Ten (Unproven) Ways to Build a Growth Mindset


Photo from Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning (Spencer & Juliani, 2017)

– Jeanne M. Slattery

Like you, I want my students to succeed. I want my students to see themselves as capable of personal, academic, and professional success.

Unfortunately, many of our students see themselves as incapable of success: “I can’t write,” “I’m not good at math,” “I can’t go to graduate school.” Dweck (2006) refers to this style of thinking as fixed mindset (“I can’t change”). These statements easily become self-fulfilling prophecies that limit students’ ability to learn, their ability to succeed.

I want my students to see themselves as able to grow and change, to learn to write better, and to further develop their mathematical skills. I believe – and Dweck (2006) concurs – that we can help our students develop a growth mindset (their belief that they can grow and change) – if we know how.

Why would we want to do this? I want my students to own their own learning, become life-long learners, be self-directed, and think outside the box. When we develop their ability to own their own learning and to grow, we develop the kind of students we want to see.

Ten strategies for building growth mindset

How can we do this? Dweck (2006) describes a number of different strategies for building growth mindset, including talking about brain plasticity and neural development, focusing on behavior rather than traits (e.g., “You really worked hard on this,” rather than “You’re so smart!”), and challenging our students’ permanent attributions about their behavior (e.g., “You’re not a good writer – yet“).

With my students, I focus on behavior and performance and regularly challenge my students’ self-perceptions – and often self-fulfilling prophecies – that they are unable to perform a task. These are some of the other things that I do, including the actual assignments or tools that I use.

  1. Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 6.56.07 PM

    Figure 1. Average performance in Psychology of Personal Growth across exams over time.

    Challenge students’ beliefs that they cannot do better on later exams. My students often do poorly on their first exam – perhaps due to failures to read the text, study for the exam, or study effectively. Because I want my students to succeed rather than perceive themselves as “bad in psychology,” I show them Figure 1, which describes average performance on exams across semesters (this is for Psychology of Personal Growth). I emphasize that, on the whole, students do get better as the term progresses.

  2. Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 7.12.39 PM

    Figure 2. Differences between fixed and growth mindsets.

    Teach students about mindset. When I return my students’ first exams, I talk explicitly about mindset and why it matters. I talk about the impact of mindset using this table, which I display one row at a time. See Figure 2.

  3. Mindset isn’t just a conversation for one day. I talk about mindset all semester, both as I talk about class content and as I respond to student concerns. If I want my students to believe me, I have to be genuine and consistent as I talk about mindset (or anything else). They have to believe that I believe they can grow and do better.
  4. Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 7.26.31 PM

    Figure 3. Reflection assignment after first exam.

    Ask students to reflect on their study and test-taking behaviors. I ask students to reflect in several ways, but the first way that I do this is with an assignment due a week after their first exam, where they are asked to compare their study habits to descriptions of effective habits. See Figure 3. These resources include Chew’s videos (this is the first of five), a section of Dweck’s (2006) book, and an article by Mark Mitchell that helps students decode where they ran into problems on an exam.

  5. Ask students to specifically consider their study behaviors. McGuire (2015) describes a number of behaviors associated with academic success. This semester I’m asking my students to reflect on their exams and behaviors relative to theories of effective study. I’ve asked them to complete this survey of their strategies for preparing for their first exam. (Feel free to crib this or anything else I have here.)
  6. Describe and reinforce improvements in behavior. Their second exam is no easier than their first, but when students better do better, I tell them. In my Abnormal Psychology class this summer, after their second exam, I told them that they had performed 8% better on average than on the first exam, with 86% of the class doing better.
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    Figure 4. One example of a study tip slide.

    Explicitly teach students how to learn more effectively. This semester, I am spending a few minutes at the beginning of many classes describing study tips that can make them learn more effectively and communicate well what they learn. See Figure 4. It does not need to be time consuming to help students learn well. In fact, McGuire (2015) suggests that this might be accomplished in one class period. I plan to distribute this conversation over the course of the semester.

  8. Write syllabi to help students become successful. I include information on where their grades come from and what they can do to be successful including, in some cases, the research supporting my recommendations: “You can use your computer to take notes on the PowerPoint, but be aware that the research suggests that we learn best when taking handwritten notes (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). People are also more likely to be tempted to multitask when their computers are open – which few people do successfully.” (Abnormal Psychology, Fall 2017)
  9. Ask students to reflect on how they’ve changed. In many courses, I ask students to reflect on how they’ve changed across time. In Senior Seminar, our department’s capstone, I ask my students to come to the first class of the semester with an assignment from early in their college career – something they performed well on, but something they would now complete more successfully. I am trying to get my students to think about how they have grown and changed – in order to help them grow and change as they transition into graduate schools and careers.
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    Figure 5. Home page from Senior Seminar’s D2L shell.

    Include inspirational quotes and models illustrating growth mindset. Figure 5 is from Senior Seminar and shows my description of their first assignment – but also includes a quote from Cornel West: “If you graduate the same as when you entered, you wasted someone’s money.” In addition, I include quotes from Kay Redfield Jamison and John Nash, respectively, a major researcher on affective disorders, herself diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and a Nobel laureate, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Finally, I talk about my own learning process. It may look easy now, but it hasn’t always. (Although I am a strong teacher now, when I first started teaching, I wrote out my lectures – even my jokes!)

I have no systematic evidence that these strategies work better than others, although McGuire (2015) describes research on similar interventions. Generally, students do perform better across the semester and stay in my course rather than withdrawing.

Are there other explanations for their behavior? Quite possibly. However, if your students aren’t already performing better across exams over the course of the semester, then consider adopting these strategies.

And, if as a university we want to build growth mindset among our students most effectively, we all need to adopt this attitude: when our students say, “I can’t learn ____________ ,” we can chime – “YET!!!”


Dweck, D. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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

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A Passionate Why: What Drives My Teaching

– Leah Chambers

Photo of Me

Leah Chambers

Throughout his bookStart with Why, and all throughout his TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” writer and entrepreneur Simon Sinek repeats the refrain, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do serves as proof of what you believe [about the world].” At the most basic level, Sinek is arguing the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words” when it comes to communicating one’s values. We all know people who are “all talk.” Their words don’t sync up with their behaviors, and—because of this—they struggle to win our respect, our loyalty, our trust, or our vote. These people are not “living” their WHY—their true purpose. They are more focused on WHAT they do and HOW they do it—more focused on achieving fame, success, or wealth, which Sinek would agree is all secondary to the WHY. From time to time, we are all “all talk”—in love with the idea of having a higher purpose or cause but more focused on earning a paycheck and just making it through the day. On the 35-year journey to discover my WHY, I have been quite the dreamer and often struggled to align what I was doing with what I really believe about the world. I’ve taken jobs just to pay the bills, not because I found working at Target or Arby’s or waiting tables to be particularly inspiring. But now, I think I have my WHY figured out.

Sinek Why How What.jpg

So, WHAT do I do? I teach. More specifically, I teach writing to first-year college students, and it is WHAT I have been doing for the past nine years. Doing some quick mental math, I have taught 56 sections of first-year writing to approximately 1,120 students who have written about 4,480 essays. These essays tend to average 4 pages each, so that’s about 17,920 pages of student writing that I have read and assessed since 2008.

HOW do I do these things? I teach with an ever-evolving 
pedagogy that provides students with two, three and sometimes 
four opportunities to revise and to improve. I offer feedback, a lot 
of it. And yes, I know they don’t read it all. I give them choices—sometimes about topics and other times about readings. I listen—to what they say and what they don’t. I emphasize the importance of setting goals, in my course and in others, and I facilitate class discussion about success, motivation, and the difficulties of adjusting to college course work and of managing time. Last year, I had my students keep an “Academic Reflection Journal” in which they articulated and reflected on their goals, how well they were meeting them, and the difficulties and triumphs that they experienced during their first semester. This fall, I will be asking my students to reflect on how they learn and teaching them reading strategies. And, yes, I still teach writing. I teach focus, organization, transitions, how to write well in different genres, and—for five minutes every semester—how to use a comma. I view the first-year composition course as a site of enculturation—a place where students can develop their studentness. So in English 110, writing is not the content. It instead becomes the means through which to address these non-cognitive issues that often make or break a student’s chances of success.

WHY do I teach like this? Because when a student’s aspirations don’t match her motivation, I lose sleep at night. Because I am troubled when students disappear and drop out. Because I know that college is expensive, and the government will want its money back, regardless of whether my students graduate or find jobs. Because I don’t believe, nor did any of my teachers, that “sink or swim” is a teaching philosophy. And educators with this mentality should perhaps re-think their career choice. Because I care.

And WHAT I do also serves as proof of what I don’t believe about the world. This is my “negative WHY.” I don’t believe that everyone has a fair shot. I don’t believe the playing field is level or that no matter where a person grows up, he/she has a chance to succeed. In short, I don’t believe in equality of opportunity. This is an issue that has been addressed by numerous writers, including two of my favorites, Jonathan Kozol and Mike Rose. Like them, I do believe it’s a myth—even though my own life, when viewed in particular ways, could serve as an example of the contrary.

I grew up in a single-parent household. My mother worked long hours, and my sister became my babysitter when she was 12. I remember eating a lot of microwaved food; we weren’t allowed to use the stove. I took my first job at 14, a paper route, so that I could help pay for my school clothes and have spending money for mall trips with friends. At 16, I worked 30 hours each week at Arby’s, a job that necessitated a vehicle. I leased a little red Ford Ranger pickup for $200/month + the cost of insurance. I entered higher education in the year 2000, a first-generation college student financing a four-year degree on a lot of federal loans. Throughout college and graduate school, I worked 2-3 jobs at a time.

This snapshot supports the notion that even, with a lack of financial resources or a seeming lack of parental involvement, with hard work and determination, a person can raise his/her socioeconomic status and actually do better than the generation before—in essence, a “bootstraps” narrative. It’s true that I do live a relatively comfortable middle-class life. Sure, I will be paying off my student loans until my two-year-old enters college (no joke), but my children will never have to worry about working at 14 to help buy their own clothes.

But it’s not that simple, and I refuse to allow my story to be used to claim that equal opportunity does exist. Many people have tried to frame it that way: “Well you worked hard. Why can’t other people do that?” Maybe. But there are additional, essential details to consider, and it’s also really important for those who believe that everyone has a fair shot to understand that hard work and opportunity are not mutually exclusive. It’s far more complicated than that. I was smart, and I “played school” very well. In 20+ years of schooling, I earned only two “Bs,” both in the 6th grade and both in non-academic classes—woodshop and art. And in both cases, my perfectionist tendencies led me to not complete projects on time.

Photo of Letter

Leah’s letter from Beverly Cleary..

Beyond that, Lamphere School District, the public district I attended as a child, was well funded and offered me a high-quality education. I had teachers who genuinely cared for me, sparked my curiosity and helped me fall in love with reading and writing. In first grade, I was encouraged by my teacher, Mrs. Niesluhowski, to write a letter to my favorite author, Beverly Clearly. On the outside of the reply envelope, Cleary had printed “KEEP WRITING” in block letters, and inside, in shaky blue ink, signed with a red heart, she thanked me for the poems I sent her. My grandmother took the letter to work and had it laminated.

Although my mother worked long hours, she spent any energy she had left in the evenings making sure that my homework was done—and done well. We moved twice before I graduated high school, and both times my mom made certain we stayed in the same school district. She also signed me up for the summer reading program at my local library and any other free educational programming that was available. And when high school started, and she had trouble understanding my homework, she would call her brother or my [now] stepdad to help out.

I had a tremendous amount of family support and guidance that resulted in me being valedictorian of my senior class and earning a 50% scholarship to a private liberal arts college. I graduated in four years, second in my class, and made an easy transition to graduate school. Yes, I worked hard—but at Arby’s and Target—not at school. It was the combination of my innate intelligence, the quality schools that I attended as a child, and the support from home that gave me an advantage over many of the kids to whom I was statistically identical.

Today, most first-generation college students from low-income households don’t do as well. In fact, synthesizing information provided by the Pell Institute, Liz Riggs (2014) reported: “Just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school” (para. 5). To summarize Riggs further, there are a myriad of reasons for their inability to graduate. Most of these students work full-time jobs while they attend school. They also tend to come from high schools not geared toward college preparation. Their lack of preparedness for higher education, combined with insufficient hours to devote to schooling, often leads to their failure.

Arguably, the colleges and universities that admit these students are the ones who are failing. Although they open their doors to these students and can anticipate their struggles, they often lack resources and programs that target this population for support, and they also don’t work hard enough to provide them. More of these students would likely graduate if more colleges and universities felt ethically bound to their success and cared about what happens when these students leave higher education with a pile of debt and no degree. But to do that, they would have to view them as people and not numbers.

I was more fortunate. My college offered a program specifically for low-income, first-generation students, the McNair Scholars Program, named for Ronald McNair, an African-American physicist and astronaut who died during the launch of the Challenger in 1986. The program was designed to encourage students to seek graduate degrees, and it did this by providing its members with financial support, as well as mentoring from a faculty member. In my three years as a McNair Scholar, I received over $5,000 toward my education. When I completed my doctoral work in 2010, I was the first McNair Scholar from my college to do so.

Screen Shot 2017-08-23 at 1.38.17 PMI would argue that at least half of the 1,100 students I have taught since 2008 did not have the level of sponsorship and support that I had growing up. As I have seen in my own courses, many of our students struggle to balance the demands of college with family and work responsibilities. For first-generation college students (42% of Clarion University students), this struggle is often compounded by a lack of understanding on the part of both students and their families of the effort and time commitment college demands. (I would argue that nearly all our students underestimate the rigor of academic work). More of our students than we realize are supporting themselves financially, or, in some cases, even helping their parents pay the bills. See map above. Not only do students tend to underestimate the amount of time they need to devote to their studies, some simply don’t have the hours in the day.  So, with all that our students have not working in their favor, ask yourself, what can WE do?

I teach in the ways that I describe above because I believe that in the classroom, we can level the playing field. We can provide the balance of challenge and support that students need to thrive. We can hold them accountable but also recognize their struggles. We can, quietly, walk over and wake up the student with her head on the desk and, instead of assuming she’s lazy, talk to her about why she’s so tired. We can open up a dialogue about making better choices to help juggle work and family with school. By not pretending that everyone has a fair shot and by opening our eyes to these inequities and to the baggage that students bring with them into the classroom, we can increase their chances to graduate—or to at least return for another semester.

The Community Learning Workshop further demonstrates my WHY. The Learning Workshop is the drop-in homework and tutoring center on Main Street that I co-direct with Rich Lane. The Workshop offers all of its programs and services free of charge. (To decrease costs, people have suggested that we charge for our services. My colleague Rich and I agree that we would close down before we would do that.) In essence, the Learning Workshop is what Deborah Brandt, a scholar of literacy studies would call, a site of “sponsorship.” Brandt (1998) defines literacy sponsors as “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way” (p. 166). At the Learning Workshop, we support K-12 students and community adults in their education and learning. Many of these individuals come from low-income households, where resources to provide for their basic needs, like food and heat, are sometimes lacking. And in some cases, the children’s parents have low levels of literacy and are unable to assist them with their homework.

The Workshop exists to help these students excel and to increase their educational opportunities. I do not mean to overestimate the impact of the Workshop and what we do, but I do know that without it, many of these children would not be doing as well in school. And there is no amount of hard work and trying that would help them succeed. They aren’t lazy. They don’t desire to fail. What prevents them from doing well and what boosts the success of other children, who are equally smart or equally struggling, is often just a matter of support and resources. Those of us who have the means to provide the support, provide the opportunities, and make the playing field as level as possible—in our classrooms and in our larger communities—must make every effort to do just that. And it all starts with WHY.

If we can rediscover WHY we went into education, WHY we think any of it matters, and what it is about ourselves that made teaching our calling or career choice, we would likely be better and more effective at what we do. If we can look past the content that we bring into the classroom and focus less on coverage and on meeting the deadlines of our well-intentioned course schedules, we might actually catch a glimpse of our students—with their hopes, their goals, their challenges, their needs, and their ever-increasing loan debt. And then we might figure out how to really help them succeed.


Brandt, D. (1998). Sponsors of literacy. College Composition and Communication, 49(2), 165-185. Retrieved from https://wac.appstate.edu/sites/wac.appstate.edu/files/112BrandtSponsorsofLiteracy.pdf

Riggs, L. (2014). First-generation college-goers: Unprepared and behind. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/12/the-added-pressure-faced-by-first-generation-students/384139/

Sinek, S. (2011). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Portfolio/Penguin.

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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Dear Left Confused

Dear Ms. Scholar, I watched the report from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) and was left confused. There were good ideas, although these ideas were often so vague that, as I read the media and listened to friends, I was pretty confused. Any thoughts on the report?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Left Confused, Ms. Scholar had a similar response. On the one hand, the recommendations that I’d feared NCHEMS would make weren’t on their list, but the more I read, the more I was, like you, unclear about what exactly had been recommended. (Click the green button here for NCHEMS’s PowerPoint, and here for video of their presentation, starting at 3:00.)

Importantly, Dennis Jones looked around the room and suggested that all of us had dug the hole leading to PASSHE’s current problems – the legislature, the Chancellor, the Board of Governors, management, faculty, and the union – and that we needed to work together to resolve these problems (Slide 5). Jones sounded like the wise grandparent, admonishing the foolish children listening to his message (and there were a surprising number of us listening). Ms. Scholar watched the Board of Governors fidget in response to his words. They weren’t the only ones.

One of Ms. Scholar’s insightful colleagues summed up Jones’s message as: communicate, collaborate, be transparent, build trust, and support one other (e.g., Slide 37). These words rang true for many of us, who have increasingly felt as though the various parties comprising the System were in a rush to spitefully cut off their own noses. Effective communication, collaboration, transparency, trust, and support have been in short supply in recent years, a real change from even a decade earlier.

Many of us were elated to learn that NCHEMS adamantly recommended that no university should be closed, no universities merged, and none separated from the rest of the System (Slide 35). Gardner’s (2017) recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education argued that Georgia’s mergers – in a very different system – experienced minimal savings, but significant disruptions. Given this, Jones’s recommendations were not surprising. Meshing different universities, each with its own culture, rules, organization, and identity, is neither simple nor painless.

A Rorschach

Despite our initial elation, the NCHEMS report was vague and a bit of a Rorschach, with different parties projecting onto the report their own hopes and fears. For example, while most faculty initially felt affirmed by the report, some of us were surprised by comments such as this one from Jones, that apparently took place outside of the official airing:

“[Some universities have] got more staff than they can sustain, but you still want to provide service to the regions they serve, and the way you do that is to provide student services at those institutions and programs from somewhere else.”  (Snyder, 2017a, para. 14-15)

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 9.01.17 PM

Slide 48 from NCHEMS PowerPoint.

What is Jones suggesting? Is he saying that some university services can be cut or is he suggesting that courses can be imported from elsewhere? Part of why we are confused is that Jones seems to be using the terms “staff” and “student services” differently than faculty do.

We now believe Jones is talking about cutting faculty and importing classes. Slide 48 seems to suggest greater reliance on a consortium model with schools working collaboratively to provide needed services, programs, and classes. This was also Joni Finney’s conclusion. She concluded that the NCHEMS “consultants effectively recommended mergers without calling them that, referring to the recommendation on consolidation” (Snyder, 2017b, para. 7). Finney is director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Students First

Jones observed that the System and its parts have primarily focused on maintaining and growing that system, following a typical business model. Jones made an impassioned plea that we put our students, not profitability, first. He noted, for example, that closing schools in the west would hurt students from Forest County, where families earn 1/3 of those in Chester County ($25,000 vs. $75,000). Students from the wealthiest families are becoming more common on our campuses, while students from poorer families are becoming less common (Slide 18). NCHEMS’s first and perhaps strongest recommendation was that we “retain and ensure sustainability of the State System’s capacity in every region to carry out its mission to serve students and communities with high-quality, affordable postsecondary opportunities for working-class families” (Slide 41, italics added). This is a an important goal that Ms. Scholar endorses, but NCHEMS does not yet offer a road map for getting there.

What did Jones mean when he asked us to put our students first? This was unclear, but Ms. Scholar suspects that Jones is suggesting that we remember our mission, that we look for ways to open vistas for our students (rather than mostly focusing on what is most profitable). As many others also suggest, he believes PASSHE should expand its use of services designed to foster student success (Slide 47).

However, while Ms. Scholar can envision forms of academic collaboration that would support our students well, she can also imagine disaster. Yet, Jones seemed to be indicating that the smaller, less financially-viable schools should increasingly import online courses from other schools (Slide 48). Ms. Scholar believes that there is a time and place for online education, but that our undergraduates also need the kinds of mentoring that often comes best from personal interactions between faculty and students, and from student to student. If we are really putting students first, as we strive to provide them with high-quality, affordable education, we need to be thoughtful and strategic about the nature of our collaborations.

“Students first” is a lovely catchphrase. However, Ms. Scholar expects that most people in the room during Mr. Jones’s presentation believed that they already do put students first. Let’s talk about what putting students first means and make this more than a catchphrase: let’s make it a central aspect of our mission and our actions.

The devil is in the details.


Gardner, L. (2017). Georgia’s mergers offer lessons, and cautions, to other states. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Georgia-s-Mergers-Offer/240390

Snyder, S.  (2017a). No closures, mergers recommended for Pa. state colleges. The Inquirer, Retrieved from http://www.philly.com/philly/education/no-closures-mergers-recommended-for-pa-state-colleges-20170712.html

Snyder, S.  (2017b). School report draws criticism, praise. The Inquirer, Retrieved from http://www.philly.com/philly/education/school-report-draws-criticism-praise-20170714.html

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

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Final Assignments: What Did We Learn?

– Jeanne M. Slattery

Figure 1. Maggie Ditmore, evaluating her internship experience.

Figure 1. Maggie Ditmore, describing her internship experience for our department’s Facebook page.

The end of the semester is a time for reflection.

My final class assignment is often some type of reflection about the semester. In my internship course, I ask my students to evaluate their experiences both for our department Facebook page and more formally in a Discussion Board shared with the class. See Figure 1. In my Intro to Counseling class, students write self-evaluations at the beginning and end of the semester, describing what they want to learn in the semester and then how they’ve grown over the course of the class. As I described in an earlier post, my Senior Seminar students begin the semester by evaluating their learning over the course of their entire college career. In a more relaxed setting at the end of the term, those same students reflect aloud on their semester: what worked, what didn’t, and what I should do differently next time.

In my lower-level courses, I ask my students a somewhat simpler question: What did they learn this semester? I asked my freshmen in my inquiry seminar, for example, to identify the most important things they’d learned and to communicate these in a group presentation. See Figures 2 and 3. Perhaps in the future, I’ll allow students to do a skit, poem, song, or dance, but for now, just a presentation.

Figure 2. Antonia's description of what she had learn.

Figure 2. Antonia’s description of what she had learned in her inquiry seminar.

Why do I give these assignments? At least four reasons. First, I want my students to consolidate their learning over the course of the semester, so they recognize what they have learned. Second, in classes like Intro to Counseling, as Emily Cornman describes here, I use this reflection as a type of formative assessment to help my students recognize their strengths and weaknesses, as well as identify growing points for the future:

When I was scheduling classes for this semester my advisor, Dr. Slattery, suggested I take this course. I had told her about my desire to be a statistician for psychological research and expressed that I had little interest in being a therapist. I felt I would not perform well as a therapist because I did not think I had the skills to do so. In the past, I have had trouble with empathizing with others, especially those I could not easily relate to. Also, I had difficulty listening to others and being insightful about what they were saying…. Not only has this course helped me improve upon the previously mentioned weaknesses I would have had as a therapist, but it has also inspired me to consider becoming a therapist. I have realized, it was not that I was incapable of these skills, I was just not educated on how to acquire them. – Emily Cornman, Intro to Counseling, Fall 2015

Third, while I use such assignments to help my students learn and understand themselves, they help me recognize what my students are learning and what I need to work on further. In the Fall 2015, most of my student groups referred to the Wellness Wheel in their presentations, but not to PERMA. I wasn’t entirely surprised, as the Wellness Wheel focuses on concrete behaviors – in the physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, career, and social domains – while Seligman’s (2011) description of PERMA emphasizes how one lives (i.e., feeling positive emotions, engaging, fostering relationships, finding meaning, and having a sense of accomplishment). This is a more abstract, thus more difficult, way of thinking about wellness, but an approach that I think is ultimately more important. In Spring 2016, I changed my approach to discussing wellness. When my students talked about both the Wellness Wheel and PERMA during their presentations, I concluded we’d discussed wellness more effectively that semester.

Figure 2. Paige's slide about what she'd learned in Living Life Well.

Figure 3. Paige’s description of what she had learned in her inquiry seminar.

When students only talk about content discussed in our course, I am disappointed, as that sort of discussion usually requires only a superficial analysis of what we did. In my inquiry seminars, for example, I asked my students to develop habits of mind that are often difficult for freshmen, but that can be helpful in the future (e.g., questioning, reflection, analysis, teamwork, self-observation). I want them to recognize these habits of mind as important to what we did that semester.

At their mid-semester evaluation, a number of my inquiry seminar students complained about their journals: too much writing, too frequent writing. I was tempted to cut back on this assignment, but the abilities to introspect, to develop ideas, and to observe and write about observations are skills that are important in psychology. Paige and I argued about her writing for most of the semester: she initially resisted developing her ideas (giving me a two sentence response when I asked for an essay). Her response at the end of the semester brought me to tears. See Figure 3. Similarly, Antonia entered the semester resistant to school and to psychological ideas – and she hated journals. See Figure 2. That she said that journals were valuable, as was the reflection done in them? Priceless.

Finally, I ask my students to reflect on their work at the end of the semester because I want them to begin to own their learning and to perceive themselves differently as a learner and a person. I am different now than when I started. I can do things that I thought were impossible. I am capable of growing and changing.

When I first started teaching, I didn’t use such assessment strategies in my teaching. I didn’t consider the skills I was teaching and, instead, focused on the content. I didn’t think about changing my course from one semester to the next based on what I’d learned from the first course. I now think about my teaching very differently – I’m less of a Sage on the Stage. I expect to learn from my students, and the assignments described here have helped me do so. I encourage you to explore similar opportunities to reflect on each semester’s work and integrate learning – both for yourself and for your students.


Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellness. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

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

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Everything Is Easy… Until It’s Hard

– Melissa K. Downes

Children's Reading 1

Melissa K. Downes.

Earlier this term, Hand in Hand published Paul Woodburne’s essay, “Everything is Hard – Until It Is Easy.” As Jeanne and I read it over and edited it for publication, I knew it was a good essay, raising important points about our roles and responsibilities as professors—and yet, I disagreed with it—and yet, I didn’t. It took me a while to understand that I agree with it in a complex way—and that complex reaction of both agreeing and disagreeing is part of my point.

Paul stated that a professor’s responsibility is “to make the difficult easy, to make the mysterious obvious.” However, sometimes our responsibility is also to make the apparently easy complex and to take what our students perceive as obvious and help them discover its mystery. More, part of our job may be to help our students embrace and even enjoy complexity. It is certainly our job to help them learn to handle the complex effectively on their own.

Much of what I teach to first-year students is skill based, breaking down their easy assumptions about reading, writing, research, critical thinking, and learning: reading a book isn’t just picking it up and highlighting (or darn well shouldn’t be); writing an essay doesn’t stop at inchoate word vomit at 2 AM; all sources are not created equal; two people can disagree and both be ”right.”

I want students to engage with complexity often and well: I  ask students to embrace reflection and depth in their writing and thinking; to use and assess sources based on thoughtful criteria and not on ease or agreement, etc. I also ask students to dig into and find pleasure in poems and stories that require patience and attention and can be read in multiple ways. For example, I’ll ask students their initial responses to characters early in a text (perhaps Nora and Torvald from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House): since students may already have strongly differing views, we will often list the contradictory adjectives they use to describe the characters and consider what evidence the text gives for these different readings. Later, I will ask them how their responses have changed by the end of the play. Then I might complicate things further by giving historical and/or literary context that sheds a different light on what they’ve read: what might happen to an inexperienced woman who leaves her husband in nineteenth-century Norway? What choices does she have? What would happen to her children if she were to take them with her? Why would many audiences embrace this as a feminist text, but a number of critics insist it is not?

However, while complexity can be beautiful, it is not an end in itself; lack of sureness can slow us down, cause us to hesitate. Eventually, on some issues, one must take a stand. But awareness of the complexities of a problem can make one surer of where to stand.

We are all surrounded by complexities all the time: deep divisions in our politics and culture; local, national, and global problems that cannot be solved by an easy phrase or executive order; the spread of “alternative facts” and false narratives running parallel to legitimate and powerful differences in opinion and interpretation; ethical and interpersonal issues in our diverse professional lives; and the usual messy realities of our personal lives. The desire to keep one’s head down and cling to easy binaries and moral simplicities when faced with such complexities is understandable, but problematic.

When I was in high school and in the early years of college, I was often very sure of my rightness. (I have not entirely left that annoying tendency behind me.) However, over the years I have become more careful about a righteous surety in myself or in others. Even back then, my “rightness” was often grounded in research, reading, and thoughtful conversations; nonetheless, my desire for easy answers in something clear, true, and obvious got in the way of noticing and responding to nuance and difference. It also got in the way of understanding that what might be right for me could be legitimately wrong for others.

Yes, teachers should not assume that their students are like them; however, my desire for a world with easy answers—a world with simple rightness in it—is very like the desires of many young people entering college. Kidwell (2005) suggests that, developmentally, most college students in their first year move from being “dualists” to “multiplists” and, as they progress through college, their responses become more complex and the way they perceive the world more relative (see also Perry, 1970 and Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tartule, 1986). Part of our roles as professors is to actively foster that development.

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Figure 1. “Easy” and “hard” are two parts of a single process that faculty help students traverse.

It is likely that Paul and I are talking about different stages of teaching, but on the same continuum (see Figure 1). We can and should give our students templates and scaffolds that help them manage challenging questions, difficult problems, and daunting tasks more effectively. For example, in my composition courses, I break writing down into smaller steps (i.e., invention, drafting, revision, and editing). I also provide handouts focusing on mastering key smaller skills within each step. I emphasize these processes as iterative; we are stronger and more thoughtful writers and thinkers when we loop back and use what we have learned to build on what we have done. I have them practice each step and often assess my students on both the product and the process.

However, if students stay at the stage of simply filling in templates, we have not taken them far enough. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a slippage in language, especially from many of our students. When discussing a desire to be effective, they use, instead, the word efficient. I want our students to be both effective and efficient. I don’t think their success will come easily if they (or we) sacrifice the effective for the efficient.

Of course it is not just young people who desire simplicity: I expect that most of us when encountering the new—or when angry, scared, or passionately involved —reduce complexity. Sometimes we ask our students to practice the discomfort of ambiguity, complexity, and failure without practicing it ourselves. We forgot how hard it can be to grow and change. We are better scholars and better teachers when we remember to challenge ourselves to move beyond our own perspectives.

As universities continue to change in this complex world, I believe we need to continue to advocate for the liberal arts and sciences—fields which can open up our students to complexity; allow them to see the world more richly and with greater empathy; and give them resources to adapt, problem solve, advocate, and thrive when things get hard. These skills are essential to an engaged and effective professional, civic, and personal life. I know that the teaching, learning, and advocacy of such skills is not easy—nor should it be—but it is a fine place to take a stand.


Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N.R., & Tartule, J.M. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kidwell, K. S. (2005, July/August). Understanding the college first-year experience. The Clearing House, 78(6), 253-255. Retrieved from http://www.ecu.edu/cs-studentaffairs/saprofessionaldevelopment/customcf/Understanding%20the%20First%20Year%20College%20Experience%20by%20Kirk%20S.%20Kidwell.pdf.

Perry, W. G., Jr. (1970/1998). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years: A scheme. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

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Dear Worried Sick

Dear Ms. Scholar, I have a student in class who is visibly depressed. She no longer interacts with her classmates, appears less engaged and more apathetic than in previous semesters, is performing more poorly on homework, and is missing class and failing to turn in assignments. I’m worried sick. Any suggestions?

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work

Dear Worried Sick, Talking to a student who isn’t doing well is often difficult, yet important. Our reaching out helps them feel heard and supported, two things that can make a significant difference.

It can be difficult for many people to reach out, because they can’t tell whether someone is only (only?) depressed or is actually suicidal. Is the depression short-term and situational or something more serious? However, my suggestions are equally valid for the person with depression or the one who is suicidal. Both need your support, your listening.

What can you do? Listen to your student calmly – or as calmly as you can. You may want to take a breath or do whatever you can to calm yourself down so that you can think more clearly. You may be panicking or feel overwhelmed, but remember your reactions are normal. Your worry and concern can, in fact, be helpful.

Respond to your student using active listening strategies. Reflective listening can help the student feel heard and understood, when their typical experience might have been to feel dismissed, avoided, misunderstood, or judged. When responding, you might start with a paraphrase like,  “It sounds like…” and reflect what you hear (even if it is word for word). If you’re comfortable, use any feeling words the student may have used or implied, such as, “You must be feeling exhausted right now” or “It sounds like you’re feeling pretty overwhelmed with everything.”

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Your listening can be helpful, but some students may need more support than you can offer. See figure. Make sure you are accessing all of the resources available to you (see, for example, those available from University of Alaska Anchorage).


Some of our difficulties in responding to someone who is depressed may stem from myths that many of us hold about depression and suicide:

  1. If I say something it will only make it worse. Often we fear that we are “putting ideas into the suicidal person’s head”; that is, we may believe that the person is at less risk of suicide if we stay quiet. In general, when we listen well and empathically, people feel that they aren’t alone and their depression and suicidality may decrease.
  2. They’re only saying this for attention. We all want attention and, sometimes, we ask for the wrong kinds of attention. However, a depressed or suicidal student is not merely seeking attention. Ms. Scholar finds that it is more useful to think that they don’t want to live like this. With that in mind, helping the student find ways of making life better can make things better.
  3. They’ve threatened before and haven’t done anything. They’re not going to attempt now. That would be reassuring if it were true – but it isn’t. People who have threatened suicide in the past are more likely to complete suicide in the future.
  4. I’m not a mental health counselor. What can I do? You can do a lot. You can listen to and support students and colleagues who appear to be depressed or contemplating suicide. You can make a referral to the Counseling Center. Ms. Scholar has a friend who has called Counseling to set up an appointment while the student is in her office (with the student’s approval); another friend has walked with students to the Counseling Center.  These same friends talk about coping strategies in class and remind students of university, community, and familial resources available. You can also talk about alcohol abuse as alcohol abuse is often a contributing factor. In fact, there is some evidence that alcohol plays a role in one in three suicides.

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.29.01 AMYes, listening to a student who is suicidal can be scary, but if you listen and if you care, you will help more than harm. Just as the Counseling Center can be an important resource for our students, you can also reach out to the Counseling Center to help you respond more effectively and handle being there for your students.

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

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Letters of Recommendation: Don’t Damn Them With Faint Praise

Sauvage-Callaghan - Power to the People

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

I have been thinking about letters of recommendation lately – and that’s because I have read a great number of them over the past week or so, while reviewing applications for a position here at Clarion University and also for a scholarship award. I read some very good letters. And yes, I also came across a number of recommendations that might as well not have been written at all. Their writers should have known that they were doing more harm than good for the applicants.

We are university professors and, as such, are solicited frequently by students – sometimes with very little (i.e., insufficient) notice – to write them letters of recommendation in support of an application for a scholarship, for a work-study or permanent, post-graduation job, or for graduate school admission. Writing those letters is part of our job and can become burdensome and stressful at the height of “letter of recommendation season” – when our graduating seniors are applying for jobs or for graduate school. Yet, that is a task that should not be taken lightly because it does have a direct impact on someone’s future.

Here are my thoughts on letters of recommendation:

  1. It is ok to decline writing a letter of recommendation.

You can definitely do this if a student asks you for a letter less than a week before a given deadline.

My line on this one: Sorry, but I have a lot of my plate right now, and you are not giving me enough time to write you a strong, thoughtful letter.

You can also do so if you feel that you are not familiar enough with a student to write knowingly about him or her. Recently, a colleague mentioned to me that she had been asked for a letter of recommendation by an ex-student who she had taught for just a couple of semesters, and with whom she had not had any contact for some fifteen years! And I am certain that many of you have often been asked to write a recommendation by  a student who was one of 50 or 100 others in one of your classes for just one semester, and whose name does not even ring a bell.

My line on this one: Sorry, but I do not feel that I know you well enough to write you a letter of recommendation. Why don’t you ask a professor who is more familiar with you and your work?

And, of course, there are the not-so-good to really bad students about whom you wonder why they would ask you for a letter. I have to admit that, years ago, I wrote a letter for such a student, and its first line was “I have no clue why X asked me to write him this letter of recommendation” – and yes, it went downhill from there! I felt a little mean doing that, but this student – who was actually very smart but incredibly lazy – had not thought very hard before asking me to write him this letter which, I admit, I should not have agreed to write.

My line on this one: Look, you earned a D, and were far from a shining beacon in my class. Why don’t you ask for a letter from a professor in whose class you earned an A or a B?

  1. Once you have agreed to write a letter of recommendation, don’t damn your student (or ex-student) with faint praise.

Ask for specific information about that recommendation. This includes: To whom is this letter addressed, and by when? What is the student applying for? Grad school, a scholarship, a part-time job, a full-time post-graduation position? The more specific the information is, the better you can focus your recommendation to what your student is applying for.

Ask the requester for a current résumé, including a list of extracurricular activities. An instructor cannot know everything that a student has done, or all the details of his involvement in volunteer work or extracurricular activities. However, those are very important pieces of an applicant’s life journey and can help you tell a more useful story about the student.

Start crafting your letter, making sure to include the following: To tell your story well, show that you know the applicant, both as a student and as a person. Point out outstanding qualities, and be specific and concrete about what they’ve done. Draw from your personal experiences of what the student has done to demonstrate those strengths. Compare the student to others you have taught and indicate how others perceive the student (e.g., “one of the five best students in my 25 years of teaching”; “well respected by his/her peers”; “my colleagues all agree that this student is outstanding.”). Finally, give a phone number or e-mail address where you can be contacted for further information.

Pour your heart into crafting your letter.  I know, we all have our own “templates” for letters of recommendation; yet, each letter should reflect a personal investment on the part of the writer in the individual for whom it is written. I once read letters written on behalf of several students applying for the same scholarship by a professor who wrote identical, very generic letters for each one of them. Last week, I also read many letters that said absolutely nothing useful about the applicants.

What you want to convey is your real knowledge of the student and that you can testify for that person’s qualities as a good student and awesome individual (e.g., responsible and engaged, creative, strong interpersonal skills, effective communication skills).

When writing a letter of recommendation, you are putting your integrity on the line. My litmus test on this: I know that I am doing a great job on a letter of recommendation when writing it is close to effortless, if I feel warm and fuzzy inside and have fond memories of the individual I am recommending.

So, yes, writing letters of recommendation does take time and requires thoughtfulness. If those are two things that you cannot put into writing this particular letter, then don’t agree to do it.

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan (formerly Elisabeth Donato) is an Associate Professor of French at Clarion University. She likes reflecting on her teaching practices. Her goal is that her students become proficient in all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and, most of all, fall in love with the French language, the French people, and the francophone culture. Her research focuses on French popular culture.

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