How does consolidation impact our students, families, and community?

– Jackie Knaust (Chemistry)

The following comments reflect Dr. Knaust’s full comments, so include a section deleted to meet the requested 2-3 minute time limit.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today to express my concerns about the consolidation plan. My name is Jacqueline Knaust. I am an assistant professor of Chemistry at Clarion University.

Like many of my Clarion students I come from a rural background, a working-class family, and am a first-generation college graduate.  I am here today to ask you vote no or to delay consolidation.

Chancellor Greenstein made the following comments in his July 2020 remarks to the Board of Governors on the importance of our regional institutions: He stated:

“We need to maintain or expand high quality educational opportunities for students across Pennsylvania. It’s our mission. Not just any student; it’s a particular kind of student, the low and middle income students that we were born to serve. Those who are not served elsewhere, the underserved.” (Board of Governors, July 2020)

And he also stated:

“there is evidence in rural America, including our part of rural America, that students who are unable to attend their regional universities aren’t just getting in the car or on a plane. They don’t go to college.” (Board of Governors, July 2020)

I understand that the goal of consolidation is to

“increase opportunities for students while ensuring our institutions are here to serve for decades to come.”  (Board of Governors, July 2020).

But I am not convinced that this plan assures my students – those “underserved students who will not just get in a car or on a plane to attend elsewhere” – the same opportunities as a students who can attend one of our sister schools not slated for consolidation, a state related school or a private institution (Board of Governors, July 2020). 

I am concerned that this plan does not fully outline economic and social impacts on local communities. Have you considered what happens when just one faculty member leaves the community? Like many faculty members, I am a transplant to the area and my only tie to the community is the university. I love my Clarion Community, and would happily devote my entire career to teaching here, but if my job goes away so do I. I will not be able to stay in this community that I love. I will do a nationwide search for a new teaching position or job in industry, and I will move away.

But it will not be just me leaving. With me go my husband and our three children. Luckily, my husband is not also an academic so we won’t deal with a two-body search problem, but when he leaves the area, a mental health professional, and religious education director at a local church are lost. My 16-year old son will have to give up his job as a host at the local microbrewery, and my family will no longer be patronizing that establishment or any of the other local eateries. My 15-year old daughter will give up her job at the local ice-cream shop, and we won’t be shopping at the local clothing boutique where she used her first paycheck yesterday to buy a new outfit. If my family leaves the area, we won’t be buying cars from the local dealership like we did in 2019 and 2020. If my family leaves the area so does the monthly rent I pay…rent because even as a tenured faculty member with 10 years invested in this community my husband and I are hesitant to purchase a house that might be difficult to sell if I suddenly need to do a national search for employment.

Again, I ask that you vote no or to delay consolidation. The concerns raised by students, faculty, staff, and community members in these public hearings are more than just “Issues of Clarity and Points of Confusion.”  While I know that the Board of Governors are not at liberty to answer questions at this time, I would ask if the public comments are used to change or improve the plan itself, or only to change how the plan is communicated to us? 

Using the public comments to substantially improve a hastily prepared plan would support the Chancellor’s narrative that this is a transparent, consultative and course correcting process.  However, using the comments only to try to explain the plan better leaves me wondering if the public comment period and public hearing are just theater? 

Thank you.

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Is Consolidation Good for our Students?

– Jeanne M. Slattery (Psychology)

Jeanne Slattery and students, celebrating the semester

Last summer, Chancellor Dan Greenstein of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) proposed integrating Clarion, California, and Edinboro Universities into one new university. A similar consolidation of Lock Haven, Mansfield, and Bloomsburg universities is also underway. Planning is currently underway and moving very quickly; a final proposal will be voted on by the Board of Governors in July 2021.

If this plan is approved, there will be an enormous disruption to our students and their communities, with very little expected payoff. The proposed plan will cost Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $11 million over five years. The Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) published a detailed look at the economic impact of workforce reductions across the PASSHE system, comparing the impact on a county with having a local plant close (Ash et al., 2021). In total, PASSHE plans to eliminate 1,531 jobs by 2023 as part of its system-wide redesign (Whitford, 2021).

Increased access???

Chancellor Greenstein argues that the proposed consolidation will expand opportunities for students. Students will have more access to courses from other schools when they are offered online or multimodally. Chancellor Greenstein expects:

  • robust dual enrollment strategies that strengthen high school pipelines while strengthening the academic preparedness of incoming students and improving their chance of completion;
  • strategies for providing targeted supplemental instruction to students who require it without impeding progress towards their degree;
  • fully online undergraduate degree and degree completion options for students whose life circumstances don’t permit a residential program; [and]
  • non-degree programs that support adults looking to reskill and upskill in the job market (Greenstein, 2021, para. 31-35)

As Chancellor Greenstein notes here and elsewhere, integration will serve some of our students well.

Problems with consolidation

Despite Chancellor Greenstein’s optimism about consolidation, students’ options will be restricted, not expanded by integration, with many programs being either eliminated or available only online. If the major of your dreams is offered at a school close to your home or if it is available at the school you started at, you’re in luck, but many students change majors in their first two years. They are likely to be locked out of their preferred major.

Students in many “face-to-face” programs will need to become heavily reliant on courses offered from their sister schools. My students, for example, will be able to take Evolutionary Psychology and Psychology of Creativity, courses unavailable at Clarion for the foreseeable future. This is a win for our students and our program. However, our university and department are being squeezed so much that we are also unable to offer Statistics, a foundations course for our major that does not easily translate to online. I worry that students who need more support will struggle in taking Statistics under these circumstances.

Some students do well online and can even excel under these circumstances. Eric Mazur, for example, concluded “online teaching is better” (McMurtrie, 2021, para. 4). However, Harvard students are different than most students nationwide, and Mazur offered a much more intensive and immersive experience than is typical of most online – or face-to-face courses. I would argue, online teaching can be better under ideal situations for some subjects, students, and faculty.

Students who do well online – and most of our students will need to be online some – need to have relatively strong study and organizational skills, good motivation for the material, and focus. They must set aside enough time to succeed. In short, they will behave more like Harvard students.

Students who struggle online tend to be overextended – working several jobs, parenting children and stepchildren – and are often weakly motivated. They may not understand the importance of college or the purpose of class assignments (cf. Anderson, 2021). When face-to-face, they can obtain the support they need. When online, they may fall through the cracks: multi-tasking when synchronous remote, forgetting or overlooking assignments when online.

What do students want?

Last Fall, during COVID, I asked my students how they would like me to offer my courses in the Spring. Of students responding, 24% asked that their classes be taught online, 34% that they be taught online synchronously, and 41% – in the midst of COVID – asked that their courses be taught face-to-face. My classes, of course, are not representative of all Psychology majors or students at Clarion university as a whole.

Interestingly, 23.33% of these students reported doing a little or much better remotely, while almost three times as many students reported doing a little or much worse (63%).

In sum, some students do prefer online classes or at least appreciate their convenience, but many are unhappy with remote classes, feeling that they are impersonal and less effective for them.

What do students need that they might not find online?

Many of our students need to be known. They need to know that their faculty see them as able to succeed. They often need people who will hold out their hand when they’re sinking. They need faculty who help them make the connections between assignments and “after college” (Anderson, 2021). They need people who actively mentor them and inform them of internships, jobs, graduate school, etc. They need faculty who know them and who can write meaningful letters of recommendation for them.

  • Can some students find these things in online classes or when their courses are spread across three campuses? Yes.
  • Is doing so as easy as when face-to-face? No.
  • Will consolidation hurt those students who don’t know how to find the things they need? Absolutely.

What should PASSHE do?

All of us agree that alignment or consolidation can offer some opportunities for our students. I am concerned about the speed with which consolidation is taking place and the plan’s lack of clarity. How are we going to offer all students in the state of Pennsylvania a quality education?

If the PASSHE schools align or consolidate and a significant number of courses must be taken online, the universities will need to increase our investment in and support of our students. We will need to increase the number of support staff – advisors, success coaches, online librarians, tutors, financial aid counselors, and career coaches. As we discovered during the pandemic, we need to strengthen Pennsylvania’s infrastructure; students need access to more reliable broadband (Schackner, 2021). Faculty made a huge leap in skills in online teaching during the pandemic, but they will need additional support in being as “present” with their online students as they are with their face-to-face students (Slattery, 2018).

What can you do?

If you are concerned about integration (its impact on our students and their success, possible inequities in education, and the impact on our communities), if you are concerned that the proposed plan is unclear and does not seem likely to positively impact Pennsylvanians, contact your legislators, the governor, or email the Board of Governors <>. Speak out! Speak out now.


Anderson, G. (2021, May 26). Survey: College graduates don’t feel employable. Inside Higher Ed.

Ash, M., Chakraborty, S., & Pollin, R. (2021, April 26). The economic impact of the PASSHE employment reductions. PERI.

Greenstein, D. (2021, Feb. 18). Facts are stubborn things. Chancellor’s Blog.

McMurtrie, B. (2021, May 27). Teaching. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Schackner, B. (2021). Economic uncertainty, unreliable broadband add worry to state-owned university mergers in northwest Pa. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Slattery, J. M. (2018). “Regular and substantive” interactions in online courses. Hand in Hand.

Whitford, E. (2021, May 3). Pennsylvania consolidation plans spark confusion, criticism. Inside Higher Ed.

Jeanne M. Slattery is professor and chair of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. She has published Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; and Empathic counseling: Building skills to empower, and can be contacted at

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Engaging Freshmen

Inquiry seminar students trying to organize and reorganize factors related to job satisfaction

Inquiry seminar students organizing factors related to job satisfaction

– Jeanne M. Slattery

Part of the fun of teaching freshmen is the opportunity to watch them identify their own learning and skills, develop the skills that will make them successful in the future, and reconsider who they are and what they are capable of doing.

I wish I could say my freshmen do these things every day, but they don’t always naturally engage with material, even that which I see as fun and exciting. They may not share my passion. In addition, many have been silenced at previous points in their education and believe that being quiet is the right approach to class. Finally, students face many barriers outside the classroom that interfere with their schoolwork. Many freshman are homesick or depressed. They are often tired from chronically getting too little sleep – because they are up studying, playing video games, or talking to a friend in distress at 3am, which they see as a normal and appropriate event.

Rather than being frustrated by this mismatch between my goals and their abilities on any given day, in my inquiry seminar (Living Life Well), I often looked for “hooks” to engage them with the course ideas and skills.

One Wednesday we were considering what factors lead to job satisfaction. My hook was to ask what was the most important factor to consider in choosing a career. One student answered money. His groupmate asked, “Even if it makes you miserable?” “Yes, even if it makes me miserable.” (He did agree that money shouldnt be most important.) His groupmate, who was thinking of the Wellness Wheel that we’d discussed at an earlier point in the semester, teased that he hadn’t learned anything. I smiled.

Still, I like to ask questions and discuss ideas more than most of my freshmen do. They are noticeably different than my upperclassmen, too, and have more difficulty sitting still while struggling with the abstract ideas raised by our class.

Mismatched goals

The finished product.

The finished product.

One thing I’m trying to do to address this mismatch between my goals and their difficulties in working with abstract ideas is to build in more experiential activities. As we discussed job satisfaction, they wrote down what they liked and didn’t like about jobs they’ve had: things they didn’t like on yellow Post-it notes, things they did on green. Then they began categorizing their Post-its on the chalkboard, developing new categories as they became dissatisfied with the old categories. Their categories included many of the same things often raised in my lectures on job satisfaction.

I try to be transparent in my teaching and often ask my students to reflect on why we’ve done what we’ve done – to further develop their strategies of self-reflection, but also to help them identify a sense of purposefulness that may facilitate engagement with the material. And, in this class? They observed how we were identifying factors contributing to job satisfaction, learning to make connections among ideas, and developing a style of thinking and working that they can use as they write their papers.

Okay, they didn’t spontaneously identify the third of these three goals. But we talked about why we might want to reorganize their ideas in their writing, that early drafts may present ideas in the order that come to mind, rather than in an order that makes most sense. Most of my students said that they hadn’t been encouraged to move and reorganize ideas in their high school English classes.

On Friday of that same week, we discussed flow, a very positive experience that Csikszentmihalyi (1990) described as occurring when “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (p. 3). When people experience flow, they are absorbed and challenged by a task, but feel that they can be successful with it. Creating flow can make work – or college – a more satisfying and enjoyable experience. I want them to consider ways that they can experience flow in their work, their classes, their schoolwork.

One winning marshmallow challenge.

One winning marshmallow challenge.

In that class, my students responded to the Marshmallow Challenge: build the highest structure you can in 18 minutes with 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, and a marshmallow (for the top of their structure). This task is challenging, highly engaging, and difficult to perform alone, thus creating flow for many students – as well as building the teamwork skills I want them to develop. And, several groups thought outside the box (or my limited instructions), by using the bag containing their ingredients or taping their structure to the wall. In debriefing this assignment we discussed their experience of flow and why they might experience flow in this task. We then discussed their teamwork (and most groups reported very effective teamwork in this situation).

I’m still struggling to meet my freshmen where they are rather than where I want them to be. Nonetheless, when I start with concrete tasks rather than abstract discussions of those tasks, I can help my students access the motivation to further understand the class content and develop the higher-order skills we’ve been building this semester (e.g., critical thinking, teamwork, analysis). In my book, this approach has been a win/win solution.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

Jeanne M. Slattery is professor and chair of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. She has published Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; and Empathic counseling: Building skills to empower, and can be contacted at

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Dear Feeling Alone and Overwhelmed

Dear Ms. Scholar, One of my courses was cancelled last semester, and I was given a new prep. I emphasize critical thinking in my teaching, so every assignment requires significant writing. I had 50 online students with an essay a week, 50 students with eight essays over the course of the semester, and a writing intensive course with 15 students. CRAZY. This semester my schedule was again changed at the last minute. This semester is even more challenging. Needless to say, I am not happy.

I am wondering if I am alone in this situation and how others are facing this increasingly-daunting workload. Any suggestions? — Feeling Alone and Overwhelmed

Ms. Scholar at her desk.
Ms. Scholar at her desk.

Dear Feeling Alone and Overwhelmed, Unfortunately,  your experience is more and more typical, both here and at universities across the country.  The increasing workload of college and university instructors is the result of a perfect storm where many forces are merging: decreased funding from state governments, financial obligations stemming from “upscale” learning and housing environments, the demands for institutions to keep tuition down, and a cultural shift devaluing education (Mintz, 2016). These processes have been further escalated by COVID, as in September 2020, its financial impact on higher education was expected to significantly exceed $120 billion nationwide (Nietzel, 2020). Those estimates are likely higher now. Many faculty across the country are being asked to do more with less and are, like you, feeling alone and overwhelmed.

One of the things that you allude to is that these demands are not evenly distributed, either within your department or across campus. In some cases that is because managers do not understand — or possibly value — the work you do. Maybe they think your subject area is one that can be taught well in large classes. Maybe they think that you would translate well to a larger classroom. If these assumptions are inaccurate, you can educate them and advocate. Politely and respectfully, of course.

In other cases, work is not distributed equally because of politics, habit, “the way it’s always been done,” etc. Again, I’d argue that you should advocate for the value of what you do. Consider the ways that your work adds value to your program and the university. Be concrete and specific. If you don’t tell them, they will not know.

Advising our students requires that we advocate for them. Help your department chair, curriculum committee, and dean understand how your teaching fosters your students’ success. Describe how your assignments meet your program’s assessment goals and why they are an important part of your curriculum.

Administrators may not listen or, if they do, may not change their decisions because their hands are tied. Nonetheless, if you haven’t advocated for your students and your program, you might feel that you are compromising your integrity. Such a feeling may make it more difficult for you to sleep at night and may lead to burnout. Burnout is more frequent when work loads are heavy, work conditions are poor, and workers are unable to see positive change (Rupert et al., 2015).

An easy solution to this dilemma would be to cave and move to multiple choice exams; however, you clearly put your students first and maintain high standards for what you ask of yourself and them. Compromising in this manner may leave you unhappy and foster a cynical approach to teaching. We need and appreciate student-focused, thoughtful, and challenging faculty like you. Instead, prevent burnout by recognizing when and where you have control, developing support in the workplace, and entering situations where you can experience a sense of personal accomplishment and job satisfaction (Rupert et al., 2015).

Nonetheless, you can only be stretched in so many ways without giving up your standards for quality — that is, if you continue doing things the same old way. Consider rethinking your approach to teaching. Which assignments best serve your students and learning goals? Can some of these be performed in groups? peer reviewed? left ungraded? Are there other instructional strategies that will be less labor-intensive?

Like you, I emphasize critical thinking and writing in my teaching. Lois Green, the director of our Writing Center when I first came here, developed a strong Writing Across the Curriculum effort on our campus. She argued that writing should be a central pillar of a student’s learning, but that we should look for ways to work more efficiently in our teaching rather than harder. She said we don’t need to heavily edit everything that our students write, and argued that we should focus our assessments, use peer review more effectively, consider whether reading and responding to every journal entry is necessary (as I had been doing), and identify more efficient ways of grading and giving feedback (e.g., rubrics). Wise woman!

Like you, I continue to struggle with these issues. Still, many days I’m finding a good balance in performing the work in a way that feels good to me. I’ve had to shift my assignments and grading – in ways that feel good rather than cynical. I’ve refocused my attention from some things that were fulfilling in the past to tasks where I feel a greater sense of appreciation and accomplishment. These shifts allow me to continue to experience the sense of meaning and purpose that I want and need from my professional life. Talking to trusted colleagues about your experiences and concerns, as you are doing here, can provide you with new ways of approaching our profession, as well as lighten the load. Please, keep in touch! — Ms. Scholar


Mintz, S. (2016). Navigating the perfect storm. Inside Higher Ed.

Nietzel, M. T. (2020). Pandemic’s impact on higher education grows larger; now estimated to exceed $120 billion. Forbes.

Rupert, P. A., Miller, A. O., & Dorociak, K. E. (2015). Preventing burnout: What does the research tell us? Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 46(3), 168-174.

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to:

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Gauging Understanding Using a Generic Zoom Poll

– Brandon Packard

The past year has brought many trials and tribulations for us all, but I would like to take a moment to focus on a positive change that it has made in my classes. Zoom has actually made my exam-review sessions more productive and informative than ever!  Zoom has the option for creating polls ahead of time, that you can then “pull up” (pun intended) at any time to gauge your students’ understanding of a topic.

Figure 1. The generic poll in action.

For those of you who have used Zoom’s polls before, you likely found that creating a poll of anything more than a couple of questions is incredibly time consuming due to Zoom’s awkward interface. (This video can help you develop basic polling skills.) Further, that I know of, there is no way to copy polls from one Zoom room to another if you have multiple sections of the same course!

Instead, what I suggest is that you make just one poll – a generic one that just has options A, B, C, and D (or the like).  Then, instead of programming questions into the poll, put them in your slides or other lecture materials.  You can start the generic poll at any time you want in order to review or gauge understanding.  To ask multiple questions in a same session with just one generic one-question poll, simply close and re-open the poll to reset it. Note that closing any poll will lose the previous set of results, so this strategy is primarily good for “live” feedback rather than long term feedback to be analyzed later.

Personally, I have been using this strategy on exam review days, where we may cover 30 multiple choice review questions in a single day.  I have all the questions in my PowerPoint, and I use the generic poll to allow the students to answer them.  By marking the poll anonymous, students (usually) aren’t afraid to try to answer the questions, and I get real time (albeit short-term) results on how many people understand a question or concept. This lets me know how much time I need to invest in additional discussions of a concept (for example, there is clearly some confusion between two answers in Figure 1).

Figure 2. An example of a review question in PowerPoint.

However, this strategy could also work really well for putting an occasional multiple-choice question in your PowerPoints to gauge understanding of something you just reviewed, or to get anonymous opinions about topics on which you think students may be afraid to share their feelings! See Figure 2.

I hope that you find this strategy for using polls helpful for your courses; I know I will continue to integrate polls into mine!

Brandon Packard is a faculty member in the Computer Information Science department at Clarion University. He earned a doctorate in Computer Science from Drexel University in 2018 and received his Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Bachelor of the Arts in Philosophy from Clarion University in 2013. He is the co-advisor for two student groups (Techfloor and AITP), co-chair of the CIS recruiting committee, and the coordinator of the new Video Game Programming Concentration. He says that he attended grad school with the sole purpose of returning to Clarion University to teach one day. His research interests focus on Video Games, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning – as well as the ethical questions raised by these areas – but teaching is his true passion.

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Missing Community

– Jeanne M. Slattery

Jeanne Slattery and an advisee

I have been missing my colleagues and students while we have been online during COVID. Zoom, which has only been available since 2013, helps significantly; we would have needed to email lectures, assignments, etc. if there had been a pandemic 15 years ago. Still, many of the normal opportunities for informal engagement are missing: students dropping by before class, interactions at the water cooler, walks to get coffee, and conversations before and after a meeting. I suspect that these outside of class activities are less frequent than they used to be.

These informal meetings are not just adjuncts to teaching but central to the teaching and learning process itself. These interactions help engage students and create a sense of faculty as real people who care about our students (as we do). Together, we consider problems and alternate ways of responding to them, foster our students’ self-efficacy by recognizing their successes, and model what it means to be a professional in our discipline. Some of these tasks can be accomplished during synchronous class discussions, but we must ntentionally build a Community of Inquiry (Garrison et al., 1999; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010) and consciously build one throughout our interactions. See Figure 1. We are less likely to meet these tasks when our students (synchronous or asynchronous) are online.

Figure 1. Community of inquiry

Community matters. We remember information better when we believe others are also learning it (Shteynberg, 2010). We also feel more strongly when we are in group contexts: scary things are scarier, happy things happier, and sad things sadder (Shteynberg et al., 2014). We can create the cognitive and affective advantages that community offers us when we are teaching online, but it does not come naturally.

My capstone students, for example, had to complete a semester-long research project in Fall 2020. We met synchronously as often and as long as we would normally have done – and I required outside meetings with me – but they didn’t stop by my office before class, and I didn’t see them as they were working together in the lounge outside my office, as I typically would have done. Some projects were very good, but others were weaker than I think they would have been in a F2F semester.

I also have fewer students applying to graduate school this year than typical – although the ones who have applied are doing very well. This change in applications can be explained in several ways, but I wonder whether it is at least partly due to me not seeing them regularly and poking them before class about where they have applied. I have never had an online student ask me for a letter, which is likely a related issue (and that I have taught fewer online courses). One of my students broke my heart today when she said that she doesn’t believe that anyone other than her sister believes in her. I responded to her discussion post telling her that I believe in her, but how much more powerful would my response have been if we had been in the same physical space?

I was talking recently about these ideas with a former student and a long-term colleague. She responded,

I think the thing that made the difference for me at CSC/CUP was knowing my professors, and my professors knowing me. A number of faculty at Clarion recognized me, they encouraged me, they plucked me out of the crowd. Clearly I did something to lead to that recognition but still, if they hadn’t, I would probably be a divorced school teacher in Brookville. I don’t want to offend divorced school teachers in Brookville, though!  I just mean, for me, it would have been such a small life. I would have been unhappy, I think, felt so constrained without maybe even knowing why. And so I am sure staying married would have been a big challenge.

Could I have gotten [the encouragement] I needed with an online program? Maybe???  All of the interactions are so different online.

Online is not an equivalent education. It is more convenient and accessible for some, but I fear that some students may choose the convenience of taking classes online and, reach lower than they can achieve without the intentional mentorship that happens more easily face-to-face.

Missing My Colleagues

When I first came here, most of my 10-person department lived in Clarion. All but one lived within ten miles of Clarion. Now, 50% of the tenured and tenure-track members of my department live in Clarion. Other departments have no one living in our county. How does this change affect our departments, programs, and university?

I suspect, even disregarding the proposed changes in the New U, that post-COVID, faculty, courses, and programs will increasingly go online – in PASSHE and the rest of the US. I also suspect that there will be more students choosing to take courses online. What will be the impact of these changes? I expect some students and some faculty and staff will be lost as a result of this change.

There will be many positive consequences from an increasingly virtual college experience (e.g., college in your PJs, flexible schedules, the ability to live nearer family), but there are also negative ones that we should consider. I am not politically conservative, but this is Senator Sasse’s (2018) view on the cultural shift that has taken place over the last thirty years:

Most of us reading (or listening to) this book are mobile. We’re free from the constraints of place—its annoyances and inconveniences, its potentially burdensome obligations—and we’re free to see more of the world, with its extraordinary richness and color. But what have we lost in the process? Increasingly, we’re shackled to the feeling that we don’t belong anywhere, and we’re not bound to people who can anchor us in a place we can call home. (p. 70)

I think about Granovetter’s (1973) classic research on the importance of weak social ties – those interactions at the water cooler, while walking across campus, before and after a meeting. Granovetter argues, “weak ties, often denounced as generative of alienation… are seen here as indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and their integration into communities” (p. 1378).

I think about all of the ideas generated during passing comments in the hall. This article, for example, has been influenced by passing comments from at least four different people. I also think about how I feel more connected to and more willing to contribute to a group with whom I have both strong and weak ties.

What happens to a university when we don’t feel that we belong to it or to a larger university community? What happens to the students, faculty, staff, and administrators if they don’t feel they belong? Will students graduate in a timely fashion or will they move among online programs without a sense of commitment to any single one? How will faculty, staff, and administrators relate to each other and to the university if there isn’t a larger sense of belongingness? What about our alumni and supporters? Will they contribute their work, ideas, and money if the university is only a vague online presence? These are questions we should consider.

Building Online Communities

We may not have a choice about whether there will be a New U, but we do have an opportunity to consider how we will create and build community among all members of our university – within the individual campuses and the larger New U.

What can we do to create a feeling of belongingness among all of the disparate members of our larger university? A former colleague has begun a “watercooler” movement at her university, sending emails with subject lines like this: “Watercooler until 11:15am” (Frantz, 2021). Morling (2021) suggests using polls and chat in Zoom to create this sense of community in the classroom. At the very least, the next time you’re on a New U call, post your name and school. It matters.

Community matters.


Frantz, S. (2021). Watercooler conversations: Weak-ties matter. Macmillan Learning.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87-105.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360–1380.

Morling, B. (2021). Shared attention, please! NOBA.

Sasse, B. (2018). Them: Why we hate each other – and how to heal. St. Martin’s Griffin.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education 55(4), 1721-1731.

Shteynberg, G. (2010). A silent emergence of culture: The social tuning effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 683–689.

Shteynberg, G., Hirsh, J. B., Apfelbaum, E. P., Larsen, J. T., Galinsky, A. D., & Roese, N. J. (2014). Feeling more together: group attention intensifies emotion. Emotion, 14(6), 1102–1114.

Jeanne M. Slattery is professor and chair of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. She has published Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; and Empathic counseling: Building skills to empower, and can be contacted at

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A Conversation about First Gen students

The following discussion was drawn from a larger conversation about our First Gen students and what we can do to help them succeed, which took place in October 2020. Language was smoothed for readability.

Jeanne Slattery, Psychology

Jeanne Slattery: So, I don’t know who is First Gen who’s not. You can identify yourself if you choose to.  But I’d like us to start by thinking about what kinds of barriers you faced – or that our students face as First Gen.

Tina Horner: My mom worked various part-time jobs always cobbled things together to make ends meet. But she never had a career that she established and built. So, she didn’t have that experience through which to advise me. She had no perspective to tell me that you should get involved in organizations, you should look into some leadership opportunities, you should go to some conferences, you should, you know, just be an involved person on campus. She just didn’t have that perspective to guide me to build more than just an academic resume.

Shawn Hoke, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs

Shawn Hoke: I want to piggyback off of that, Tina, and say, I think it’s kind of an issue of support. If this is all new to you, you haven’t necessarily made any connections on campus, you’re just sitting there, confused, and you really don’t have anybody to go to ask the questions.

I know I felt it as a First Generation student. I know we hear current students say that they’re afraid of looking silly or stupid or they’re afraid of not knowing and they’re embarrassed and they don’t want to go out and ask for help, but I really think that support piece is probably the most important thing, for folks to know they’ve got somebody that they can talk to and that no question is going to be a stupid question.

Jeanne Slattery: I am not First Gen ­– my father actually taught University – and yet I was as clueless as many of you, in part because I think my parents did not want to put any pressure on me. So, part of how I’m framing this is that the ideas that we are talking about here are ones that transcend our First Gen students, although they’re very important to our First Gen students. I want to see every student succeed here.

Amy Salsgiver, Director of Social Equity

Amy Salsgiver: I came from a very small community where the majority of people in the community had not gone to college, you know, and a vast majority of them had not finished high school. I was getting out of my car and was grabbing my book bag and I had a stack of books because it was mid-terms. And a cousin happened just to be walking by to go into her home and she said, “Oh, look at you with your books. You think you’re so smart now, don’t you?” And it was really a shock to me to hear that because I had never said or thought I had acted in that way at all. So, it is it is difficult, especially when your own family is trying to discount you wanting to do something. I just love to learn. I still want to learn new things every day. So, it was really hard to navigate that world for at home and at school.

Jeanne Slattery Are there any good things that came from being a First Gen?

Pam Gent: I guess I wasn’t technically first gen because my dad graduated when I was in fourth grade. He had five kids and he had just graduated. So, we didn’t really have the benefit of, you know, moving up into out of the working class or those kinds of things, but one of the things one of my youngest siblings said to me, “Well, Pam, if you could work, and you could put yourself through school, then we knew we could, too.”

Of course my brother said, “You know, we all knew we were smarter than you. So, if you could do it, anybody could do it.” But it really showed in my family that [going to college] was possible in ways that I don’t think some of my siblings had thought about.

Jim McGee, Director of Wellness

Jim McGee: I wasn’t a First Gen, but coming from an inner city school, out of state. It was very hard to meet people like me, and you know one positive came out of this. What I tell my students is be open minded. Here’s where the magic happens. So are you going to get yourself uncomfortable to get there. And I know once that I was able to do that, I kind of dropped that guard. Things became a little bit easier for me to navigate. To ask questions, to find support. So, I think that was a very much a positive, especially coming from the area that I came from.

Amy Salsgiver: I think I had a gross misunderstanding about what financial aid was and what loans were, and I’m still every month paying the price for having that gross misunderstanding. Thankfully, you know, I’ve learned. And so, I’m helping guide my daughters through that. But I think the language around what financial aid is and what it really means has gotten a little clearer since I was a student, but still not as clear as I think maybe it could be, especially where our First Gens are concerned.

Jeanne Slattery: So, what helped all of you be successful? I mean, you’re here. So, you’re probably a different group than some of our First Gen freshmen. What helped you become successful?

Amy Salsgiver:  I’m only here because I had amazing professors who supported me, helped me, and also, I can’t go without saying this, the staff support, the secretaries, and each of my departments, they saved my life, maybe more than one time. And I still keep in contact with many of them. I would probably not have gone and graduated, let alone with the masters, if it hadn’t been for the support of have a few vital professors and the two secretaries and the Department.

Tina Horner, Communication Manager

Tina Horner: I’ll echo that, too. I had a professor and an administrator who told me that my writing was actually good. Like others have said, I had imposter syndrome. I thought “Okay, who am I here?” You know, I always did well in writing in school, but I just really didn’t think that I was at that college level. Then I had that those votes of confidence from an administrator and an English professor that made me think, “Hey, maybe I do have something here.”

Mark Franchino: I think what everybody’s bringing up is the importance of the advising piece of it.

I’m first generation. My dad went to a trade school for high school. My mom was working full-time at 16. But my mom valued education, so I went. When you send out research stuff about what students are going through, I have a hard time even connecting with it completely because of that support. You know, it makes all the difference. And, oftentimes, you are telling stories about the mentors that you had. I’m sure you put something out that aided in that relationship. So, we tell students all the time, “You know, if you show an interest in something, there’s going to be somebody who’s going to give that back.”

Mark Franchino, Art

My father had to work for whatever he got. So, you never, never had a loan on a car. He bought his first car with cash and every car after that. So when I was looking at schools – that was Syracuse University or University of Buffalo. Even though Syracuse was going to give me $16,000 a year free and clear, it still cost 10 times more than what University of Buffalo cost, so did I want to go into debt, or did I want to do it that way? But I understood those things. So, I had these perspectives from somebody who didn’t go to college, but then was able to contribute something else.

Jeanne Slattery: I think part of what you’re saying, Mark, is that we need to remember that when we’re talking First Gen, we’re talking about all sorts of different experiences, some people with a lot of support and some with very little support.

So, my question is, what should we consider to help First Gens be more successful at Clarion?

Joseph Croskey, Director of University Advising Services Center

Joseph Croskey: We have some nice structures in place already, you know, the coaches reach out to them. There’s the Trio program. There’s the Act 101 program. There’s mentors on Shawn side. Whatever we can do as advisors to encourage students to take advantage of each of those. Just nudges, you know, “it’s time to schedule.” “So have you met with your coach?” If it’s a freshman, that could just be part of the scheduling/mentoring/advising conversation. And to develop that relationship with them so that then you can pursue that next level question. “What’s going on at home?” and those kinds of things.

Pam Gent: And I also think we have to work on our language and what we label things. We used to have a Bursar’s Office and now it’s just Student Accounts. So. that’s better. But even in the letters and the communications we have with students.

And I’ll tell you, when I read stuff from financial aid, I am just blown away. And I’m thinking, I have a PhD and I know how this stuff works. I can’t figure it out. And so, I’m not saying we have to dumb it down. But we have to take people from where they are with the language skills they have and that helped them build the knowledge, instead of just overwhelming them with all these new terms and words and descriptions of things they’re just clueless about.

Pam Gent, Vice President of Academic Affairs

Jeanne Slattery: I don’t always know the names of the people in other offices so that’s on me. I don’t know anyone in Financial Aid. I always say, “Go to Financial Aid; this is above my pay grade.” But that advice was more powerful when I knew the names of people in that office. That’s the only office where I feel like there’s like I don’t know who’s there – at least where I am typically referring people.

Amy Salsgiver: Not only was I a nontraditional First Gen student. I was the parent of two little girls who were one and three at the time. I worked full-time, I went to school full-time, I had two little kids. I was a First Gen and getting involved in clubs and activities on campus just was not in the cards for me. I missed out on that part of the experience, and I wish I hadn’t. I wish there was another way. But, you know, that was the hand, I had to play with.

Jeanne Slattery: But I think part of what a number of you are saying is that our First Gen students face multiple barriers and that we need to be thinking about all of these pieces.

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Cameras in Zoom: Should They Be On?

– Holiday E. Adair and Jeanne M. Slattery

Holiday Adair

There has been a lot of talk lately about requiring students to have their cameras on during a remote session of class. Various blogs, articles, and responses to these communications have been helpful in identifying the pros and cons of instituting such a requirement, with the “resolution” usually being to be clear – to yourself as well as students – as to the reason you are instituting such a requirement. 

I (HEA) taught the last half of Spring 2020 term via remote (on Zoom) but did not have a camera policy because that was the first time I was teaching remotely. To me, it felt more like an emergency situation, something to be gotten through any way the students (and I) could.  For fall, I decided to invite students to have cameras on, but it was completely their option. Many opted not to, and I accepted that. This Spring, I will be in the classroom (perhaps with some students) and will have some students opt to attend remotely. Again, while I will invite them to keep cameras on, it won’t be a requirement. I won’t be able to see them because of the nature of my classroom set-up (e.g., cameras and screens).

Why ask students to make their cameras active?

Why ask students to have their cameras on during a class session? Al-Dheleai and Tasir (2019) report that

Research in education confirmed that students engage in learning when they feel connected with others and when they play an active role in their learning process. Therefore, social presence (SP) [is] considered as an important component of effective learning in both face-face and online learning environment. (p. 13)

A “community of inquiry” creates presence (social, cognitive, teaching, and learner) and is key to enhanced learning (Garrison et al., 1999; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010). Encouraging camera use will likely increase social presence, by helping all parties become known, leading to more effective learning in remote-offered courses. Camera use may encourage learner presence by increasing learner engagement. 

Faculty more concerned with the practicalities of teaching may insist on camera usage in class by students because it prepares them for the post college world – whether they will need to transfer those video skills to remote meetings for work or generalize the social skills learned by always being on camera in future face to face professional encounters. For classes with a performative requirement (e.g., speech, art appreciation, acting), requiring camera use might be a necessity for assessment and engagement with others in the class. 

Figure 1. Contributions to a community of inquiry.

When institutions had to move to remote instruction in the spring of 2020, teaching and learning centers on campus encouraged “normalizing” the remote experience as much as possible (Marek et al., 2021). One strategy was to stay in visual touch with students by requiring camera use. When some faculty balked at this as an invasion of privacy, others countered that students are “required to show” their faces (and themselves) in class all the time. Faculty reported that “cold-calling” a student whose camera was off with a question led to too many instances of awkward silence meaning the student was really not there. 

Why give students a choice about cameras?

Although arguments for requiring students to have their cameras on make sense and are persuasive, arguments against this dictate are more compelling. First, there are the practical ones. We teach at public state universities, where many students are first generation college attendees coming from poor to working class families. Many are commuters from rural locations. Access to internet can be unstable; in adding camera use, the increased demand for data transfer makes it even more unstable. Students with limited means may have older technology that does not have the requirements needed for video use (such as a webcam or built in camera). Students with limited resources are at a disadvantage in a learning community that demands the latest in technology.

At some institutions, socioeconomic status may correlate with race or other legally protected variables, so requiring students to use the camera discriminates against those without the means to have a camera or adequate bandwidth to keep their camera on during class. In addition to personal characteristics, when the camera is on, students unintentionally reveal the status of their living situation. At this point, requiring a camera does become an invasion of privacy and is no longer the equivalent of being present in a face to face class.

Students in lecture-style classes often do not see the faces of all their classmates since they are sitting in single facing rows – they could if they chose to turn around. In Zoom (or other meeting apps), they are faced with a sea of faces for the whole session. One respondent (under the username of “Frankie”) to an Inside Higher Ed post  points out that “Zoom empowers students to reveal what they want to reveal – possibly decreasing judgements” (Reed, 2020).  When students decide to turn their cameras on or leave them off, they decide whether or not to release personal information. Being able to make this decision evens the playing field a bit for disadvantaged students. 

Jeanne Slattery and her students

Lännström (2020) pointed out that the research on the use of cameras and performance in class is not as straightforward as claimed. She remarked that seeing all classmates can actually be more distracting and reduce attention to the material. Faculty who want to see their students to judge attention and comprehension (getting similar feedback from the class as one would in a face to face environment) really do not get “good data,” especially in classes with more than about 7 to 9 students. With more students, the faces seen on the faculty member’s monitor get smaller and, often, create multiple viewing pages that the instructor has to scroll through to monitor more than the same few students who appear on the main viewing page. 

Students at Stanford University (Nicandro et al., 2020) conducted an informal poll in the spring to determine student response to faculty requiring constant camera use. Over two-thirds of the respondents reported feeling uncomfortable with this requirement. They felt self-conscious and concerned about the privacy of their space. They reported feeling confused about the consequences of not using one’s camera because the faculty member did not say what would happen if a student did not have their camera on. Some reported experiencing shame at being “called out” during class for violating this rule. Students could think of no good reason for this as a rule in a class. Others reported feeling considerable social anxiety when they needed to have their camera on.


Considerable research suggests that when we are transparent about our goals, we can help students engage with class material and achieve their goals more effectively (Winkelmas, 2013). Rather than only being busywork, when we are transparent about an assignment, the assignment gains meaning and becomes purposeful. Do we have a purpose in asking students to turn on their cameras? For me (JMS), my purpose includes that my courses work on building listening skills; will help them become more successful in class, as they are likely to multitask less; and prepares them for a future where they are likely to need to learn to be effective in virtual interactions. I’ve added this language to my syllabi and will discuss these ideas with my students on the first day of my classes. Of course, I will also discuss ways of handling their social anxiety (e.g., choosing Speaker rather than Gallery mode in Zoom.

Different classes have different expectations, though. In a recent conversation with faculty teaching psychology in a doctoral program, all faculty believed that camera use should not just be a suggestion for their courses, but a requirement, as building and assessing interpersonal and clinical skills are essential in that context (Slattery et al., in press). One take-home point is that camera use can be ethical and appropriate when suited to the course – and camera use explained.

Why do you require cameras in your classes?

So then what is the guidance on camera usage for remote instruction? The Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University shared an infographic that lists the pros and cons of a camera requirement as well as some general advice. They suggest:

  • Establish expectations for turning on cameras early on and explain why. 
  • Set norms for synchronous meetings and the use of video camera. 
  • Turning video cameras on should not be mandatory. 
  • Have short conferences to have face-to-face with students. Encourage, but do not insist on the use of video camera for discussions, virtual office hours, and consultations. 
  • Ask students to make themselves visible if they are asking/responding to a question; otherwise, use chat. 
  • In larger classes, some professors tell students to turn their cameras off during lectures. (Amobi, 2020)   

We believe that creating a community of inquiry and developing freely-chosen class norms about camera use will enhance student engagement and commitment to the format of the class (Garrison et al., 1999; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010). Some students will decide that camera use is optional and should only be required when asking/answering a question and while in breakout rooms and small group meetings. Creating a trusted community in the classroom will probably enable students to feel more confident about opting to turn their cameras on. Other ways to create community can be found in Slattery (2020). 


Al-Dheleai, Y.M., Tasir, Z. (2019). Web 2.0 for fostering students’ social presence in online learning based interaction. Journal of Technology and Science Education, 9(1), 13-19.

Amobi, F. (2020, June 1). Should you require students to turn on their Zoom cameras? Oregon State University Center for Teaching and Learning Blog.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87-105.

Lännström, A. (2020, August 20). Should we require students to turn their cameras on in the Zoom classroom? Online Teaching, Online Learning Blog.

Marek, M.W., Chew, C., & Wu, W.V. (2021). Teacher experiences in converting classes to distance learning in the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Distance Education Technologies,19 (1).

Nicardo, V., Khandelwal, A., & Weitzman, A. (2020, June 1). Please let students turn their videos off in class. The Stanford Daily.

Reed, M. (2020, May 13). Should showing faces be mandatory? A new question posed by technology. Inside Higher Ed Blog.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education 55(4), 1721-1731.

Slattery, J. M. (2020). First day online. Hand in Hand.

Slattery, J. M., Knauss, L., & Hunt, M. (in press). Ethics in Action: Being “present” on Zoom. Pennsylvania Psychologist.

Winkelmas, M. (2013), Transparency in teaching: Faculty share data and improve students’ learning. Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Holiday E. Adair is professor of psychology at California University of Pennsylvania. This is her first blog post! She has spent the last 15 years conducting student learning outcomes assessment on her campus. She can be contacted at

Jeanne M. Slattery is professor and chair 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; Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; and Empathic counseling: Building skills to empower. She can be contacted at

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Honoring Your Struggles and Triumphs

This is the text of Dr. Foster’s commencement speech for the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, Clarion University, December 14, 2019.

Ellen Foster

Good morning to you, graduates, and your family and friends, and to all of my colleagues on this stage and in the audience.

I am privileged to have this opportunity to speak on behalf of your faculty; thank you.

Dear graduates: Today you share a very special common ground: You have come a long way on a journey that most likely did not unfold the way that you thought it would, but it HAS unfolded, and you are now here, moments away from walking across this stage and having your degree conferred.

This is a major moment, and it’s more special to all of us because you have brought yourself HERE – and yes, those of you in the livestream are here too — to share this experience, after you have endured another round of final exams and final projects and final discussion boards. You could, you know, be sleeping in or packing up for your next move. But you are HERE, and we are so glad that you are.

Only you know the particular stresses and sacrifices that have brought you to this day: the hours worked, the family occasions you’ve had to miss, the disappointments that you faced and overcame, the working to the very moment of a deadline to find that your internet connection has rather inauspiciously crashed … but you managed, and here we are.

I want you to know that we have such great respect for you in achieving this day. I also want you to know that we simply love what you have done for yourself: You have educated yourself, and that is a brave and difficult thing to do.

I also want your family and friends to know that we are so proud of what you have made happen for yourself – because while it does take a village (they sacrificed and struggled too), ultimately, you had to do the work.

So, graduates, please know that I have in mind a million variations of the struggles and triumphs that you’ve experienced, and I hope to honor those.

Days like today are made for reflection – reflection on what you have achieved, excitement and nervousness about what lies ahead – and your faculty too reflect on this day – for instance, we see your name among the list of graduates, and recall you in our classes, remember your best and your worst days, and think of all that we have experienced together.

When you came to Clarion University, you put yourself in a position to learn, and to learn means to brush up against something new or, sometimes, to run right into it: a concept that pushes you, a perspective that you had not thought about before, ideas and bodies of knowledge that sometimes seem irreconcilable. You might look back to English 111, a course I’d bet you’ve all taken – first-year writing – and remember just how new it all was … but then you were researching topics and writing papers for so many other courses – and you knew how to do it.

You might remember other firsts: giving your first injection, meeting a client for the first time, taking the lead on an experiment, setting off on the first day of your internship, creating art that speaks your name, having that “a-ha!” moment when something finally clicked.

With any luck at all, you became comfortable with the often uncomfortable messiness that is learning, and you came away from those encounters with a little more understanding of the depths of inquiry – the many ways that biologists, and sociologists, and psychologists, and musicians, philosophers, mathematicians, historians, writers, and geologists and physicists (and more!) approach their disciplines, seek discovery, and help the rest of us make sense of it all, or at least help us to better understand how much we have left to learn.

In learning the professions of nursing, medical imaging, speech pathology,
audiology, rehabilitation, criminal justice, sports management, counseling – and
more! – you brought together the arts and the sciences to work closely with that
most complex of organisms – your fellow human beings, particularly in their
moments of pain and crisis, their least lovable and most complicated moments.
A little discomfort – like realizing just how little we know even when we know a
lot — seems a small price considering the pay-off – which for me, and I hope for
you, is a desire to find out, to know some more. That’s the push that leads to
innovation and invention and discovery – and I hope that YOU will be the next
someone to find better ways to care for patients and clients, to respond to crises, to
move the technology forward, to find the ways to effectively address the root
problems of the inequities in our society, to add a new piece of knowledge to the
puzzle that is life.

You may think that this is a lot to ask, and it is, but then, there’s this: You can do
it. You’ve already shown your faculty that you can succeed, even when you weren’t so sure that you would. We know you, and we know just how resourceful,
capable, creative, compassionate, resilient, involved, and wise you are.

Dr. Dale often says that Clarion is small but mighty. You ARE mighty: You have
the knowledge and skills to change the world, and you will, day by day.
We know you will do it. We’re proud of you. Congratulations!

Thank you.

Ellen Foster is professor of English at Clarion University and director of the Integrative Studies program.  Working with our students brings moments of joy that she will never find anywhere else:  the light bulb flashes of insight in class, the sight of a familiar, not-to-be-forgotten name in a graduation program, the swell of pride among all at a graduation ceremony.  While we won’t join together in the ceremony this semester as we did last December, we ARE joined together by our shared sense of purpose and commitment to our students’ achievements.  Congratulations to all the graduates!

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Trying to Get Students to Take Responsibility for Their Learning: Are Sophomores Different?

– Paul Woodburne

Paul Woodburne
Paul Woodburne

Earlier this year, I reported on how I adapted Maryellen Weimer’s (2013) book, Learner Centered Teaching, to my graduate class in Economics and to several upper level undergraduate classes (Woodburne, 2020).  I made these changes to my courses because I wanted to find a way to encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning.  As I reported in that HiH, my graduate students and seniors’ responses were very positive; however, responses were not positive in a sophomore-level course (three sections over two semesters) in which I also tried the same method.  This edition of Hand in Hand explores this discrepancy.

What do Students Want?  My Starting Hypothesis

I assume students are pretty good natural economists in that they do not knowingly act in ways that are not in their best interests, and that they follow incentives that get them where they want to go most easily.  

I made the following initial hypotheses about incentives to which students respond.  I hypothesized that students want to:

  1. Do the minimum work to get the highest possible desired grade;
  2. Reduce course-related stress;
  3. Avoid cramming for in-class exams and writing take-home essay exams at the last minute;
  4. Exercise some control over the process.

If incentives are good, students ought to follow them. 

Embedded in my hypotheses is the hidden assumption that sophomores are able to effectively identify and respond to their own deadlines.

Structure of My Course

As I reported then, my version of Weimer’s (2013) approach included very few mandatory assignments, mostly responding to program assessment, and many optional assignments (e.g., content questions, chapter or article summaries, and self-reflection on the class process).

My new approach allows students to complete the assignments they want to earn the grade they want.  I gave students all the assignments and grading scales at the start of the term.  I encouraged them to complete assignments on an on-going basis, as we completed the lectures for that material.

I divided the course into three segments, each corresponding to material covered prior to the old exams.  I designed the structure so that students could turn in their assignments at any time up to the end of the relevant segment of the course.  I hoped the incentive of not having to do big take-home essay exams while preparing for exams in other classes would encourage them to submit assignments on an ‘as-you-go’ basis.   

Principles of Macroeconomics (Econ 211)

Sophomores usually take Principles of Macroeconomics as part of the lower core of the COBAIS curriculum.  In the Spring of 2019, the two sections were almost three-quarters freshmen and about 10% were juniors and seniors.  In the Fall of 2019, the single section had 10-15% freshmen, which was more typical.  Some of what I report applies more to one semester than the other, but I will try to make comments that are true of both classes.

In the Spring 2019 section, I gave no incentive for assignments turned in early.  The vast majority of students turned in the assignments for the first class ‘segment’ all at once on the last possible Friday, although some students told me they had had the assignments finished, but were waiting to turn them in. As a result, they had no opportunity to rewrite or to learn from past mistakes, which had been a primary goal to this teaching approach.  This pattern continued through the second segment, but improved marginally in the third course segment.

In the Spring 2019 section, most answers to the main content questions were very short and did not appear to use the available course materials (e.g., textbook, class notes, graphs, nor did they take advantage of in-class practice assignments).  Out of 217 assignments during the first segment (32 students at seven assignments each), 62 (29%) were never turned in and 68 (31%) were not written at a passing level, but were eligible for revision.  Only 23 assignments were revised.  About eight students were responsible for nearly all of the incomplete work, while the same four or five students were responsible for nearly all of the revisions.  Almost no one who revised work in segment 1 needed to do so in subsequent segments.  Thus, quality rose a little, even if early submission rates did not.

In Fall 2019, I tried to incentivize early turn-in following dismal results from the prior term.  I gave students a 15% penalty if students turned in assignments more than two class periods after the material was covered in the course.  After the first segment of this class, I changed the incentive to one where I offered a 15% bonus if the assignment was turned in within two class periods of covering the material.  Giving a penalty felt like I was raising the price on an advertised product; people tend to respond better to a reward than a penalty. Unfortunately, the existence of, or alteration in, the bonus, appeared to not alter the behavior of the majority of students.

Where Did I Go Wrong?  Why Did My Strategy Fail?

As an economist, I have to believe incentives work. If I am surprised by their decisions, there are a limited number of reasons: 

  1. I did not correctly identify the incentives students would use.
  2. I did not implement the incentives I planned.
  3. Students did not have good information about class requirements.
  4. They had poor information about themselves.
  5. Maybe the strategy did not fail.

Reason #1. I did not correctly identify the incentives students would use.

Apparently, simply getting a bit of an easier workload and control over the process is not enough of an incentive to alter student behavior.  After the change in incentive structure, some students were VERY concerned about whether they had earned the bonus on assignments.  The change from penalty to bonus appeared to marginally improve early turn-in rates in the second and third segments of the class.  As noted above, this incentive did not alter the behavior of the majority of students.

Reason #2. I did not implement the incentives I planned.

Incentives are all about perceived costs and benefits.  Ideally, incentives should be costless to implement and to follow, and benefits should be valued by the person receiving them.  If costs are too high to me or to the students, the incentives will not work. 

My stated plan was to assign zero points to assignments that were below the minimal ‘C’ level, giving students the chance to redo them for full credit.  However, I could not carry through.  Many students never picked up or redid assignments that earned zero points; thus, many students never knew their scores.  I eventually gave those assignments mid-‘D’ level points. I did not announce this, but I did make this change after one student contacted me and said that it seemed harsh to be given no points for assignments. In retrospect, I should not have relied on students to pick them up after class.  I will hand them back moving forward.

Reason #3. Students did not have good information about class requirements.

I believed I provided students good information about some parts of the class. Options for earning grades, deadlines, and specific information about failing to meet deadlines were clearly described.  I repeatedly made clear that ‘optional’ material was only optional vis-à-vis the points they wanted to achieve.

However, students pointed out to me that often they were not clear as to when a question had been fully covered and when an assignment would be due.  Also, they noted out that the first couple weeks went by without a question being posed, so that most questions seemed to come all at once.  Responding to this, I have created some questions that can be answered early on.  I have narrowed the focus of other questions so there is less confusion as to when I have covered the material relevant to a given question.

Last, it occurred to me that educational methodology includes modeling good examples.  I have now created a good model answer to a representative question, so that students know what a good answer looks like.

Reason #4. They had poor information about themselves.

Students can make good decisions only when they have good information (self-awareness) about their ability to meet deadlines.  In this case, I think these students underestimated their power to identify  and meet deadlines.  On their final exam responses, most students suggested that they (“like all students”) tend to procrastinate and do not really knuckle down until the due date is pressing.  Many students suggested more due dates and less flexibility.  A good number of students suggested the very path I had structured the class to avoid.

In looking at myself as the location of poor information, I conclude that perhaps meeting deadlines is much more difficult for these students than I had assumed.  The students who pushed me to have more due dates are in agreement with current economic research.  Behavioral economist Dan Ariely (2008) summarized nice experiments he and others have performed on due dates for papers in class.  Even undergraduate students attending premier institutions are not able to set deadlines on their own.  Ariely’s experiments varied the rules for three otherwise-identical classes, where each had three papers due.  Paper quality was best when deadlines were fixed, and set by the professor.  

If a student cannot create their own rigorous structure to avoid procrastination, and there are few dates set by the instructor, perhaps outside structures can do that job. The football players in my class report having many  hours of football practice.  One student wrote that he took 1-2 days and cranked out all the assignments he could for my class in the limited free time he had. In these cases, the outside structure of practice time forced students to identify and follow deadlines, and avoid procrastination.

Reason #5. Maybe the strategy did not fail. 

If I take seriously the idea that students are good natural economists, I have to accept the consequences.  A tenet of economic theory is that different people will behave differently given the same information and incentive structures – depending on their goals and the perceived value of rewards. 

Economics relies heavily on the calculation of costs and benefits.  Perhaps students did, in fact, get the grade they wanted or were willing to work for.  For those students who did improve, the cost of getting a better grade was worth it.  For students for whom the additional points simply did not seem worth the effort, answers to former exam questions remained brief, many reflective pieces remained a paragraph or less, and other ‘optional’ assignments remained undone.  I had one student tell me he only wanted/needed a ‘D’.  He seemed almost surgical in his precision with which he did the minimum needed to earn that grade.  What surprised me about him was that it is not that hard to improve from a ‘D’ to a ‘C’, but he deliberately did not do so.


As reported in my prior piece, junior and senior business undergraduates and MBA students like my modification of Weimer’s (2013) process, and thrive on it.  These students reported in their final reflection and in unsolicited emails, that they like the ability to redo questions, recover from a bad score, and actually learn that which I was trying to get them to understand.  

I also liked it.  I got three things I wanted out of the process.  My students did about as well as in the past, they took some responsibility for their learning, and I got a smoother grading schedule rather than sporadic bouts of intensive grading. 

I remain hopeful that I can modify Weimer’s (2013) process for my sophomore-level classes, as the approach still seems worthwhile.  I continue to tinker with the class.  For example, I have realized that I do not need segments related to the old exam schedule.  Perhaps more and shorter course segments will create deadlines that are do-able for sophomores.


Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. Harper.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice that will foster student engagement (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Woodburne, P. (2020). Getting students to take responsibility for their learning. Hand in Hand.

Paul Woodburne is a 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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