Finding My Why

– Paul Woodburne


Paul Woodburne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections on Discussion-Based Classrooms

– Melissa K. Downes

Children's Reading 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For further reading:

Getty, A. (2014). Letting the students lead class discussions. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Gonzalez, G. (2015). The big list of class discussion strategies. Cult of Pedagogy. Retrieved from

Lang, J. M. (2015). Building a better discussion. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

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

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In Memory of a Gifted Mentor

– Rhonda Clark


Everett Slavens

“Well, tell me….” Everett Slavens always began our meetings with that familiar refrain. I marched into Dr. Slavens’ office in the fall of 1983 as a first-term freshman at Ouachita Baptist University (Arkadelphia, AR), to ask why I had missed certain points on an exam and, strangely, to object that I had been given points I felt I did not deserve. By the end of that conversation, a bond had begun that lasted more than thirty years. Dr. Slavens was my academic advisor and, though I never really adjusted to saying “Everett,” even twenty years after I graduated from OBU, he was my friend.

All who took Dr. Slavens in college knew the basics – that he was blind, but could perfectly spin the narrative of a history lecture on myriad topics from memory (dates and all!). Of course, there were all sorts of rumors that he actually could “see” anyone acting up in class – that he had called out students who left the room or misbehaved. However, the students who shared multiple conversations with Everett understood that he so dearly loved learning that he made the process of academic inquiry infectious. He so highly valued the evolution of one’s mind that he fostered a magical oasis of creativity. And for that reason, on a nearly weekly basis over three and a half years, I trekked to his office nestled in a squat, no-frills building constructed as temporary housing decades before. In the heat of the Arkadelphia days, we would sit and just talk – talk for an hour – punctuated by the ringing of the chimes every quarter hour and the click of Dr. Slavens’ watch opening, so he could feel the watch face and tell the time.

The adventures we shared tell a story of an unconventional instructor. During a Model UN trip to St. Louis, he spirited me away in the school car to tour “his” town (he had been a graduate student there) and to experience the beauty of a cathedral. I know, you are asking how a blind man did this: though he had not lived in St. Louis in decades, he still had the street map memorized, so he gave me directions and we drove all over town. It all worked well—except for that one small incident where a four-lane avenue had been changed to one-way sometime after he left graduate school.

From attending orchestra concerts to experiencing new foods, these school trips became opportunities for me and many other students to explore. Here was a man who once had to define for me the word “provincial,” but never judged my journey. He valued all sorts of learning, backgrounds, and mindsets. Our rapidly expanding worlds in college were not an indictment of rural life, but opportunities to expand on our already rich journeys by experiencing others’ worlds.

To say this man was encouraging is an understatement. There are countless students who would come forward and attest to his sense of authenticity in supporting a student’s intellectual journey. I don’t know how many times, when I doubted something would work out, he made it happen. I remember when I realized I wanted to study Russian literature and language, I felt there were no options. Keep in mind we lived in Arkadelphia in the early 1980s. There was no Russian program, no internet, no easy way to travel to any programs. But we searched for options and found a correspondence course from The University of Oklahoma, Norman, where I could begin studying Russian. And then, through the generous funding of the Honors Program, I was fortunate to be named the first Ben Elrod Scholar. OBU (and my parents) funded my trip to Russia to study in the summer. This was 1986 – Gorbachev, Glasnost’, and, unfortunately for me, Chernobyl. I thought the trip was off for sure, but Dr. Slavens calmed me down and talked me through my panic carefully. We determined the risks were manageable and the trip was still on.

Rhonda and Dr. Slavens

With Dr. Slavens

That summer I had a lot of firsts – I had never been away from home for any real length of time – never been on a boat, a train, a plane, in the north, away from my twin…. And my dad, who firmly believed in travel, said, “we’ll see you off at the airport.” Despite my assurances that there was air travel between Little Rock and New York City, he packed the family in the station wagon and drove me to New York, all the way to JFK, so my first flight on a plane was from NYC to Helsinki. Upon my return, Everett helped me locate an instructor of Russian in Little Rock. He made calls and, through connections I never fully understood, found me Nina Krupitsky, a wonderful Ukrainian immigrant living in Little Rock, who was fluent in Russian and trained as a language teacher. I did not have a car in college until senior year, when my parents lent me one, in part so I could pursue these lessons. I would drive home 2 ½ hours to where my parents lived in Russellville every other weekend, work Friday and Saturday nights at the local yogurt shop, make enough money to pay for my Russian lesson, drive back via Little Rock, and stop to take the lesson. I can attribute a lot of this “make it work” success to Dr. Slavens’ encouragement.

And then we applied for graduate schools that year and dreamed big. Dr. Slavens navigated me through the sometimes frustrating waters of graduate applications and we ended up with an assistantship (funding!) for an MA in Russian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

I also had the great fortune that Dr. Slavens and others had secured a wonderful Fulbright professor from the University of Helsinki, Dr. Martti Haikio, to teach in our political science department. Dr. Slavens played an integral role in making sure that this Fulbright instructor and his family felt right at home.

Part of the wonder of the relationship with Dr. Slavens was his ability to describe and enjoy other people. His awareness of the depth of this opportunity came through in our talks. He taught me to evaluate, appreciate, and understand those moments. Years later, on a couple of different trips to Russia via Finland, Dr. Haikio welcomed me to visit with his family and helped me trek from the airport to my ferry from Helsinki. He became a part of our little joke, somewhat true I think, that “all roads go through Arkadelphia.”

After college, Everett and I stayed in touch. At first, we would send long letters on cassette tapes. Throwing them into an envelope and writing “free matter for the blind” on the stamp area, our conversations shifted from the hot, humid climate of the South to frigid Minneapolis. I knew I “wasn’t in Kansas anymore” in those first few days in the city. I so enjoyed sharing these moments with Everett. Through my first marriage to a Russian man, to my Ph.D. in history, to my first teaching job, the death of my father, my divorce, my second marriage – life marched on and so did the consistency of this friendship. I remember one time Everett was in upstate New York visiting a dear friend. I lived in Erie at the time, so I said, “I’ll come get you,” and, in our typical OBU adventure spirit, I raced to Rochester and said, “how would you like to see Niagara Falls?” He said he would love to, so within a few hours, we were standing in the roar of the falls, being sprayed with the cool water and soaking up the summer multilingual sounds of tourists. It was a nice day.

There is really no substitute for knowing someone deeply cares about you and your journey. I cannot say that Everett Slavens was the only one at OBU who did this. Many others also had a tremendous influence on my development. There certainly were many committed teachers and mentors at Ouachita. My co-conspirators on my journey also included my suitemates and hallmates, friends, boyfriends, bandmates. All our journeys were enriched and, in my case, made possible, by the support of my family, friends, and my mentor, Dr. Everett Slavens. Everett, I will carry your lessons forward, learning to listen more and talk less, and always waiting for the possibilities from that simple refrain, “Well, tell me….”

Rhonda Clark began her academic career in a small college in Arkansas, studying history and then moved to Minneapolis to study Russian Aria Studies (MA) and Russian History (PhD) at the University of Minnesota.  She added an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh to capitalize on her love of archival and historical resources.  She teaches in Clarion’s Department of Information and Library Science in the Local and Archival concentration.  She lives in an oil-era historic home in Titusville, PA.

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Student-centered and Teacher-centered Classrooms

– Jeanne M. Slattery

I used this John Francis TED talk below in my freshman inquiry seminar, Living Life Well, because it raised interesting questions about wellness. Was Francis well? By what definitions? He didn’t talk for 17 years – does that make him more well or less? Was he a good person? How would you know?

Many of my students found Francis an odd duck. He didn’t speak for 17 years? He didn’t drive or use a motorized vehicle, even though he could, instead walking across the country? However, I admired his thoughtfulness, motivation, commitment, and passion for the environment. He didn’t just talk about saving the environment, he lived it. To me, Francis is a paradigm of wellness.

My freshmen had a particularly difficult time with the idea of Francis not speaking while teaching his classes (though he communicated nonverbally): Professors need to talk because how else can they teach? Even after a semester sitting in a circle, with our class being a discussion among peers and between professor and students, they had a difficult time believing that they could be in charge of their own learning. At that time most students could not see that perhaps the most effective learning occurs when students take ownership of their learning for themselves.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 6.37.24 PM

Figure 1. Differences in the teaching and learning paradigms of student- and teacher-centered classes.

Inquiry seminars are strange beasts for most freshmen, as they are student-centered classes rather than more traditional teacher-centered learning. See Figure 1. However strange they are, they are important to our students’ transitions to college, as our students begin to become active and empowered learners.

For most of our students’ lives, they have been taught using the teaching-centered paradigm where the Teacher is Authority and Expert. In such classes, faculty pour information into passively-accepting and sometimes grateful students. We can perform Teacher as Sage thoughtfully and engagingly, but our students are rarely expected to be active parties in their learning process. Many students believe they can text, sleep, or daydream and it doesn’t matter, as their learning is a function of their professor rather than themselves. This attitude puts them at risk in all of their later classes – and in life – when we expect students will actively question, create, decide, analyze, and produce.

Inquiry seminars adopt a learner-centered paradigm. In inquiry seminars, faculty are  facilitators of discussions, and questioners and provokers of other ways of thinking about problems. They may assign readings, but encourage students to take ownership for the direction that they go with the course. Rather than directly answering student questions, faculty may turn student questions to the other members of the class. Inquiry seminars offer and model a different kind of learning than students are used to and comfortable with.

My students, like John Francis’s own initially, had a difficult time believing that learning could occur if he did not talk in class. Yet, he said that two weeks into the semester, students were fighting to get into his course. If our student-centered teaching strategies make them uncomfortable, should we avoid them? I think not – at least when they have positive impacts on their learning.

Toward the end of his talk, Francis suggested to the teachers in the audience, “If you weren’t learning, you probably weren’t teaching very well.” For me, one of the perks of using a more student-centered approach to teaching is that I am always being provoked to think about things in new ways.

My experience with the inquiry seminars, including our discussion of Francis’s TED talk, were transformative. I can no longer teach an inquiry seminar, as there isn’t enough time in my schedule, but I continue to find ways to integrate the lessons I learned there.

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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Dear “Disrespected”

Dear Ms. Scholar, I clearly tell my students that there’s no texting in class; nonetheless, there’s a small group in one class who do. This bothers me for several reasons: it feels disrespectful, my student’s performance in class is compromised, and their peers are distracted. Any suggestions?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear “Disrespected,” I wish there was an easy answer to this one. People 18-24 years old text more than twice as often as the average cell phone user – which includes them as part of that average (Smith, 2011). Our students tend to see cell phone use as normal and without consequences for themselves or others. Ms. Scholar, on the other hand, perceives a break in eye contact, attention, and focus when students text. She is also distracted by some student texting and disturbed that research shows class grades are negatively correlated with texting (Duncan, Hoekstra, & Wilcox, 2012). Even having someone nearby texting can be distracting;  performance under these circumstances is poorer (Tindell & Bohlander, 2012).

Furthermore, such behavior is not acceptable in the workplace and, to the degree that we think about our goals as including teaching professional behaviors, Ms. Scholar wonders whether we should include and enforce policies consistent with the professional cultures students hope to enter in the future (Fulbright, 2013). Would you want your doctor, your psychologist, your priest to text when meeting with you?

Some faculty respond to the increasing influx of cell phones in the classroom by using them to support their classes (Fulbright, 2013). Perhaps they conclude, if you can’t beat them, join them! Such faculty may use phones as clickers (e.g., sites like Poll Everywhere). They may also encourage students to use their phones to answer the range of questions that get directed to us in any single class. We should get better at directing these back to them: “What does ‘pejorative’ mean?” “Good question! Let’s look that up.” If our goals include helping students engage with our material and develop a sense of agency, these could be useful and effective strategies.

Ms. Scholar would like to ban open cell phones and laptops in the classroom (although she also recognizes that she always has her laptop out when she’s at a conference or workshop). Nonetheless, she also thinks about the role of classroom culture: while open cell phones and laptops interfere with creating a positive culture, so does forbidding them. She is uncomfortable with the idea of setting up a situation where she needs to monitor the use of electronics and administer some sort of consequence.

Ms. Scholar has attempted to take a middle ground between allowing and banning cell phones. In her advanced courses that develop listening skills and other professional behaviors, she discusses the problems with cell phone use in such situations. In her lower-level courses, she discusses putting away cell phones as one of a number of learning-positive strategies, including previewing, asking questions while reading, and studying with Bloom’s taxonomy in mind. In some semesters, she has tossed this dilemma back to students: What do you think about cell phones in the classroom? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having them out?

Ms. Scholar starts this discussion as early as her syllabus:

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. People are also more likely to be tempted to multitask when their computers are open – which few people do successfully….

The research suggests that even having your phone out interferes with your learning and that of your classmates.

Ms. Scholar wonders whether a professor’s response to texting should be different than our response to any other off-track or “disrespectful” behaviors. What do you do when students sleep, talk to fellow students, or study for other classes in class? Why do you do it? It seems that whatever we do – and reasonable people may disagree – we should base our decisions on our course goals (e.g., empowering students to take ownership for their learning).

Given there’s no clear recommendation out there, tell us what do you do and why. Please leave a comment. – Ms. Scholar


Duncan, D. K., Hoekstra, A. R., & Wilcox, B. R. (2012). Digital devices, distraction, and student performance: Does in-class cell phone use reduce learning? Astronomy Education Review, 11, 010108-1-010108-4.

Fulbright, S. (2013). Cell phones in the classroom: What’s your policy? Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Smith, A. (2011). Americans and text messaging. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

Tindell, D. R., & Bohlander, R. W. (2011). The use and abuse of cell phones and text messaging in the classroom: A survey of college students. College Teaching, 60, 1-9.

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

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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.
  7. Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 8.16.32 PM

    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.
  10. Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 8.42.20 PM

    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

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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

Riggs, L. (2014). First-generation college-goers: Unprepared and behind. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

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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