did women wearing dresses (or dress clothing).

Some evidence suggests that these are not just stories. Informal dress may increase approachability, but that more professional dress may lead to higher ratings of competence (Basow, 1998). Of course, there are other strategies that can foster perceptions of competence, at least as measured by student evaluations: identify your qualifications the first day of class; nurture but don’t overnurture; and review course goals before student evaluations are completed.

Lavin, Davies, and Carr (2010) argue that the relationship between dress and perceived competence is even more complex, at least among business students. In their sample, three variables contributed most to instructor credibility: level of preparation, knowledge of the subject, and ability to prepare students for their career. However, their research suggests students expect casually-dressed instructors to use more discussion and answer questions, while more formally-dressed instructors are expected to lecture and impart knowledge.

In some ways, choosing a style of dress is tied to the other sorts of questions you ask yourself about pedagogy. Who do you want to be as a professor? What type of boundaries do you want to create between yourself and your students? How can you most effectively help your students meet their learning goals?

References

Basow, S. A. (1998). The role of gender bias in student evaluations. In L. H. Collings, J. C. Chrisler, and K. Quina (Eds.). Career strategies for women in academe: Arming Athena (pp. 135-156). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lavin, A., Davies, T., & Carr, D. (2010). The impact of instructor attire on student perceptions of faculty credibility and their own resultant behavior. American Journal of Business Education, 3, 51-62.


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

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The Language We Use

– Jeanne M. Slattery and Melissa K. Downes

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Jeanne Slattery and Melissa Downes

Words matter. Words can hurt another person’s feelings. The words we use and the words we hear can hide people’s strengths or help people recognize their abilities (e.g., pathology-focused vs. Person First Language). Sometimes we “don’t mean” what is heard – we don’t intend to hurt the other person – but bottom line, we still did.

Because our job includes serving as mentors, guides, coaches, and advisors, we need to be thoughtful with our language. We can’t perform these tasks effectively when we allow our students to believe that they can’t learn or that they have little responsibility for the learning process, or that learning, when it happens, is done to them. While we need to help our students listen better – and we need to listen better ourselves – the words we use when we evaluate and respond to to our students can either hinder growth or open new possibilities.

Here is a common example of poor language: “How could you give me that grade?” We don’t give our students grades, they earn them. We don’t fail our students, they fail to do the work (or fail to show us the work). We aren’t hurting our students’ futures when we assign particular grades, as grades reflect the skills they failed to learn

When we write syllabi and assignments and when we talk with our students, both of us try to communicate that our students are active contributors to their learning and the way the class goes. We also want them to know that we’re with them in this endeavor. For example, in Jeanne’s classroom, instead of hearing her say, “I’m going to discuss…” you’d hear her say “We’re going to discuss…” (Melissa does this, too.)

Both students and teachers need to investigate the terms they use and the assumptions behind them. When students say they didn’t learn anything or that they’re bored in class, whose responsibility is that? Boredom is mostly internally generated. Of course, we contribute to their learning process with our passion, by choosing examples and metaphors that help them understand ideas better, but we can’t make them learn. Going to class every day helps, but students need to actively engage to learn.

Just as we ask our students to think critically, define their terms, and be aware of the assumptions behind their words, we too need to be conscious of our language and its impact. What do we mean when we say that something is unacceptable or is not quality work?

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Table 1. Fixed vs. growth mindset (Dweck, 2006)

We need to be aware of our language as well as theirs: When students say they “can’t write well,” both of us frequently tag their complaints with “yet”: You can’t write well yet. Professors can hurt students when they let them believe that they aren’t good at writing or math or whatever and that they can’t get better. What’s the largest difference between “good students” and those who aren’t? It’s what they believe about themselves (fixed vs. growth mindset; Dweck, 2006) and what they do (e.g, time invested, strategies used; McGuire, 2012). See Table 1. Given this, we need to talk about the things they can do to learn how to write well or master other challenging skills. Both of us sometimes describe the difficulties we had when we first started seriously writing.

You can’t write well yet.

You’re not good at math yet.

You don’t have effective study habits yet.

While Dweck (2006) argues that we hurt our students when we say or let them say that they aren’t good at math (or writing or whatever), we can also hurt our “A students” when we say that they are “smart,” or “good at math.” Such language helps create a fixed mindset and undermines grit when the going gets tough (and it always does). Emphasizing the work they’ve put in – You really worked hard on this paper! – creates a growth mindset and builds grit, persistence, and resilience. We want our students to recognize the necessity of hard work and to persevere even when an assignment is “hard.”

Sometimes our culture belittles careful or inclusive language as “politically correct,” perhaps suggesting that such language obfuscates a situation or out-and-out lies. The statement, You can’t write well yet, would be inappropriate if it were untrue. We should be genuine and truthful.

We need to be careful how we talk to students about their learning, but we also need to be careful in how we think about them and this process. If we don’t really believe that our students can learn – when they put the work in – they will recognize the lie for what it is.


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: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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

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Finding My Why

– Paul Woodburne

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Paul Woodburne

I liked Leah Chambers’ piece in HIH about ‘finding her why.’ I like teaching and always have. My parents knew from the time I was young that I would be a faculty professor. I enjoy the work, but Leah’s piece asked me to reflect on WHY I do it. I was initially unable to answer that seemingly simple question. It was not until after some very nice brain picking, aided by generous dollops of caffeine and congenial company, that something like an answer began to surface.

I think that the experience of the last several years has contributed to my misplacing my ‘Why’. Over the past few years we have been hit with many things with which we feel legitimate dissatisfaction. Morale has been lower than it has ever been, and folks are, understandably, less than interested in doing work beyond that required when we have felt undervalued and underappreciated. When we get together, the conversation often revolves around dissatisfaction with our jobs. This has become the glue that holds many of us together.

This attitude is not healthy for us. Many of us find it impossible to generate and expend the energy to do good work for ourselves, the students, the university and community when our glue is a negative glue.

If this situation has caused many of us to misplace our ‘Whys,’ then we need to find a new glue, our reason for being here. Most of us got into teaching to teach, to reach new minds, to mold thinking, to excite young people about what our fields have to offer, etc. Over the past few years we have been distracted by frequent crises. Students, and our teaching, used to be much more central to our life.

To recapture a lost ‘Why,’ I need to intentionally and deliberately put my effort back into my students and my teaching.

Clarion is among the top schools in PASSHE in attracting transfer students. These students are a main driver of increased enrollment. These students were somewhere else and were dissatisfied. They are ‘finicky’ shoppers and have the least initial connection to Clarion. They are also some of our most important students at this juncture in our history. This current situation is a challenge, but it seems also to be the light at the end of the tunnel.

We have to work hard and teach well if we are to hold onto these students. Fortunately, if we do this well, we will attract other first-time-in-college students, who have been our bread and butter for most of our 150 years.

Doing ‘good teaching’ has many aspects. Among these are to be enthusiastic about the field, to treat students with respect, to stretch students’ thinking, to be clear in getting points across during class, and to be well versed in the best pedagogy and apply that pedagogy in class. All but the last are under our own control, though they may suffer under the conditions described above. The last aspect often requires some outside expertise, and/or faculty development.

Institutionalized faculty development has been one of the major casualties of the past few years of fiscal decline. I know that I have stagnated pedagogically during this time. I learned new techniques in years past. Some I still use, and others I do not. The ones that I still use are now 10-15 (or more) years old. With my time, intelligence, and attention distracted in different directions, my once favorite pedagogy may have fallen from favor. If so, I do not know it.

Fortunately, some bright spots exist. There are a number of individuals and groups on campus who fill much of the gap left by declines in institutional support. Partners in Teaching, Learning and Assessment has met for more than 20 years and held yearly workshops, recently with no financial support. The Learning Technology Center has sponsored two to three workshops per year for many years. The Center for First Year Experience is also reinvigorating the teaching climate at Clarion University. The new Freshman Inquiry Seminars were deliberately created to infuse high-impact practices into the classroom. I have learned a lot from the opportunities each offered.

I don’t have a timeless ‘Why’ I teach, but I have found a current ‘Why.’ After nearly 20 years at CUP, my current ‘Why’ is to redouble my efforts to teach as well as I can, to make students like my field, and leave college thinking like an economist about topics where that mindset is a good thing. In particular, I want to learn as much as I can about teaching effectively to those students who are currently those least connected to Clarion. The better I can reach those least connected, the better I can reach all my students.

In this age of limited funding, the main resource we have at Clarion is each other. Even if we have limited institutional funds for professional development, we have each other. We have the collected wisdom of a large number of committed faculty in a wide range of fields about what has worked and what they have learned. In this environment, perhaps we can make our own support. My ‘Why’ is to lead where I can, follow where I can, join where I can, contribute where I can, and do what I can do to connect to those least connected to Clarion University. I hope my colleagues will join me.

I will see you Friday afternoons at Michelle’s as often as I can.


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.

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Reflections on Discussion-Based Classrooms

– Melissa K. Downes

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

When I was being interviewed for my job here at Clarion, one of my soon-to-be colleagues asked me what I would do if no one talked in my classes. I told him I found it difficult to answer such a question since it had never happened to me in my then-seven years of teaching. After fifteen years of teaching at Clarion, I have a better sense of what he was asking and why. I have had days when getting a conversation going with my students was more than difficult. However, such days are few and far between. Why?

Let me let you in on a secret: my students make my classes. Discussion and what I call lecture/discussion are at the heart of many class sessions for almost every course I teach. I try to ask good, open-ended questions. I tend to have back-up questions that approach the issues I want to address in case students have not done or have had difficulty with the reading. I listen to my students, and I use what they say to build what happens next or to create my next question. I also make connections or show important contrasts between the different points my students raise. I facilitate my students as they make meaning. Is it any wonder I love my job?

I think active discussion is an important part of learning, and I think there are ways to make discussion effective across disciplines, though the smaller class size of many English classes certainly facilitates this approach. In all of my classes, in order to reach my goals and outcomes, I use lots of directed in-class discussions in various formats. I often use short in-class writings tied to a question prompt to give students more time to reflect and develop their answers and to allow my shyer students a script to aid them in adding their voices. I find these practices open up the conversation. Some part of creating effective discussions is enthusiasm (on the part of teacher and students), but such discussions are also tied to asking good questions from a range of approaches.

So what is a good question? As one might expect, open-ended questions (why, how, etc.) usually build discussion more effectively than closed questions. When I use closed questions, they are more often used to poll responses or as a springboard into an open-ended question: if yes, why? if no, why not? I try to avoid loaded or judgmental language in my questions (or I make fun of myself and highlight the bias as I ask). I also find it useful to reiterate some key point I want them to remember as part of the set-up for the question. This reinforces that key point, but also frames the question, putting it in the context of larger course issues. I also like questions that make connections across texts:

How would you compare the fictional Wife of Bath to the real Margery Kempe or to the Margery of Kempe’s work? How might you compare the Wife of Bath to the other Alison in “The Miller’s Tale”?

While  the content of the questions we ask will vary across disciplines, these basic heuristics will apply often in most fields.

In a recent College Writing class session, after we had read Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid” and watched Sherry Turkle’s TedTalk, “Connected, but Alone?”, I only had to ask two prepared questions to get quite a rich discussion going:

  1. What are all the positive things you can tell me about your smartphone and your use of it?
  2. What are the negative aspects of smartphone use?

By the way, I think that asking these questions in that order strengthened the discussion; many of my students are deeply attached to their phones and resent the implication that their phone use could be detrimental. They were much more willing to discuss their own concerns or respond to the concerns of others after their values had been heard.

Discussion-Group-headsIn my field, part of asking good questions is to avoid building questions that assume only one right answer. (I know this approach might not work as well in all aspects of all disciplines.) There are multiple valid ways to interpret texts or to approach writing. I also try to undercut assumptions (in myself and in my students) that the answer to a question is the only point: part of the point is the process by which we get to an answer and the importance of hearing both different, reasonable answers and different processes for getting there. Such issues seem fundamental to inquiry and critical thinking.

An important part of good discussions is listening, on everyone’s part, but especially on the part of the professor. Many of the discussions in my classroom are generated spontaneously, from the needs or ideas of my students (what I call planned-for spontaneity). To make such spontaneous discussions effective one must listen well, use what students have to say, and purposefully build a web from their interconnected ideas.

It is not that I don’t prepare: I know my material well. I always reflect on where I want my students to arrive and plan the arc for how I think we might get there. However, my written lesson plans are more often lists of things I want to make sure not to forget – terms, concepts, dates, and points of emphasis that might get lost in the excitement of a classroom discussion if I don’t have them noted down.

Many of my courses are labor-intensive for both students and teacher. I purposely infuse the course with humor, visuals, and lots of large group and small group discussion in order to make the labor more enjoyable, if not lighter. However, for a while after I created pretty PowerPoints and Prezis to model some of my department’s new outcomes associated with multimodal argument, I found my students being more passive and myself doing more lecturing than lecture/discussion. I have moved some of those multimodal lessons to outside-class reading/viewing and am much more conscious now when I use them in the classroom not to let them lull us into teacher-centered practices: I have flipped my classes back to what they need to be. Still, I sometimes struggle to find the balance my students need (even more so in a content-heavy class like the early British literature survey), and I wonder how others find a balance between content and discussion.

Jeanne Slattery observed me some years ago: when she noted that I “generally operated by raising questions that [I] expected [my] students to think about and respond to, although these questions were not raised in a rigid order, but appeared often to be in response to the students’ own thoughts about the text,” she identified the center of my teaching practice: my students and what they say are the material around which I build the class. Because of this, even on my most performative or “sage-like” day, my classrooms are student-centered.

There are many rewards to a student-focused, discussion-based classroom. One of my favorite moments from this year (so far) was when one of my students stayed after our smartphone discussion to ask, “Are we going to have more of these discussions? This was fun!”

For further reading:

Getty, A. (2014). Letting the students lead class discussions. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/letting-students-lead-class-discussions/

Gonzalez, G. (2015). The big list of class discussion strategies. Cult of Pedagogy. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/speaking-listening-techniques/

Lang, J. M. (2015). Building a better discussion. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Building-a-Better-Discussion/231685


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

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