Self-fulfilling prophecies

Jeanne Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

— Jeanne M. Slattery

Yesterday my freshmen and I were talking about optimism, pessimism, and the role of thinking: “No one can make you feel any particular thing without your permission. It’s your thoughts that make you feel a particular way.” Their eyes were wide as I shared that I had gotten angry when my college boyfriend gave me large, beautiful diamond earrings — until they learned that I don’t like diamonds and had told him that. He didn’t listen.

Still, this idea that no one can make them feel anything is one that they only tentatively believe — and primarily about other people. Many of my students are also in a class where they’ve heard Professor X say that they won’t be successful, that they won’t learn this material, that they will be back. (I don’t know that this is what Professor X says, but this is what they hear.) “Professor X makes me want to give up.” “I don’t even want to go to class.”

Some students, however, note that they work harder in such situations. I’m not sure I believe them, but the mind is a powerful organ that interprets and responds to information based on its worldview. Did they already believe they could be successful in such situations?

When I asked my students about their high school experiences during the first week of class, two students said that they hadn’t liked anything. Anything. They felt that their teachers hadn’t cared. They felt that their teachers hadn’t believed that they could be successful.

They also believe that Professor X doesn’t believe that they can be successful – even though I know that isn’t true. Like many of our faculty, this person would bend over backwards for our students. I’ve seen Professor X do so.

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 8.46.34 AMI don’t think we should praise students for poor work. I don’t think we should give everyone A’s. In fact, Crocker and Nuer (2003) suggest that praise and focus on self-esteem can be counterproductive and create people with fragile self-esteem, problems in meeting competence needs, maladaptive behaviors such as lying and stealing, and avoidance of situations that could potentially lead to failure. On the other hand, as my friend and colleague Miguel Olivas-Luján has observed, we need to consider whether we are fostering maladaptive self-fulfilling prophecies. Have Professor X’s comments encouraged such self-fulfilling prophecies without intending to do so?

Do we really believe that our students can learn? If so, we need to find ways to talk to them using the language of growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). We need to communicate that it takes effort to complete tasks, that challenges and criticism are good things, and that we believe that they can learn. When we talk to them, we need to compliment the work they’ve done, rather than lead them to believe that their successes or failures say something central about who they are.

They are neither their successes nor their failures. With effort, with our support, they can achieve more than they believe they can.


Crocker, J., & Nuer, N. (2003). The insatiable quest for self-worth. Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 14, 31-34.

Dweck, C. J. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Balantine Books.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Dear Not Working as a Team

Dear Ms. Scholar, Last semester, I had a class that had a group project worth about 1/3 of the overall grade. One team member was frequently absent and didn’t actively participate when they were in groups. The team was unhappy, but unfortunately did not express their concerns until the end of the semester. Any suggestions about how I could handle this better next time?

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Not Working as a Team, This is an ongoing concern for faculty teaching courses with significant teamwork requirements. Often groups need much more support than we expect they need – and they end up floundering without that support.

Let’s start with the simplest problem. Perhaps, as in your question, the problem belongs only to a difficult student – perhaps one who is depressed and withdrawing, overwhelmed, has poor social skills, or weak academic skills and goals – while the group members are conscientious and hardworking. Ms. Scholar has sometimes been good at working with such difficult students, but at other times has had more difficulty. Four factors have contributed to her success:

  1. Interest in change. Does the student recognize a problem? Does the student want to handle things differently? If the answer to these questions is yes, intervening seems to be easier and more appropriate. Not all students are interested in contributing to a group project, however, even when the project is worth a considerable proportion of the grade.
  2. Faculty/student relationship. Ms. Scholar finds it easier to give a student difficult feedback on group performance when she has a good relationship with the student. When she genuinely wants the student to do better, the student is more likely to listen to her. When the student genuinely values Ms. Scholar’s input, the student is more likely to solicit and respond to feedback.
  3. Assertiveness. Giving difficult feedback can require significant assertiveness from the faculty member. Can you find a way to give feedback to the student – and team – that is positive, hopeful, and respectful? When Ms. Scholar’s first response comes from anger or frustration, she first goes outside and takes a walk around the building, then tries again.
  4. Time. It’s easier for Ms. Scholar to give difficult, but helpful feedback when she has the time available, in or out of class. When her course load is especially heavy or she has taken on too many responsibilities, though…

In Ms. Scholar’s experience, however, problems often go in both directions – both the “problem student” and teammates – and feedback has to go to all parties. Both “sides” may have surprisingly different perspectives on the problem. Often, but not always, one of the parties feels left out while the other party complains that the student did not pull his or her weight. These problems may be due, in part, to differences in expectations about work habits and communication. When groups communicate and meet regularly and respond quickly to emails and texts, they are generally happy, even when, from an outsider’s perspective, they did not all pull their own weight. Those groups that are least happy are those where one or more parties fail to meet with the group – even when they had good reasons to miss (e.g., work, illness, travel constraints, problems with babysitters).

Sometimes different members of a group may perform different tasks, with all believing they’ve pulled their weight – and that their peers did not. For example, in one recent group, two members collected their data (poorly), while a third pulled together the final written products (somewhat well). All members believed they had done their share and pointed fingers elsewhere.

Figure 1. Part of Ms. Scholar's instructions to class teams, posted in Announcements.

Figure 1. Part of Ms. Scholar’s instructions to class teams, posted under Announcements in D2L.

The most difficult piece: Ms. Scholar believes that both teacher and team must take responsibility for problems with teamwork and creating solutions. More and more Ms. Scholar attempts to educate students about ways to perform teamwork well. For example, Ms. Scholar posts this list describing successful teamwork skills under D2L’s Announcements. See Figure 1. She tries to regularly debrief after teamwork and encourages students to reflect on the group process throughout.

Ms. Scholar wishes that she had talked more frequently with a recent team having problems. She had been concerned about their work quality from the very beginning. She had talked to the group throughout the semester, received interim feedback on the group mid-semester, and had talked to individuals on several occasions. Nonetheless, these discussions were often during class or when students/Ms. Scholar were rushing from one place to another, situations that did not foster the kind of assertiveness needed to identify and address problems with team functioning. She had responded better to teams with “squeakier wheels,” those groups more clearly identifying problems.

The point is that, as you note, teamwork is difficult. If it were easy, we wouldn’t need to give our students opportunities to work on their teamwork skills during their college careers. Teamwork, though, can both be a challenging aspect of teaching and offer many rewards both to faculty and students, as many teams can produce products that are stronger than what any single student could do on his or her own. – Ms. Scholar

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


Posted in Teaching | Tagged , | 1 Comment

He Made a Difference

– Jeanne M. Slattery

JMS hugging 2012 or so

Jeanne Slattery

I heard a story recently that got me thinking. A student emailed a faculty member asking him whether he was going to go to graduation. He was not her advisor and had never had her in class. He couldn’t even remember who she was, but thought maybe they’d met to resolve an academic problem she was having.

He went to graduation, at least partially because she’d asked him. She was happy to see him there and excitedly introduced him to her parents. He was glad to meet them.

There are two ways that I look at this story. On the one hand, sometimes the little things are all that’s needed to make a real difference for our students. Making eye contact with our students, learning their names, and recommending opportunities that suit them well, each of these things – and more – can make a significant impact in our students’ lives.

On the other hand, I wonder about this student’s experience  – in life, at our university. How could such a small contact make such a large impact? Could this really have been one of the most important interactions of this student’s tenure?

In the weeks and months since first hearing this story, I’ve gone back and forth between these two perspectives. I now believe that he really did something meaningful for her (perhaps not for him), but that other people probably did as much or more for her each and every day. Perhaps he helped her resolve some problem that she thought couldn’t be resolved. Perhaps he was just in the right place at the right time: it was one of those terrible, awful, no good, very bad days that we all have, and he happened to listen to her, take her seriously, and make a difference.

There are things that people have said to me at various points in my life – both good and bad – that have stuck with me and made a difference. Sometimes little things do matter.

We never know when we will make a difference: we can treat each moment with our students as if this is the one that will make the difference. And this one and this one…

Who was he? He was a history professor, but it could have been any of us. On this Thanksgiving, we thank him and all of you for what you do.

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: 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


Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dear Devastated and Embarrassed

Dear Ms. Scholar, I received my first grade complaint this year, and I don’t know what to do. I am devastated that my student would complain, as I bent over backwards for her at several points this semester. I’m also embarrassed that my department chair and dean might believe the really outrageous complaints that this student made. Any suggestions?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Devastated and Embarrassed, Grade complaints are really uncomfortable (really, really uncomfortable). Just remember: Students are not their grades, and you are not their complaints.

I wish handling the uncomfortable feelings was that easy. Given that it’s not, here are several things to consider:

  • Avoid acting impulsively. Speaking in the heat of the moment can lead you to say things that you don’t mean. When responding to their complaints, make sure that you choose a time and place when you can respond calmly and assertively rather than aggressively and impulsively.
  • Stop and reflect. Is there a kernel of truth to what the student said? Did you really act fairly? Did you provide the necessary information to help them understand why they lost points and how to do better next time? If the student had a reasonable complaint (or partially reasonable complaint), admit it, learn from it, and move on.
  • Document, document, document. Administrators adjudicating a complaint can only respond given the information available. What do your syllabus, assignment, and rubric say? How did you respond in emails and other communication trails?

Ms. Scholar recently had a student make a complaint about her final grade and struggled with many of the issues you describe. Some parts of the student’s complaint made sense, while other parts didn’t. For example, she complained about how Ms. Scholar determined test grades, clearly not understanding what a percentage means. Her email complaint to the dean – completely bypassing the chair – was unfocused and not written in standard English.

On the other hand, while Ms. Scholar has and uses many rubrics, she didn’t use one for a particular reflection assignment. The student didn’t understand why she only earned 9/10 for the assignment – because you didn’t develop your ideas to the degree that earns 10/10. In this case, the student’s complaint was at least partially valid. As a result, Ms. Scholar developed a rubric for the next time she teaches this course and uses this assignment. We can use student complaints as opportunities to identify problems and strengthen our teaching.

People responding to student complaints cannot see our behaviors in the classroom; they can only make inferences about the fairness and accuracy of these complaints. They can read our syllabus, then determine whether our grading system was fair and whether we follow the rules outlined in our syllabus and assignments. They can determine whether the student complaint is consistent with their own observations of our teaching or our discussions of our students and teaching. They can look at our communications on D2L or via email to see whether we were fair and respectful.

At some level, then, to respond effectively to a grade complaint, we have to be proactive. Before a complaint is ever made, we need to cultivate a reputation of being thoughtful, hardworking, fair, and unbiased – as well as be each of these things. Any student complaint to the contrary would go against the evidence built up over the course of our careers.

Finally, Malcolm Gladwell (2005) described research on which doctors are sued. He argues that being sued has very little to do with whether or how many mistakes a doctor makes; instead, “patients file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care and something else happens” (p. 40). People are less likely to complain about physicians they like. Ms. Scholar is not recommending that you give As regardless of student performance; however, she believes it is wise to listen carefully and thoughtfully to students and respond assertively rather than aggressively to their complaints.

These recommendations don’t necessarily address your uncomfortable feelings, but perhaps they do offer some ways of responding to the complaint that will be less painful or that will prevent future complaints. – Ms. Scholar


Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

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


Posted in Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

It’s November


Mel Michel

– Mel Michel

It’s November. It’s just past midterms and there are still three weeks ‘til the Thanksgiving break.

And everybody is getting squirrelly.

I started the semester so full of enthusiasm this year. Fresh from the Partners retreat, where I learned all kinds of new techniques especially for freshmen, I initially was only supposed to teach upperclassman this semester. At the last minute I was assigned a large section intro class of mostly freshmen. Hot diggity! I got to use all the new tools I just learned!

I jumped in with so much energy – it felt for weeks like my first semester as a college professor. From double entry journals to new ways of taking attendance I felt a connection with my teaching and these young first year students that I hadn’t felt in years.

And now, it’s past midterm. I still have a pile of mid-term papers to finish while also preparing a theatre production that opens in ten days. Attendance has been a little more spotty in my classes, despite my pretty harsh attendance policy, I’m behind on grading homework, students are beginning to send panicked emails about passing the class and in general the shine seems to have worn off.

And yet… November also reminds me to be grateful. If I can continue to drum up my enthusiasm for what I refer to as “the Mel Michel show, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 10 am,” maybe I can model to the students the power of showing up. In my class, attendance is actually about ¼ of the total points for the semester, so it is indeed important. But it goes beyond just trying to tow the line. I try to model to the students the joy of creativity, laughing at one self, working with one another and the awe of an open mind. And in seeing them wake up (sometimes literally) in class, the trudge toward Thanksgiving break seems a little less steep.

November. Three more weeks ’til break. The novelty has worn off, I’m trying to keep my eye and my students’ eyes on the prize, and the clichés are flowing thick and heavy. How do you stay grateful? How do you face the faces in the daily-ness of life? We can all benefit from each other’s stories and ideas.

And there’s always turkey and pie to look forward to.

Mel Michel is professor of theatre at Clarion University. In addition to coordinating the musical theatre program, she is a yoga teacher and holistic life coach. Check out her website


Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dear Dress Code

Dear Ms. Scholar, I am a new faculty member and started the year off wearing blue jeans, but now that I’m looking around at my colleagues, many of whom are wearing ties or dresses. I’m now questioning my dress code decision. What do you think?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Dress Code, The choices you make in your first professional position are always a bit risky, including in how you dress: you want to be true to yourself, but also fit in.

Some departments have clear messages about what one should do in a number of realms (e.g., how you  dress, how long to be in your office each day, how to talk to students, how active to be on campus committees). They may actively mentor new faculty into the departmental culture.

In other departments, this isn’t as clear. Who do they expect you to be? What do they expect from you? As there are many ways that you can behave that are true to you, it can be helpful to ask your colleagues about their expectations. On the other hand, you can observe those people on campus who you look up to and use them as models.

Clothing tells people about us. Many of our students are particularly aware of dress, fashion, and style. What we wear may help us announce that we are competent adults rather than the kids that many of us look and feel like when we first enter academia. More professional dress may help create a boundary between students and faculty, when little initially differentiates the two in terms of age or culture. It may also communicate your respect of your students or your field. Maybe this attitude is left over from my Catholic church-attending days.

On the other hand, how much of a barrier do we want between our students and ourselves? Perhaps this is a personal choice tied to our ideas about pedagogies. Ms. Scholar has three friends who are all respected faculty members, each of whom make notably different decisions about teaching apparel.

When Ms. Scholar first took a position in academe, there were repeated stories about the relationship between dress and student evaluations. As the story went, men wearing ties earned stronger student evaluations, as did women wearing dresses (or dress clothing).

Some evidence suggests that these are not just stories. Informal dress may increase approachability, but that more professional dress may lead to higher ratings of competence (Basow, 1998). Of course, there are other strategies that can foster perceptions of competence, at least as measured by student evaluations: identify your qualifications the first day of class; nurture but don’t overnurture; and review course goals before student evaluations are completed.

Lavin, Davies, and Carr (2010) argue that the relationship between dress and perceived competence is even more complex, at least among business students. In their sample, three variables contributed most to instructor credibility: level of preparation, knowledge of the subject, and ability to prepare students for their career. However, their research suggests students expect casually-dressed instructors to use more discussion and answer questions, while more formally-dressed instructors are expected to lecture and impart knowledge.

In some ways, choosing a style of dress is tied to the other sorts of questions you ask yourself about pedagogy. Who do you want to be as a professor? What type of boundaries do you want to create between yourself and your students? How can you most effectively help your students meet their learning goals?


Basow, S. A. (1998). The role of gender bias in student evaluations. In L. H. Collings, J. C. Chrisler, and K. Quina (Eds.). Career strategies for women in academe: Arming Athena (pp. 135-156). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lavin, A., Davies, T., & Carr, D. (2010). The impact of instructor attire on student perceptions of faculty credibility and their own resultant behavior. American Journal of Business Education, 3, 51-62.

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

Posted in Professional development | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Language We Use

– Jeanne M. Slattery and Melissa K. Downes

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 11.43.57 AM

Jeanne Slattery and Melissa Downes

Words matter. Words can hurt another person’s feelings. The words we use and the words we hear can hide people’s strengths or help people recognize their abilities (e.g., pathology-focused vs. Person First Language). Sometimes we “don’t mean” what is heard – we don’t intend to hurt the other person – but bottom line, we still did.

Because our job includes serving as mentors, guides, coaches, and advisors, we need to be thoughtful with our language. We can’t perform these tasks effectively when we allow our students to believe that they can’t learn or that they have little responsibility for the learning process, or that learning, when it happens, is done to them. While we need to help our students listen better – and we need to listen better ourselves – the words we use when we evaluate and respond to to our students can either hinder growth or open new possibilities.

Here is a common example of poor language: “How could you give me that grade?” We don’t give our students grades, they earn them. We don’t fail our students, they fail to do the work (or fail to show us the work). We aren’t hurting our students’ futures when we assign particular grades, as grades reflect the skills they failed to learn

When we write syllabi and assignments and when we talk with our students, both of us try to communicate that our students are active contributors to their learning and the way the class goes. We also want them to know that we’re with them in this endeavor. For example, in Jeanne’s classroom, instead of hearing her say, “I’m going to discuss…” you’d hear her say “We’re going to discuss…” (Melissa does this, too.)

Both students and teachers need to investigate the terms they use and the assumptions behind them. When students say they didn’t learn anything or that they’re bored in class, whose responsibility is that? Boredom is mostly internally generated. Of course, we contribute to their learning process with our passion, by choosing examples and metaphors that help them understand ideas better, but we can’t make them learn. Going to class every day helps, but students need to actively engage to learn.

Just as we ask our students to think critically, define their terms, and be aware of the assumptions behind their words, we too need to be conscious of our language and its impact. What do we mean when we say that something is unacceptable or is not quality work?

Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 7.12.39 PM

Table 1. Fixed vs. growth mindset (Dweck, 2006)

We need to be aware of our language as well as theirs: When students say they “can’t write well,” both of us frequently tag their complaints with “yet”: You can’t write well yet. Professors can hurt students when they let them believe that they aren’t good at writing or math or whatever and that they can’t get better. What’s the largest difference between “good students” and those who aren’t? It’s what they believe about themselves (fixed vs. growth mindset; Dweck, 2006) and what they do (e.g, time invested, strategies used; McGuire, 2012). See Table 1. Given this, we need to talk about the things they can do to learn how to write well or master other challenging skills. Both of us sometimes describe the difficulties we had when we first started seriously writing.

You can’t write well yet.

You’re not good at math yet.

You don’t have effective study habits yet.

While Dweck (2006) argues that we hurt our students when we say or let them say that they aren’t good at math (or writing or whatever), we can also hurt our “A students” when we say that they are “smart,” or “good at math.” Such language helps create a fixed mindset and undermines grit when the going gets tough (and it always does). Emphasizing the work they’ve put in – You really worked hard on this paper! – creates a growth mindset and builds grit, persistence, and resilience. We want our students to recognize the necessity of hard work and to persevere even when an assignment is “hard.”

Sometimes our culture belittles careful or inclusive language as “politically correct,” perhaps suggesting that such language obfuscates a situation or out-and-out lies. The statement, You can’t write well yet, would be inappropriate if it were untrue. We should be genuine and truthful.

We need to be careful how we talk to students about their learning, but we also need to be careful in how we think about them and this process. If we don’t really believe that our students can learn – when they put the work in – they will recognize the lie for what it is.

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: 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

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

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment