Dear Grossly Unequal

Dear Ms. Scholar, Recently I read that my university’s 6-year graduation rate for Black students is 1/3 that of White students. Any thoughts on this? What should we do?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Grossly Unequal, Yes, our 6-year graduation rate for White students is 53%, for Blacks is 17%, and 28% for Hispanic students (Institute of Education Sciences, 2018). We are doing badly by our minority students. These numbers  also hurt us as a university, as poor graduation rates affect funding from PASSHE and is a problem that Middle States has focused on in their reports.

Our minority and White students mostly come from different populations, which may partially explain the problem. In Ms. Scholar’s observations, our minority students are more likely to run into financial problems, come from an urban environment, and travel further to get here. As a result, they may have difficulties scheduling on time, getting the classes they need, and buying their texts. They may feel less comfortable here and prefer to return closer to home.

Screen Shot 2018-07-07 at 2.06.49 PM

Figure 1. Deficit-minded explanations of equity gaps and equity-minded questions (Finley & McNair, 2013).

While these may be barriers to timely graduation, such explanations come from a deficit mindset and focus more on problems in students rather than problems our institution can control (Finley & McNair, 2013). See Figure 1. Finley and McNair suggest, instead, that we should engage in a process of inquiry, exploring barriers to success and considering ways that we can address these barriers. They suggest we ask ourselves questions like these:

  1. How do underserved students connect their college learning with future workforce preparation?
  2. What learning experiences do underserved students value in developing the skills and competencies they view as important to employers?
  3. What factors do underserved students identify as barriers or obstacles to their participation in high-impact learning experiences? (Finley & McNair, 2013, p. 21)

We can also ask our students of color to reflect on such questions and listen to their answers.

Another way of addressing graduation rates is to increase the number and availability of high-impact practices (e.g., internships, service learning, student research, first-year seminars, study abroad experiences), which are reported to increase engagement, student retention, and graduation rates, especially among minority and other underserved students (Kuh, 2008; Finley & McNair, 2013). High-impact practices alone won’t be successful, however. They must be associated with meaningful interactions among students of color, faculty, and other students. Student reflections on their work and intentional connections between learning goals and teaching processes also increase retention and graduation rates (Clayton-Pedersen & Finley, 2010).

Ms. Scholar also wonders whether we are more likely to reach out and support people who look “like us.” And many of our faculty are White. Do our minority students receive (or perceive) the same amount of support as our white students? Ms. Scholar has had students of color claim that their hands were ignored by some faculty members.

Ms. Scholar also wonders whether our minority students see themselves in the readings, authors, photos, and examples used in our classes. (See, for example, Berchini, 2015.) Do we communicate that there is a place for our students of color at the table – or that they don’t belong? When Ms. Scholar’s daughter was younger, she counted the number of male and female characters in her daughter’s storybooks. Although she had attempted to provide a positive, girl-affirming (and person-affirming) set of books, she was dismayed to discover that the main characters were overwhelmingly male. In our classrooms, do we work toward a diversity of voices, images, and examples? Do we feel that we are being affirming and welcoming when we only minimally address diversity issues?

Reconsidering our teaching practices may help us structure our universities, programs, and classes to better serve the diverse needs of all our students, so that all of our students can learn well, meet their academic and personal goals, and graduate on time. We can improve our graduation rates.


Berchini, C. (2015). Why are all the teachers white? Education Week Teacher. Retrieved from

Clayton-Pedersen, A. R., & Finley, A. (2010). What’s next? Identifying when high-impact practices are done well. In J. E. Brownell & L. E. Swaner (Eds.). Five high-impact practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Finley, A., & McNair, T. (2013). Assessing underserved students’ engagement in high-impact practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Institute of Education Sciences. (2018). IPEDS. Retrieved from

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter (pp. 9-11). Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. 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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Get It Wrong

(This was the Freshman Convocation speech at Clarion University in August 2018.)


Leah Chambers

– Leah Chambers

When I was asked to provide some words of wisdom at today’s convocation ceremony, I had no idea what I was going to say—nor what I could say that you had not heard before. You have likely already received advice from your friends, family, and co-workers to make the most of these next four or five years, to go to class, to talk to your professors, and to do your work. That’s all great advice, and you should take it seriously. But right now, you also have a lot on your minds. In three days you will be moving from class to class heavy with books, dreams, and worries about this first year—you are likely worried about getting this all right. So that’s why I’m going to take a less conventional route today and give you advice you likely haven’t yet heard.

I hope you get it all wrong.

I hope that you spend a lot of time being wrong.

I take the crux of this idea from writer Kathryn Schulz, who published an entire book on the subject. In her TED Talk, which I often share with first-year students, Schulz, says this: “we all kind of wind up traveling through life, trapped in this little bubble of feeling very right about everything.”  What she means by this is that, at this moment, if I asked each of you to give me an example of something you are wrong about, you’d likely have trouble. You may be able to recount a time in the past when you got something wrong—like a question on a test or the date/time of a friend’s party—but in the present, it is difficult to discern anything we are wrong about. We are each in our own little “bubble” of rightness and correctness.

And it feels good.

It feels safe.

But I want you to pop the bubble. Let yourself be wrong. I’m not telling you to intentionally fail exams or to purposefully give incorrect responses during class discussions. But I am encouraging you to be honest and to write and say, “I don’t know” instead of just making up a response to appear right. Is this difficult? You bet. Because the entire enterprise of schooling is built on correct answers. You have spent the last 13 years earning praise and awards and good grades for getting it all right. The student with all the wrong answers doesn’t get the “A.” And Schulz points out that very early on, we are taught what to think about the kid with the “D” or “F’ on her paper, and we learn very quickly the shame associated with our own failures.

But what research has shown over the years is that the student who always gets the “A” is really stuck in that bubble of rightness and can’t think of or conceive a world outside of that bubble. And I say this with the firsthand knowledge of a Type A, slightly OCD, overachieving, high school valedictorian who spent a solid two decades striving for correctness. So I urge you then to think of that bubble as bubble wrap. That rightness—your sense of what is true and correct about the world—protects you. It keeps your ego or pride from getting injured because, hey, being wrong sucks. But it can also suffocate you; living in the bubble can prevent you from taking the risks and chances that are, I think, essential to living a full, happy, successful life.

Right now, many of you may be sitting here pretty certain about what you want to be when you grow up. You’re going to be a nurse, or a teacher, or a computer programmer, or a business owner, or an accountant, or a journalist. Maybe. Or maybe you’re wrong.

And right now maybe you’re dating your high school boyfriend or girlfriend, and you’re certain this is the person you’re going to marry one day. Maybe. Or, as Schulz notes, maybe “something else” will happen instead.

What’s great—and scary—about embracing uncertainty is that it opens you up to more opportunities and possibilities than you might have ever imagined. And that’s what I want for you—I want MORE than you can consider and conceive in this very moment. I want you, in the next four or five years, to find your true passion—to hone in on what really makes you tick—and to be open to the fact that it may have nothing to do with the major you’ve already selected.

I know that may sound a little fluffy or idealistic. And I also know that your generation, Generation Z, is, as a whole, more pragmatic. Most of you were in elementary school during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and it’s likely that you have experienced firsthand, both in your families and in your communities, the financial struggles associated with that. You want economic and job security, and truthfully, who can blame you? I will be paying off student loan debt until 2033, when my youngest child will graduate from high school. I understand your desire to be able to provide for and take care of yourselves and your future families. As a first-generation college student from a working class family, this was also my wish. But please—don’t let this desire for financial security be your only compass, or this journey that you are about to begin may become less meaningful, and in the long run, less satisfying.

When I was working on my master’s degree, I had a job as a professional writer for a company that matched people for different positions in new home sales based on how they responded to a personality survey. So I spent my days looking over their survey responses, making guesses about what they’d be good at, and then writing a report in which I would either recommend that the person be hired or not hired for a particular position. The money was good—especially for a single graduate student living on her own in metro Detroit. Three months on the job, I was offered the opportunity to stay on full-time, for more money, after I earned my master’s degree.  The offer was appealing. It was more than enough money to take care of myself, and it also meant that I could stay close to my family. But it was a job—not the career I had envisioned—and the work felt rather meaningless. I didn’t feel good about what I was doing. If anything, I felt guilty because the reports I wrote often prevented people from getting jobs. So I left and got more serious about applying to doctoral programs.

Five months later, I moved six hours from home to take a position as the Assistant Director of the Writing Center at IUP-Punxsutawney. At the time, I felt completely uncertain about that decision. I hadn’t planned to move away to earn my PhD. In my head, I was going to school in Michigan. But all of my acceptance letters were from other states. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I was also very close to my grandparents—having lived with them for most of my life. I had never been to Pennsylvania, and all that I knew about Punxsutawney was from watching the film Groundhog Day, which, as it turns out, wasn’t even filmed there. I knew very little about where I was going—except that I was putting 360 miles between me and everything I DID know. It was a risky journey that started with hundreds of questions and zero answers. Coming from a busy, diverse suburb of Metro Detroit, the adjustment to life in rural PA was also a struggle for me. It took a long time for me to feel at home here, but when I started teaching first-year students at this university in 2010, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Don’t be afraid to change your major—research tells us that about half of you will anyway. Don’t be afraid to walk the less-beaten path—to make a tougher decision to pursue something about which you are truly passionate and about which you truly, truly care. I care about teaching. I care about my students. I care about this university. And most mornings—maybe not every single morning—but most mornings, I want to go to work.  I hope that you all find and pursue your passion.

Opening yourself up to the possibility that you are wrong also allows you to see the world as it isn’t—to see the potential for change. Schulz calls this the “miracle” of your mind—that you don’t just see what’s here, but that you also see what’s not here—that you can envision your communities and this world as places that could be different and that could be better.  And when you dwell in a place of uncertainty and possibility, you are also more likely to take the risks that are necessary to effect change, to create, and re-make your world—not just on personal level, but in a way that also positively affects others.


Anneliese Welch and a student at the Workshop

Seven years ago, Rich Lane and I applied for a grant to open a family literacy center here in Clarion. Our dream was for the community to have a place where learners of all ages, pre-K through adult, could receive free homework help, tutoring, GED preparation and other educational assistance that would be provided by Clarion University students. We saw that the community needed a place like this, and we wanted to make it happen. The Clarion Community Learning Workshop has now been open for five years and has provided educational services and programs for over 1200 individuals from Clarion and the surrounding communities. Over 600 Clarion University students from a variety of academic programs have served at the Workshop since 2013.

Creating the Workshop was a risky endeavor. A month after we opened, people actually weren’t banging down the door for free homework help. Go figure. And there were a few times when we thought, “Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe we got this all wrong.” It didn’t feel good to consider that we might fail and how that failure would reflect on us. But our potential regret was heightened by the time, energy, effort, and resources provided by several of our colleagues at the University who really believed in our project. We didn’t want to fail them, either.  And although it all worked out in the end—it turns out there IS a market for free homework help—we had to become comfortable in a very uncomfortable and uncertain space for nearly a year. We had to keep moving forward all the while knowing we could be getting it all very wrong.

Creating the Workshop also meant taking an honest look at the world around us and seeing it as it wasn’t—and as it had the potential to be. This means asking questions: Why doesn’t a place like the Workshop exist? How could it happen? How can WE make it happen? When you live in a bubble of rightness, you don’t tend to ask a lot of questions. The world just IS—it is not as it COULD be. And right now, perhaps more than ever, we need to not only be able to see the possibility for change in our communities and our country, but we need to be able to risk our sense of rightness and correctness to put ourselves out there to make the change happen.

All of that being said, I DO like to be right; and if you need confirmation of that you can ask my husband or probably any of my colleagues in the front row. I don’t think the positive feeling we get from being right is something we can completely abandon or change or deny. But I have learned over the years that being able to say “I don’t know” or “I was wrong” has allowed me to become a better teacher, a better colleague, a better friend, and a better parent. I don’t have all the answers. And it drives my daughters, who are 9 and 3, absolutely nuts when I can’t answer their questions. And you know children ask a TON of questions. It would be much easier to lie to them and to just make it up as I go along. And I’m not saying I’ve never done that just to have some peace and quiet. I’m sure your parents occasionally made up some explanation to one of the 9,000,000,000 “but why?” questions that you asked as a child. But making it up just to be right serves little purpose as it teaches children that all questions have pretty simple answers. It also teaches them that their parents are near-perfect human beings who are never wrong. But…no pressure.

Knowing all the answers also serves me little purpose in the classroom, where my goals are to get students to see themselves as knowledgeable and to get them to ask questions as much as they seek answers. This means I often answer their questions with more questions. Admittedly, they find this irritating, and it takes a few weeks for them to figure out that I’m not being sarcastic or flippant when I respond to a question with, “I don’t know, what do you think?” I’m just being honest.

In my personal and professional relationships, at home and at work, I do my best to stay out of that bubble of rightness—as cozy, safe, and inviting at it sometimes appears—because I want to make this community a better place; because I want to continue to grow as a teacher and a scholar, and because I want to push my students to see a world of possibility and not plans. And that means I have to ask questions, take risks, get it wrong, ask more questions, and try again.

Starting this semester, I hope you will start to pop the bubble of your rightness and open yourselves up to being wrong. It may take years for you to find comfort in uncertainty and in strangers and for you to ask questions as often as you provide answers. But now is an excellent time to start practicing. At this moment you’ve already admitted, merely by being here, that there is more for you to learn—you’ve owned up to the fact that you don’t actually KNOW everything. And at this moment you are also surrounded by hundreds of complete strangers whom you also know little or nothing about. As scary as this may sound, there is no better time to push aside certainty, and to free yourself from what you think “will” happen in order to embrace all that “could.”

Leah Chambers has been an English professor at Clarion University since 2010. She specializes in teaching composition to first-year students and is also the coordinator of CU’s Freshman Inquiry Seminar Program. Her research interests include student retention and developing classroom strategies to support students through their first year. She lives in a small town 15 miles west of Clarion, PA with her husband, Tyler, an 8th grade Science teacher, and her two daughters, Ava and Mia. When’s she’s not teaching or writing about teaching, she enjoys running, baking and spending time with her children.

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A New Beginning

– Ray Feroz

Without a good relationship, our effect upon one another is nonexistent or destructive. –William Glasser

New Image

Ray Feroz

One of the things I love about working in academics is that we have a regular time-limited season (semester) and when it is over we can put the past behind us to start a new season, another semester.  In this respect we are like a baseball or football or soccer team – there is a season, a break, and a new opportunity to do things differently.  This may seem like no big deal, but if you have worked in a job that does not afford these fresh starts – e.g., post office, fast-food, hospitals, banks – you can deeply appreciate our situation in academia with our fresh starts and new hope.

This fall at Clarion University we have gone above and beyond the normal start-over with both a new president and interim provost!  I am delighted with this fresh-start opportunity to all work together to make Clarion University a better place.

These fresh starts can enable us to change the total direction of our professional – or personal – lives in the new semester or even in the next moment.  Let me suggest for your consideration one such change strategy:  Look for the good and accentuate the positive.  We can make a conscious effort to truly value and understand others – both the content of their communication as well as the process or feelings behind the content, to move toward mutual understanding and, as the Gestalt therapists say, participate in a shared journey.  Have compassion and seek to understand deeply.  Civility is the result.  We are members of a community of scholars, colleagues all.

We all make mistakes – I have certainly been guilty of not always taking the time to deeply understand others.  I have made assumptions and rushed to judgment.  Sometimes we find ourselves in roles where an in-your-face approach is almost expected.  And, sometimes we must be unyielding in our opposition to darkness.  But mostly there is light out there and I can truly say that I sleep better at night when I try my best to understand deeply and work collaboratively.

The Dalai Lama said:

If you want to be good to others, have compassion.  If you want to be good to yourself, have compassion.

Pause and think about these words.  Notice that the secret to happiness seems to be in valuing and understanding others – being in touch with the feelings and purpose of those who populate our lives – family, friends, colleagues, students, and even strangers.  If we can better understand and care for them, the upshot will be a salve for our own spirit.  What a nice gift to others as we start a new academic year, and to ourselves.  And the workplace – and world – will be a better place.

Ray Feroz is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Human Services, Rehabilitation, Health and Sport Sciences at Clarion University, where he teaches courses in rehabilitation administration, human services delivery systems, and substance abuse. In 2017, he spearheaded the development of an online Opioid Treatment Specialist Certificate. He went to school at University of Pittsburgh, Boston University, and Kent State University, and is a US Army Vietnam era veteran. He has four children and eight granddaughters.

Posted in State of the university | Tagged | 3 Comments

What I Learned This Semester…

– Jeanne M. Slattery

My favorite classes and students are those that make me think and learn. One of my favorite times this semester was with a student who is not a psychology major. Christian Schill is in the honors program and has a major in molecular biology and a minor in chemistry. I’d had him in class a year ago, but have only occasionally exchanged words with him since then.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 10.57.38 AMEarlier this semester, Tina Horner sent an email describing ABLE’s work with the SNAP Challenge, which challenges us “to spend only the amount allotted to Pennsylvania residents receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.”

Tina’s email captured my attention. I thought for 30 seconds about what I would need to give up to eat on $4.73 per day before deciding against it.  We don’t buy prepared or processed foods, but we also don’t scrimp. We probably spend 30-50% more than the $66.22 per week we would be allotted – and that wouldn’t include eating out. Add another $75-100 for dinner Friday, lunch through the week, and lattes six days a week. No going out to eat EVER, no lattes.

My time in graduate school probably counts toward the SNAP Challenge, although that poverty was different. It was the exception rather than the rule; I knew my poverty – I lived on $3500 per year and couldn’t even afford milk – was a short-term problem.

But I wrote Christian an email, asking him to write for HiH – even though I know that he is very busy. (Yes, I do that.) He wrote me back and asked if I would attend the Community Potluck to “start a group conversation about not just the Challenge, but how, in Clarion County we can work to address the issue of food insecurity.” (Apparently, he does that, too.)

Poverty is a real issue in Clarion County. According to the US Census Bureau, Clarion County’s per capita income is $22,451; 15.2% of our residents live in poverty. Goldrick-Rab, Richardson, Schneider, Hernandez, and Cady (2018) concluded that, nationally, 36% of university students experienced food insecurity in the 30 days preceding their survey. Food insecurity is even more common for community college students. Homelessness is an issue for a similar number of college and community college students. How do these problems affect our students’ ability to come to class, engage successfully with the ideas raised there, and succeed?

This is a conversation we need to have. Although I teach most of the day – until shortly before the Potluck – and planned on donating blood during my “down time,” I said yes.

I wasn’t sure I made a good decision. This has been a good semester, but incredibly busy. I went, though, and was glad I did. About a dozen students and community members shared dinner, talked about their attempts at the SNAP Challenge, and considered the impact of poverty, as well as the privilege of being poverty-free, at least at present (if we were).

What did I learn?

  1. I learned that I don’t know my students as well as I’d thought. Three of the people around the table were former students. Another was a former student’s child who I’d watched grow up. I hadn’t recognized that any of them were involved in a project like this one. Christian’s grandmother hovered in the background, making food and cleaning up. I tend – wrongly, I know – to assume that my students’ activities and support system extend no further than my knowledge of these things. An alumna from another department, now working in the human services field, talked about her attempts to feed her family, how she made a range of decisions based on the cost of gas, of food. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
  2. I saw passion and commitment. My generation has believed that we are the last passionate and socially-committed generation. The Parkland students are challenging this stereotype, as are our students performing the SNAP Challenge and those students I talked to about our presidential search. I enjoyed spending the evening of a too-busy day sitting with people as they talked about their attempts at the SNAP Challenge, how food insufficiency has affected them or how it might affect others, and what they wanted to do differently.
  3. I learned the power of a single email. Tina’s email announcement captured my imagination and, while I spent only 30 seconds deciding against engaging in the SNAP Challenge, I have thought about the Challenge off and on for three months now, and am considering making it an option when I talk about oppression and privilege in class next Spring. (The pot luck actually occurred right before my discussion of these issues this year and led to a pretty powerful discussion.)

One of the things that I most enjoy about teaching is being surprised regularly by my students. My students help me see new possibilities and approach my field and world in new ways. While we may not recognize the ways that we have touched our students’ lives, it’s probably also true that they do not recognize the ways that they have touched ours. This was one and only one such instance this semester.


Goldrick-Rab, S., Richardson, J., Schneider, J., Hernandez, A., & Cady, C. (2018). Still hungry and homeless in college. Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Retrieved from

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

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I love my job, I hate my job, I love my job. I …

– Marilouise Michel


Mel Michel

The classroom feeds me.

Well of course not literally. I guess my teaching in the classroom facilitates the paycheck that feeds me.

But I’m sure I’m not the only one who, once I get in the classroom, feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. It’s about the sharing of my passion, the igniting of a passion in my students, opening eyes and changing perspectives. Not to my point of view, but to varieties of views and the realization of different perspectives.

And then, I am still scooping up cell phones and waking up students who slump, close their eyes, and cover up with their hoodies as much as they can. And when one of the students whose cell phone I pick up stands and says, nah, he’d rather leave class than not have his phone, I wonder, “Am I kidding myself? Does what I do make any kind of significant difference?”

Then there are always the students who “get it.” Who really seem connected to the material and the ways in which their eyes are opening.

I’m not kidding myself. I know Introduction to Theatre changes very few lives. For most kids it is filling in an Arts and Humanities slot that is required, and they really don’t care what class goes there. I use it as an opportunity to teach a set of skills about academia to the freshman and reinforce them with the older students. I know they don’t all do all the reading – heck they don’t all even buy the textbook. But getting papers that tell me in one form or another “I didn’t know this before and this is cool and I think I’ll keep looking into this further” is what feeds my soul.

In my other job as a Life Coach, I try to help people see that their job doesn’t have to be their life. It can be the thing that facilitates their life. For academics who initially go into this work because we love our fields of study, this can be a hard concept to grasp. When my job feels like only a job, it is sometimes hard to face.

Ultimately, even though I have to remind myself sometimes, I know I am blessed to be making a living doing the one thing I am really good at and really enjoy. I so want that for my students. If I can teach them anything I want it to be to keep looking and trying new things until they find that thing that really turns their key.

The creator of Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda, said in an interview that he owes his success to realizing he wasn’t as good as his peers at a lot of things, but that he “picked a lane and I started running ahead of everybody else” (Holiday, 2017, p. 45). With undergrads, helping them pick a lane where they can run free, uninhibited and with joyous abandon is the ultimate goal. Would I love it to be the theatre lane? Sure. But I want them to see that they have choices. I also want them to have the tools to change lanes without fear.

So, except when I’m scooping up cell phones (I forbid them in my classes – a long story for another article), I pretty much love my job. And sometimes it’s just what allows me to pay the bills, for which I am also grateful.

Is it summer yet?


Holiday, R. (2017). Perennial seller: The art of making and marketing work that lasts.. New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin.

Marilouise “Mel” Michel is a Professor of Theatre, Holistic Life Coach, Certified Yoga Teacher and burgeoning writer. Her website is

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Dear C is a Failing Grade

Dear Ms. Scholar, I recently saw the statistics on the numbers of As given in college classes nationwide. When more than 45% of students receive As, should we even give Ds and Fs? Perhaps C is a failing grade. Should we even attempt to retain students who earn below a 2.0 QPA? Should we begin telling students who earn a 2.5 or 3.0 that they are on academic suspension?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear C is a Failing Grade, In Ms. Scholar’s mind, a C continues to be an honorable, albeit average grade, although she suspects that many students, employers, and graduate programs disagree.

However, to an increasing degree, you are correct. In this graphic from Rojstaczer (n.d.), for example, over 45% of grades awarded nationwide in 2012 were As – up from 15% in 1940. See Figure 1. The other big change seen across time is in the number of Cs. Bs and Cs had been almost equal in frequency (with Cs having a slight edge); now Cs are awarded only half as often as Bs.


Figure 1. From Rojstaczer (n.d.)

Faculty have probably not become far superior instructors during this period – although Ms. Scholar believes that faculty are much more likely to consider effective teaching and student learning at this point in time than when she was in school. Instead, it seems that expectations have dropped, as has study time  (Babcock & Marks, 2010). Changes in study time, for example, have been observed across a range of institutions; study time is now about 2/3 of what it was in 1961. See Figure 2.

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 8.39.37 PM

Figure 2. Average study time for full-time students at four-year US colleges by institution type and selectivity, 1961 and 2003 (Babcock & Marks, 2010)

If about 80% of students nationwide earned As or Bs in 2012, a C clearly has become a below average grade. Students now seem to be more aware of this underlying grade distribution and protest scores very different from what they would receive in another course or at another school. “Good courses” or “good professors” – from a student’s view – often seem to be those giving a disproportionate number of As.

Ms. Scholar’s grade distribution is well below that described by Rojstaczer (n.d.). See Figure 1. Still, she admits awarding Cs to students whose performance is below what she sees as average or acceptable. Even so, some students are not happy. For example, one student complained about his grade when he received 9/10 on a reflection paper, seeming to believe that the fact that he had turned it in and responded to the prompt should have been sufficient to earn him full credit. Another teared up when told that she could not earn a B in our course (she would need to earn more points than were still available and was barely earning a C).

What does a C mean? Are those of us who attempt to maintain high expectations reasonable? Should our students expect that their work, regardless of quality, deserves a B or A?

Should we tell students – and the public – that our students’ work is acceptable when it clearly is not? To what degree is it fair when our individual norms and expectations vary significantly from national norms? Ms. Scholar does not have the answer for these and other questions.

Ms. Scholar’s senior year of high school was spent in a program that emphasized self-directed learning and did not give grades. Such a program changed the ways that she sees grades. What matters? Not grades, but her students’ learning and engagement.

To partially remind herself of this, Ms. Scholar has posted a copy of Tom Wayman’s (1993) poem, Did I Miss Anything?, on her door. At one point, Wayman concludes (tongue firmly in cheek):

None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose.

Your presence, your work does matter.

Ms. Scholar recognizes that she has responded only to the easiest of your questions. Briefly, she attempts to be realistic about what grades really mean, while also attempting to keep her finger in the dike against grade inflation.  Although it is unlikely that C will again become the modal grade, we should let students know when their work is below par.

Perhaps we should focus not so much on the grades we award, but on the expectations we set and the quality of work we are willing to accept. Ms. Scholar believes we should set our expectations high. – Ms. Scholar


Babcock, P., & Marks, M. (2010). Leisure College, USA: The decline in student study time. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Education Outlook, No. 7.
Retrieved from

Rojstaczer, S. (n.d.). Grade inflation at American colleges and universities. Retrieved from

Wayman, T. (1993). Did I miss anything? Selected Poems 1973-1993. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing. Retrieved from

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


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Distance Education? A Correspondence Course?


Paul Woodburne

– Paul Woodburne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 8.53.42 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


US Department of Education, Office of Inspector General. (2017, September). Western Governors University was not eligible to participate in the Title IV Programs: Final Audit Report (ED-OIG/A05M0009). Retrieved from

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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