The Struggling Student

Before I started in Faculty Development, I was the course coordinator for the large lecture public speaking class. In my third year, I abandoned the midterm and final for a series of low-risk open-book quizzes students took through Blackboard. I had read the research and decided to make the switch. Some aspects of student performance increased, but the failure rate for the course more than doubled. I worked with my Teaching Associates to discover why students were failing when the thing they expressed the most concern about in evaluations, the exams, had been eliminated and replaced with a user friendly assessment strategy. Almost universally, the students who did not pass the class had failed to take several quizzes. Very few of these students would have forgotten to take exams because they happen during class time. We were concerned about student success so we set up an alert system on Blackboard, reminders were built in to lectures, and we started doing periodic grade checks throughout the semester to identify students who were struggling. None of these represented magic bullets, but they did help us make progress.Image result for struggling students

12 weeks from now you will be glancing back and forth between an Excel sheet or your gradebook and Peoplesoft entering grades for Fall 2016. It can be an interesting exercise as you realize the student who was always active in class didn’t turn in half of the assignments. Maybe the student who never showed up was actually a star in every category except for attendance. You might realize, like I did, the unintended consequence of a well-meaning change. The time to help students is during the semester, not at the very end. One tool for identifying struggling students is the Retention Center in Blackboard. This can help you set up rules to identify students who are struggling. Even if this tool does not work for you, it is worth your time to scan your gradebook once a month to identify trouble spots.

Once you have identified a student, there are a variety of ways to increase their chances for success. Campus resources like the Student Learning Center, Accessibility Resources, college or department based tutoring, or peers are all available to students. Regardless of how they get help, you reaching out to them is a great first step. We have all had the student in our office at the end of the semester who is shocked their grade is low even though there has been ample information about it throughout the term. The time to help that student and avoid that uncomfortable conversation is now.

Dr. Sara Cooper has provided addition Book in Common Material. Check out this section of the CELT page for regular synopsis updates, discussion questions, and other resources.

The CELT Conference preliminary program and registration link are now available. See you on October 6-7!

Got feedback on this tip? Got an idea for a tip? Send it along. Check out our new and improved wordpress site here.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Caffeinated Cats podcast! Link to it on soundclouditunesovercast, or follow the podcast on facebook.

Start of the semester!

board-928378_960_720Welcome to Fall 2016!

The start of the semester is an exciting time for faculty and students. For many of you it marks the launch of a new course design or revision. Some of you worked with Faculty Development or the Chancellor’s Office over the summer while many of you start the term with adjustments based on your own research and experience. You know the course is improved, you know it is better set up for student success and then that question comes. Maybe it is a question you thought you had worked around with a course redesign or an adjustment of your own outlook, maybe it is one you have never heard before, maybe it is one you do not fully understand. In any case, you are frustrated and temped by a flippant response along the lines of “do you know how much work I put into this?”

Instead I would urge you to engage in some healthy perspective taking. This may be your 20th year as a professor and your 11th time teaching a course, but it is probably their first time taking it as a student. Consider the perspectives which generate typical (and frustrating) questions.

  • “When am I ever going to use this?” Many of us find this troubling as the merits of our own disciplines are self-evident to us. The same may not be true for a first-semester student in an English class or an advanced Geology student. Making connections between the course and the world outside the classroom is part of our work, even if references to the real world are troubling.
  • “Is this going to be on the test?” We often recoil when students are so clearly focused on grades in a way that is seemingly dismissive of learning. Take a moment and consider why students might be concerned with grades. They are how we measure athletic eligibility, competitiveness for scholarships, graduate school tiers, and even the ability to continue towards a degree at Chico. While we may yearn for a student population focused on learning, we have set up a system that rewards and punishes them based on grades.
  • “When are your office hours? (or any other syllabus question)” Once as an experiment for a semester I did not respond to questions one could answer by referencing the syllabus, it did not go well. These questions can get frustrating, but asking them can also be frustrating for students. Are they new to the University and the concept of the syllabus? Did they have a course from a previous semester where their instructor constantly rescheduled office hours? Is the syllabus a clear and inviting document (Cornell has a good guide). Is your syllabus accessible enough for all your students to read it? It is easy to think they are asking because they are lazy, but often that is lazy on our part. For a first-generation student balancing work and school asking about your office hours may be their way of ensuring you will be there because they may have to take time off work or away from family. Let’s think about this another way, if a student is so interested in coming to see you they want to make sure you are going to be there and confirm in advance, isn’t that something we want to encourage?

Sometimes questions are lazy, but do not let your experiences with the least prepared and engaged students shape your experiences with everyone else.


The CELT Conference preliminary program and registration link are now available. See you on October 6-7!

Got feedback on this tip? Leave a comment or email it to us. Got an idea for a tip? Send it along. Check out our new and improved wordpress site here.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Caffeinated Cats podcast! Link to it on soundclouditunesovercast, or follow the podcast on facebook.

But I really deserve an A

I have a tortured relationship with grade appeals. I admire the investment of students in their education. It takes courage to walk into an office hour and make a case for a higher grade to what may be an unreceptive audience. Whether it is the first office hour visit of the semester or the 100th, I appreciate a student who is willing to advocate for themselves. I also dread every one of these conversations where students sometimes pry into the minutia of assignments I put behind me months ago.

Over time I have developed some strategies for dealing with this that I have shared earlier. A recent article from Faculty Focus shed light on a different way to deal with these conversations, through rubrics. The argument is relatively simple: greater clarity in the grading process decreases complaints and can increase student performance. It can also prevent you from getting sued. A student literally sued University of Massachusetts, Amherst over a passing, but apparently unsatisfactory grade in 2007. He lost the case and it is extreme, but it does highlight the commitment of some students to the grades they feel they deserve.

There are other benefits to more systematized grading as well. A 2010 study by Bickes and Schim revealed rubrics as an effective way to curb grade inflation in a nursing program by standardizing grading practices across sections. I have always found the process of creating rubrics instructive as it forces me to consider the relative value of components of an assignment. Rubrics are not the answer to all your problems, but they do offer some real benefits in the short and long term.

Looking for time to form a Faculty Learning Community and develop some program rubrics? As luck would have it, we are in the window for Learning Enhancement Grants and I encourage you to apply for any worthy idea.

Got an idea for a tip or feedback about this one? Don’t hesitate to send it to us. We are developing a wordpress site (under construction) to showcase teaching tips and your great ideas.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Caffeinated Cats podcast! The newest episode is on our new President. Link to it on itunesovercast, or follow the podcast on facebook.

*  Bickes, J. T. & Schim, S. M. (2010). Righting writing: Strategies for improving nursing student papers. International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship, 7, 1-11. doi: 10.2202/1548-923X.1964


What did i miss?

  • Dear Professor, I cannot be in class on Tuesday night because I am rushing a Greek organization and we have an event.
  • Hello teacher, I need to reschedule my presentation on Monday because I will be out of town for an athletic competition.
  • Hi, did we do anything in class on Thursday? I was sick.

It is that time of year when you are probably being inundated with requests to adjust your schedule or help a student make up for lost time. Some of you are reading your email and thinking “Do I have to? Unsurprisingly this issue is complicated, but my office has been doing a little legwork to help faculty deal with attendance issues in higher education.

The first and most important thing to remember is that the vast majority of students who miss class do so because of legitimate reasons and are looking to get a high quality education while balancing other commitments. There are students who are looking to take advantage of your willingness to accommodate, but they are an exception rather than a rule. First, let’s sift through the reasons students miss class and what we can do to accommodate.

Greek Life: Most fraternity/sorority events take place in the evening hours after most classes have concluded, but not always. Even so, many of us teach in the evenings and must resolve requests to miss class. Fraternity and Sorority Affairs Program Coordinator Malcom McLemore was unequivocal when he told me “We do not encourage or imply that missing class for any event is beneficial.” I appreciated his sharp response. Rescheduling class around social events sends an odd message to both Greek life students and other students in the class that is inconsistent with the academic mission of the University.

Athletics: Chico State is the proud sponsor of a great many intercollegiate student athletes and their success is a point of pride for many of us. Sometimes participation requires travel that results in missed classes. In a conversation with Faculty Athletic Representative Jim Morgan I learned a couple things about how the programs negotiate this conflict. First, these problems with intercollegiate schedules are predictable and students are encouraged to find course schedules that line up well with their athletic schedules. Second, as a faculty member you should receive a letter with a roster, and a schedule from the student at the start of the semester. Third, ultimately the decision resides with the faculty member as to what constitutes a sensible accommodation.

Health: We all get sick and most of us are quite accommodating when students have physical or mental health issues that prevent them from coming to class. Health Center Director Deborah Stewart mentioned a few things in our conversation that faculty members should keep in mind. First, a sick student is often also a stressed student who is worried about missing class time. Second, if the Health Center is unable to see a patient they may still issue a note recording the “student reported being sick” but this is not necessarily validation of illness. Whether accommodations are made ultimately resides with the faculty member. One thing to keep in mind if you take a hard line on attendance, do you really want a classroom full of sick students?

Students also miss class for other reasons from bereavement to forgetfulness. It is impossible to have course policies that govern all these areas, but I would encourage you to insert language into your syllabus about sensible accommodations.

Got an idea for a tip? Send it my way!


What exactly are we measuring?

We rely on Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) for a lot as instructors. They are a tool for measuring ourselves. They can provide valuable feedback for course design and content. They are a part of the puzzle when evaluating our peers. They also measure gender bias.

Wait! What was that last one?

Inside Higher Ed reported on new research into SETs concluding “evaluations are biased against female instructor in particular in so many ways that adjusting them for bias is impossible.” It comes as a surprise to no one that SETs are not always an effective tool. I used to teach a class of 500 and committed myself to reading every written comment and making changes as a result, but how seriously could I take them when students were frequently confused about whether they were evaluating me or a graduate student teaching one of the sections?

However, this recent study is different than student confusion or that offhanded comment in your evaluations, it points to systematic discrimination in one of our only standardized tools for measuring our work. This is a significant issue for higher education everywhere, but we tend to gravitate towards the immediate question of: What do we do about it? I am short on answers, but I have some suggestions.

  1. We are researchers, so let’s devote some of our time to learning more about this issue through the work of others (see this previous study to start) and our own investigations. The primary study was co-authored by an Associate Dean of Mathematics and Statistics and a postdoctoral researcher in Economics. The authorship speaks volumes about the reach of this issue and the diversity of people in a position to study it.
  2. If you are on a personnel committee of any sort it is time to have a conversation. The FPPP includes some strong language that SETs “shall be used, but will not weigh excessively in the overall evaluation of instructional effectiveness.” It is time to have some explicit conversations about what this means and how new information about SETs might inform future decisions.

Just a final reminder to come to the working lunch on Wednesday 12-3 in Colusa 100A to complete a Chancellor’s Office course redesign proposal. The funding package is generous at up $20,000 and the application is easy. This is a working lunch, not a series of presentations. Bring a laptop or pen and paper, leave with a completed application.

Got an idea for a tip? Send it to us!


I am only X Points away from a higher grade

Sometimes assigning grades can be the most unpleasant part of the semester. Attaching summative value to a semester’s worth of work can seem reductive and dismissive of the growth and learning we see in our students. My least favorite part of the grading process has always been the request to “bump” grades based on effort, proximity to another letter grade, or an impassioned plea. In most of my courses I have go so far as to issue a Blackboaearning gradesrd announcement making it clear grades are not raised OR lowered based on criteria extraneous to the syllabus.I was also eager to use the “I don’t give grades, you earned them” zinger whenever possible. My justifications were always clear to me.

  1. Grade breakdowns along the guidelines specified in the syllabus are the fairest way to deliver grades. Anything else is unpredictable.
  2. If I were to bump grades up, students have to be ready for me to bump them down for similarly arbitrary reasons, otherwise the practice leads to grade inflation.
  3. Grades are a product of work and performance. If students want better grades, they need to perform better.

This may not be the perspective you take when assigning letter grades at the end of the semester. You may have even better reasons for your policies. My advice is to make whatever grading policy you have clear to your students. If you move grades up and down based on some additional criteria at the end of the semester, let your students know in advance. If grades follow a strict statistical model, make sure it is in the syllabus. We don’t owe our students good grades, but we do owe them transparency and honesty in the process.

Top 10 reasons to come to the Faculty Grading Oasis (open 8-5) in MLIB 458

  1. Get out of your office…where the walls are closing in on you.
  2. No one knocks on the door asking where the bathroom is.
  3. Free coffee and treats.
  4. Student help if you need exams alphabetized or data entered (as long as we are FERPA compliant).
  5. Bring one thing and focus on it rather than getting distracted at home or your office.
  6. Experience the magic of the 4th floor of the library.
  7. You are unlikely to run into that colleague who roams the hallway, complaining about how much grading they have to do.
  8. We are closer to Common Grounds than where you normally work.
  9. Our office is now is now 173 days since our last Chupacabra attack. You will probably be safe.
  10. We control our thermostat.


National Controversies can have local implications

There have been a lot of stories about race on college campuses in the past few weeks. Protests that reached the football field rocked Missouri; students, faculty, and administrators clashed at Yale resulting in varied responses; protests at Dartmouthhave become a flashpoint for administrators and politicized news. Anyone on our campus who was not aware of these broader trends became so before break through a timely email from President Zingg. His email was the topic of choice on anonymous social network Yik Yak immediately afterwards and I can promise you—students were and are talking. Lost track of what these protests are about and how they impact education? The Chronicle has a good briefing to get you caught up although each summary becomes outdated in short order.

Beyond the campus and in the international spotlight, terrorist attacks in France have lots of people talking about limiting immigration based on racial, national, or religious tests.

Regardless of your area of expertise or the topic of your class, you are walking into a classroom where students are asking questions about race and diversity on campus and off. If you are affiliated with Multicultural and Gender Studies, you are more likely to be ready for this conversation. But what happens when you walk into your Physics classroom and several students are in a heated argument about a slur someone used in the dorms? What happens when a student in your hybrid Business class asks “are black students safe on campus?” in the chatroom in the middle of a class session? How can we best serve our students and community in this changing environment?

  1. Educate yourself. No one expects everyone on campus to be an expert on all current higher education news and all topics related to diversity on and off campus, but these issues are only becoming more prominent in higher education. AAC&U has some great resources to get started.
  2. Odds are good, someone will be unhappy with how you proceed. Cut off discussion and students may feel you are dismissing legitimate concerns. Engage the topics some students are deeply concerned with and you may do so in the wrong way or let a conversation take over a course students are paying to attend to learn critical material. Be okay with the prospect that things may not go as planned and maybe check with your chair to find out if there is any advice from the program or college that may help you out, even when things don’t go well.

Most of the easy problems have already been solved. Only the hard ones are left.

For quick tips on just about any teaching topic you can think of, check out for information on our subscription to 20 Minute Mentor!

Need a quiet place to write or grade? Come by MLIB 458; we are open 8-5 and here to help faculty however we can.


Are we there yet?

Thanksgiving break is so close you can taste it, and the students can too. This can be a difficult week for substantive instruction as you are probably inundated with emails like “my mom booked a flight for me six months ago and I need to leave town on Wednesday” or “why are you giving an exam this week? Can I take it online?”

Students have lives and we don’t want to be dismissive of them, but how do we balance that with the needs of our other students and our schedules?

I have usually taken a hard line with issues like this, and I have encouraged other instructors to do the same. This week is a scheduled school week and it should be treated as such. If students miss an exam this week then it is the same as if they miss it in the 2nd week of the semester. Some instructors may feel the need to be more flexible, and at times I have been as well.

Regardless, I would encourage you to be clear. Set expectations early in the week or even earlier in the semester about your adherence to the course calendar and expectations for student involvement. Then when you need to break some bad news to a student, it has some context. Nothing softens the blow of bad news like a healthy dose of “I told you so.” Maybe not, but it is still a best practice to keep everyone informed.

Looking for inspiration over break? Don’t forget about our 20 minute mentor subscription.

STEP 1: Activate your 20 Minute Mentor Commons subscription

  1. Go to
  2. Enter information in each of the required fields.  In the Authorization Code box, enter our group Authorization Code CSUCHICO587and click Submit

Please note: entering the Authorization Code is done only once.

STEP 2: Access the 20 Minute Mentor Commons library

  1. Go to
  2. Enter your email address & password & click Submit. If you do not know or remember your account password, use “Forget your password?” to reset it.
  3. On the left side of the screen, under My Account, My Online Access, select Subscriptions. The online content you have access to will be listed to the right. Click the appropriate link to view the content.

Access to 20 Minute Mentor Commons is also available to registered members at

Come visit us in MLIB 458 we are open 8-5 five days a week and have space for you to spread out and do work.

Have a great break!


Put yourself in their shoes

Earlier this semester I was in a webinar about a project I was already pretty familiar with. I had participated in a similar program a few years ago and had done some reading in advance. I was excited to learn more about the program and sat down with the best of intentions.

Ten minutes in, I was completely lost. There were acronyms, complex questions, nuances, and personal histories I was completely unfamiliar with. I was so lost, I got bored. I made sure my webcam was not on and pointed my browser to to familiarize myself with the 49ers 49ers depth chart. 35 minutes later the webinar had ended and I had gained almost nothing. I started to do some catch-up reading to see if I could be less lost the next time there was a webinar, and then something occurred to me, I was a novice learner again.

This is the experience many students have in our classes. They are well intentioned, ambitious, interested in the subject matter, and overwhelmed by what we are talking about. The content seems obvious to us, key concepts jump off the page and are elaborated with ease for us, but not for them.

This process does not have to remain a mystery. There are several things you can do in and out of class to transition your class from novice learner status.

  1. Provide them with a preview of one or two main concepts from a class period, then reference them, then repeat them at the end. The goal is not memorization, it is providing them with a framework for understanding.
  2. Check in with them during class. Break up an activity or a lecture to re-center a conversation on a framework you find useful.
  3. Engage in perspective taking. Imagine (with help from them) encountering the material for the first time, what would you think?

A little outside reading never hurt. Check out “The Journey to High Level Performance: Using Knowledge on the Novice-Expert Trajectory to Enhance Higher Education Teaching” by Moore, O’Neil, & Barrett from The Changing Roles and Identities of Teachers and Learners in Higher Education as a good topic primer.

Just remember, every change comes with a cost. With increased attention on the course material, how will your students keep up on the 49ers?


Trigger warnings and why you should care

For most of my time at Chico I have taught a course in Freedom of Speech. For the last few years I incorporated a mini-unit on the Innocence of Muslims trailer/movie that inspired worldwide riots in 2012. I would usually let my students know in advance we would be watching the movie since it was the source of such outrage and controversy. In addition, to start each semester I would let students know the topics in the class were controversial by definition and even assigned a rating of “NC-17” to the course in order to give students fair warning. While I was not familiar with the concept to start, I was providing my students with a trigger warning.

Providing the trigger warning was a mistake.

The mistake was not the warning itself, it was making an uninformed decision about whether the warning was appropriate. There are good reasons for warning students in advance about topics which might compel distress. There are also good reasons why mandated warnings are a threat to academic freedom and the intellectual development of students.

I am not going to tell you about your obligation to protect your students from controversy, or expose them to unpopular ideas. I am not going to tell you about how you are ruining the academy by giving your students advance warning about material that might recreate trauma from assault or war, nor am I am going to tell you about your complicity in violence by failing to do so.

I am going to pass on the same advice you likely give your students. Do some research and make an informed decision about trigger warnings rather than simply trusting that what you are doing is right.

For some further reading check out these pieces.

Huffington Post blog on balancing warnings with good content.

Washington Post piece on trigger warnings and guest speakers on campuses.

New Republic essay or trigger warnings and mental health.

US News Debate Club on trigger warnings.