Syllabi: A tool to build success

Jeanne Slattery

– Jeanne M. Slattery

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

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

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

Why do we need syllabi?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should we consider?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Strategies for success.

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

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

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


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

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

Finding their why.

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Gannon, K. (2019). How to create a syllabus: Advice guide. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

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

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

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

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

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Adulting 101

– Jeanne M. Slattery

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

Intro to Counseling students at their “final”

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

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

What am I doing?  

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

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

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

A “final” at Michelle’s???

Seniors at the Undergraduate Research Conference

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

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

What makes these things work?

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

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

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

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

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Dear Bully in the Classroom

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

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


Ms. Scholar at work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grant, A. (2019). How to deal with a jerk without becoming a jerk. New York Times. Retrieved from

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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Reflections on Retirement

– Janina M. Jolley

Janina Jolley


This morning, I stood in front of my class to deliver the last lecture of my career. After 38 years of teaching, this was the long-anticipated moment when I would walk through the door to retirement. But as I stood before my class, delivering a lecture on dying and bereavement, what I did not anticipate were the tears of grief that interrupted my words. As a gerontologist, I understood that retirement should be about moving toward new opportunities rather than running away from the present. This was a moment that I had prepared for and felt ready to embrace. So why the tears?

I played a video clip of Morrie Swartz, the focus of the book and movie “Tuesdays with Morrie” (Swartz, 1979). As he contemplated his impending death, he too was crying. Through his tears, he advised us to embrace our emotions and “when we feel our tears come, let them come––Cry freely.” The clip ended, and I attempted to lead a discussion about the process of dying and grief. I did not wish to follow Morrie’s advice during my final moments teaching, but I had no choice.

The last lecture

Although ending a career does not have the finality of losing one’s life, both mark an endpoint. What I miscalculated about my retirement was an assumption that grieving was for those who involuntarily retired or did not have a post-retirement plan that incorporated new ways of finding meaning in living. Although I assumed the university’s financial officers would be pleased to see a full professor retire, I believed that my colleagues and most students would be sad at my departure. My varied interests, commitment to local groups, friends and family ensured that I had a rewarding future. So why the tears?

Retiring from a career includes relinquishing roles that have provided structure and meaning to one’s life. Serving as mentor, colleague, scholar, editor, creator, and performer gave me a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Indeed, even as I prepared for my last lecture, I could not help but update it. But today I walked through the door and shed those long-held roles in exchange for the indistinct identity of “retired professor.”


It has been over 3 months since that last lecture. The ever-evolving kaleidoscope of life has transformed the sharp initial grief over leaving my career into the subtle blur of detachment from my former calling. Rather than a constant preoccupation with developing lectures and grading papers,  my calendar and mind are filled with new responsibilities and pursuits. I have found satisfaction in knocking on doors to gather signatures for candidates seeking political office, strumming my guitar during the monthly Clarion Folk Jam, and rocking out to my tunes on the elliptical at the YMCA. At this point in the transition, there are more things I want to do than there is time or energy.  Retirement has given me a greater sense of freedom to say and do what feels true to my character, and I better understand the research finding that most people who are over 60 are happier than younger people. I have entered a privileged time––a time to pursue old and fresh interests and explore new avenues of meaning.

No matter whether you are planning on retiring within the next few months, within the next few decades, or never, you have already discovered the truth in Carl Rogers’s observation that “The good life is a process, not a state of being.”[1]  Giving my best to a long career as a professor, grieving when it was time to let go of that identity, and now starting a fresh journey as an elder are meaningful moments in my process of living.


Albom, M. (1997). Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson. New York: Doubleday.

[1] On the occasion of my retirement,  my colleagues in the Psychology Department presented me with a framed picture that included this meaningful quotation.

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Making It Right

– Valerie Lorient

Valerie Lorient

I am a Haitian immigrant and a nontraditional student. I have experienced domestic violence and had mental health problems as a result. My financial resources have often been limited.

It has been a long time coming, but I am finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for my college career. 

I started college in 2010. Although I did not know what my major was going to be, I knew that I wanted to have a college degree and felt it was about time to start.  I started at community colleges (two in California and one in Pennsylvania) and finally earned my Associate’s degree from Butler Community College in 2017.  I am now nearing completion of my bachelor’s degree from Clarion University and plan to walk this May. 

Unfortunately, college has not been a cake walk. During these difficult periods I ran into problems because I did not have anyone calling or emailing to find out why I was missing class and/or assignments.  I know it’s not the job of instructors to hold the hand of their students, but being called to account for oneself is something that I needed and could have used.

I’ve also had some problems in the classroom when I’ve witnessed an instructor being derisive to another student.  Although it was not towards me, I felt the pain of it and it caused me to doubt myself because I saw myself as being no better than that student.  I’ve had other instructors who have demanded a lot from their students, but only because they believed in their students’ abilities. This was very empowering. I’ve also had instructors who have assigned a lot of work, but provided exact instructions as to how to complete the assignment – which made the workload manageable and more than doable. 

It has taken a lot of time management and personal attention to detail to get this far.  What has helped most has been attention from my instructors and their willingness to break down large assignments into little pieces.  It has helped that I’ve been encouraged by my instructors to see assignments through and that they have been available to hear out my thinking.  It was also helpful when faculty recognized and acknowledged the quality of my work – including as Psychology Student of the Month.

Receiving a scholarship from Mr. McFarland after a rough semester really showed his faith in my ability to do good work and increased my faith in myself at the same time.  And I wouldn’t have known to speak to him about a scholarship had it not been for my advisor, Dr. Slattery, who made herself available to me through it all.  Although she hadn’t reached out to me for my one bad semester (which would have helped a lot), her being available before and after really made this last semester possible. She helped me identify financial and emotional resources and provided me with options. 

Overall, the student body has been supportive of me and my learning – except for classes where I was told that I asked too many questions and felt threatened by a couple of students who made me doubt myself. 

But, I am finally on the last portion of my schooling and believe that I can make it through to the end.  I’ve had more wonderful instructors than not  – Dr. Ashcraft, especially – and that has really helped with my self-confidence. 

I am looking forward to graduating and hope that the future will contain more successes than failures.  I know that I could not have gotten this far without the helpful prodding of my advisor and those instructors who have bolstered my self-esteem and helped me identify the resources to continue through difficult times.

Valerie Lorient is a Sociology/Psychology major who graduates in May 2019. She lives in Brookville and love dogs (but doesn’t have any). French was her first language but is no longer the language of her conscious mind – English is. She loves to read fiction and enjoys mysteries, fantasy, and science fiction.

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Task-Based Instruction: Creating and Doing in the French Classroom

– Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

As I am preparing to retire after some 30 years of having taught French at the college level (that is, if I count my years as a Teaching Assistant and Teaching Fellow at Pitt), I occasionally ponder over what is the most successful teaching strategy that I have used to make my teaching of the French language more effective.

And I always come back to task-based instruction. Well, you may ask, what is that?

Task-based language teaching relies on classroom activities that require students to complete meaningful, real-world tasks using the target language. More focus is given to the successful completion of the task, rather than to linguistic accuracy. A task-based activity would, for example, consist in deciding with a friend on a movie to go and see together. The completion of this task would require:

  •  comparing schedules to decide on a day and time to go see the movie.
  • finding a movie that is suitable to both partners by looking at online movie sites, and
  • “negotiating” each other’s preferences so as to come to a consensus.

Task-based activities are wonderful, because they allow students to use the target language as a means to a meaningful end. As such, they foster language acquisition.

As stated by Glisan and Shrum (2016), their pedagogical value transcends that of mere “mechanical drills and exercises that have limited value in contributing to language acquisition and in developing communicative abilities” (p. 233).  This makes sense as studies on aphasia indicate that structure drill and repetition are not processed in the same part of the brain as communicative language production (R. Donato, Personal communication, cf. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2017).

I will discuss here two task-based activities that I have used in my French classes:

  • Selecting two roommates.
  • Producing a cooking video.

Project 1. Choosing Roommates.

This project – which I have implemented as a “getting acquainted” activity in my French conversation classes, as well as in the Advanced French Grammar class that I teach for the Pitt in Nantes program – includes two tasks:

  1. Students produce a PowerPoint presentation in which they introduce themselves and set parameters concerning potential roommates.
  2. Students review all of their peers’ presentations, select two roommates, and produce a video in which they state and explain their choices.

Detailed directions for Task 1 are provided to students on D2L, and discussed in class. I also provide students with a model for the PowerPoint presentation, which gives them a realistic template for their own “introduction” and explanation of what they are looking for (and want to avoid) in a roommate. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan’s model

An important part of this process is my review of this model in class, during which I call their attention to its organization (components), to its linguistic features (vocabulary, grammar), and rhetorical devices (expository devices, use of humor, etc.). This is referred to by some experts on modeling as the “critical framing” of one’s model. Note that students do not “copy” the model. They TRANSFORM it – i.e., they use the tools provided to them in the model to create their own project. See Figure 2.

Figure 2. A student’s response to this assignment.

Students find a model useful in this first assignment. Here are two students’ reflections on their work:

I used the PowerPoint that you provided as a template for my presentation. I just used the titles, like everyone else did, and added my own personal information and pictures.

In order to produce my PowerPoint presentation, I followed your model. I used the same titles as you did for my slides as a guideline. […] While I was reading everyone else’s presentations, I saw many things that I wish I could have written on mine.

For Task 2, I review all of my students’ PowerPoint presentations, and decide on the two that I would choose as roommates. Then, I record a video of myself, in which I explain whom I chose and why, and why I discarded the others.

Again, I review my video model with the class, pointing out to them its organization, linguistic features, and rhetorical devices. Again, in producing their own videos, students do not “copy” my model but, rather, appropriate and emulate it. In their reflections on the process involved in making their videos, students mostly focused on how they had prepared for it, and how nervous they had been videotaping themselves.

To make the video, I watched everybody’s PowerPoint presentations and made a list of things that I liked about them and things that I wasn’t so crazy about. I took into consideration what they liked and what kind of activities they were into and compared them to myself. I also looked at their descriptions of their personalities and tried to imagine what it would be like if the other person and I were to get together and spend a lot of time with each other to judge whether or not we would be compatible.

The part that was most difficult was the video. I was nervous being taped because of my pronunciation and content of the project. I was nervous that my content would not convey the point that I was trying to make. It was also nerve-racking to think that my pronunciation can hinder someone from understanding my video. […]

This video was created by one of my Pitt in Nantes students a few years ago:

Project 2. A Cooking Video

The final product of this project – which I assign as part of our unit on food in my third semester French class – is a video, in which two students prepare a simple recipe. I break down this task as follows:

  1. Students prepare a complete script of their cooking video (formatted as a traditional film script – i.e., it must describe their setting, and every step involved in the filming of this video, and include what they will be saying.) Of course, that script is written in French. I also model that part of the project, and review my model with the class, making sure to go over the vocabulary and grammatical structures necessary for this task. I review the students’ scripts during individual conferences with each team.
  2. Students record their cooking show. I post my own cooking video on D2L, which I produced some years ago, as well as a few cooking videos done by students in previous years (I find it extremely useful to show students what their peers from previous years were able to do). I strongly encourage them not to read a script, although it is quite obvious that most of them are still reading a written document or cue cards. Students are typically quite creative for this part of the project, and a number of them even include bloopers at the end of their videos!

This cooking video was produced by two students – one of whom was a communications major, which explains its rather polished nature:

Concluding remarks:

Modeling tasks, and reviewing models with students provide them with:

  •    A clear sense of what is expected of them.
  •    Helpful guidelines for performing these tasks.
  •    The necessary linguistic tools for completing them.

I enjoy working on and reviewing these assignments. As one student comments here, they realize the value of task-based activities in improving their proficiency in French:

In general, I really enjoy these assignments.  It seems very practical and I like how what we do in class and before we have an assignment like this prepares us to do it.  It’s also interesting to prepare something instead of a paper or a written assignment.

Note: All students gave their permission for their work to be featured in this piece.


Glisan, J. L., & Shrum, E. W. (2016). Teacher’s handbook: Contextualized language instruction (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.

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Inquiry Seminars: Am I Teaching?

– Paul Woodburne

Paul Woodburne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do They Learn?

Celebration of Learning

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

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

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

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

Was I Teaching?

Three of Paul’s students

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

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


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

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

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