Author Archives: Chas Brua

SITE Stories: Diversity Circles

diversity_circles_template1.pngAt the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, we’re always interested in innovative teaching practices. When we heard about Jennifer Crissman Ishler’s “Diversity Circles” activity, we wanted to learn more. Below is a description of the activity and its pedagogical benefits. Jennifer Crissman Ishler is a senior instructor in human development and family studies.

In all of the courses taught by Jennifer Crissman Ishler, students experience an activity called “Diversity Circles.” She’s been using the activity for 14 years, in classes ranging from 20 to 150 students, and it’s consistently mentioned positively in her SRTEs and other course feedback.

The rationale behind the activity is that it helps students deal more successfully with the diversity they will encounter in their classes, their residence halls, and their future careers. Crissman Ishler urges her students to listen and learn when exposed to diversity and to try to avoid making assumptions. While the activity seems like a natural for the counselor-education and human-development courses she teaches, she believes it can be useful in other courses as well, since students in any discipline will encounter diversity throughout their lives.

The activity goes something like this: Each student privately draws a circle, places his or her name inside, and then draws lines connecting to four smaller circles.

In each of the smaller circles, the students write down a trait that expresses who they are as a multicultural being–traits such as gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on. Crissman Ishler then asks the students to think about one of the circles they felt happy to be part of, as well as one circle where they’ve experienced awkwardness such as being singled out in a negative way by others. They share their feelings in small groups and, if they wish, with the larger class. Students play “break the stereotype” by stating “I am a _____________, but not a _________________.” In the first blank, the students state a multicultural identity they embrace, while in the second blank they state a stereotype that doesn’t fit them in relation to that identity.

Often the sharing time includes nervous laughter. Crissman Ishler helps the students process the experience, asking them: “Why are we laughing? What’s awkward about this?” During the processing of the experience, students think about how language like “That’s so gay” or “That’s so retarded” can wound others–often without the speaker even knowing it, since many elements of identity are invisible.

The in-class processing of the activity is crucial. At the beginning, Crissman Ishler tells the students: “I’m going to put you on the spot today. It’s about you–your interpersonal reflection. I’m asking you to share, to take risks.” The point is to have fun, and also to learn. But she also sets ground rules so that the students can feel safe in their sharing: While there will be a variety of opinions, they must be expressed politely–and students are reminded that the information their classmates share is to remain confidential.

“I continue to use it because I think it’s got great value,” Crissman Ishler says. “It’s something simple they can all relate to. With the right processing, it can lead to an aha! moment. It’s the one thing that always stays in my curriculum.”

If you’d like more information about the activity and how it might be adapted to your own teaching, please contact Jennifer Crissman Ishler at

SITE Stories: TA for a Day

At SITE, we’re always interested in innovative teaching practices. So when a couple of people mentioned Jennifer Chang Coupland’s “TA for a Day” activity, we wanted to learn more. Below is a description of the activity and its pedagogical benefits, written by Professor Chang Coupland, a clinical associate professor of marketing.
I have found over the years that students can often provide outstanding insights when it comes to teaching material. I teach marketing, which is a topic that has definite theories, frameworks and strategies, but the content is dynamic. Every semester (or minute!) consumer preferences change, buying habits alter, the economy shifts, brands and media move through trends and macro forces in the environment. When I started teaching 15 years ago, the examples I used were fairly relatable to students as we were close enough in age and marketing-related interests. As I’ve aged and my students haven’t, I find myself grasping for relatable, timely examples. 
In my honors marketing seminar a couple years ago, I had students volunteer to “teach” the class for 10 minutes at the end of the semester. They could choose any topic covered in the course but discuss the topic in their own way with their own examples. I found that this provided me with many great ideas for future semesters.   
I wondered if I could take this “teacher” concept to my large Principles of Marketing course in the Forum, which seats 350 students. I like the idea that students are at once “students” who learn the basic course content, “consumers” who know about the real-world of brands and media and what it’s like to sit in the large classroom setting, and “teachers” who can marry these concepts together.   
So, after consulting with my TAs and some undergraduates, I came up with a concept called “TA for a Day,” which is an optional extra credit assignment due at the end of the semester. Students can earn up to 1% extra credit to their final course grade. Below are the instructions:  
“You may submit your own original ideas for in-class activities (include title, materials needed, specific procedures, instructions, expected results, relevant textbook page # or course topic), multiple choice exam questions (be sure to include the correct answer, textbook page #, relevant image), or lesson plan ideas for MKTG 301 in the Angel dropbox, ‘TA for a Day Extra Credit.’ You may submit this form of extra credit at any time before ___.”  
As a result of the submissions, I’ve obtained a wealth of new content, some very innovative. For example, Jon Slomka came up with an in-class game for a lecture on product quality, entitled “Real of Fake? Test Your Product Wits” in which students try to use product quality lecture objectives to determine which products are real or fake. Greg Newman came up with an elaborate in-class activity to illustrate the personal selling process and a key stage known as “prospecting and qualifying.” And many additional students have come up with other great ways to help their classmates learn.
What I like about these activities is that the student has clearly thought not just “about” the lecture material but thought “through” it. Not only do I learn from the students, but they themselves learn by doing. They come up with their own specific examples and creatively apply the content. I believe students are more likely to fundamentally remember marketing in a useful way through this exercise. Future students also benefit from a novel, relatable idea.      

Success with Course Videos

Chuck Ghilani teaches courses in surveying engineering at Penn State Wilkes-Barre. A few years back, a publisher asked him to produce some videos to accompany a textbook he had written. Realizing that these videos could aid his students, he started developing videos of his class notes. The following semester, he and colleague Thomas Seybert piloted the videos in their own classes; when students’ exam scores increased compared with those from the previous year, Chuck knew he was onto something powerful.

Since then, he’s produced about 140 videos, typically about 15 minutes long. In each video, he animates PowerPoint slides so students can revisit lecture material whenever they find the need. All the while, he’s providing narration that explains the concepts. “This allows students to go back when doing homework,” Chuck says. “Student satisfaction went up, as well as their understanding of the topic. And they’re doing it on their own, in a format they’re very familiar with.” (See one of the videos by clicking here.)

In addition, he reports in a paper co-written with Thomas Seybert that students continue coming to class–it seems they’re using the videos mainly to review unclear concepts. His latest videos involve information on how to use the software and hardware to perform a GNSS survey in the practical field exercises. Students can access these short videos (less than 5 minutes) using their smartphones via a QR code. This allows the students to get help from Chuck even when he’s on the other side of his 52-acre campus.

In the two years since Chuck started making videos, his process has evolved. Early on, when trying to edit out mistakes, he got good at editing out single words. Then he realized it was easier to redo a sentence rather than a single word. Now he redoes the entire narrative for a slide if he’s unhappy with the results. (He uses the software Camtasia Studio for the recording and editing.)

Making good course videos requires a large time commitment, but remember that every Penn State location has a Media Commons installation where faculty can get support in making quality digital products. If you’re interested, start out small, with a single video….

Getting Inspired at the Undergraduate Exhibition

Undergraduates get a lot of bad press these days. I guess that has always been true, but sometimes the laments about the “millennial generation” seem especially loud. So I found it a useful counterbalance to serve as a judge for this year’s Undergraduate Exhibition.

Picture the scene yesterday in the HUB-Robeson Center’s Alumni Hall: Dozens and dozens of research posters produced by Penn State undergraduates, with representation from the arts and humanities, engineering, health and life sciences, physical sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and course-based projects. I was a judge for social and behavioral sciences and got a chance to talk with some extremely smart and articulate undergraduates.

Strolling around afterward, I enjoyed seeing the variety inherent in the research — everything from posters on biosynthesis of Thiostrepton A to analysis of a poet’s oeuvre to an examination of ways that infants’ crawling behaviors affect their communicative development.

It was a humbling and inspiring way to spend an hour.

Faculty Tips: Getting Students to Do the SRTEs

As is the case at most universities, end-of-semester student evaluations are important at Penn State: In addition to providing valuable information about what’s working (or not) in a course, the SRTEs factor into decisions about promotion and tenure, or rehiring of non-tenure-track faculty.

Since Penn State’s move to online SRTEs, many faculty members have expressed concern about fewer students filling out the forms. Yet some faculty still achieve impressive response rates, and staff at the Schreyer Institute realized that those faculty have insights that could help everyone. So we asked faculty what their secrets are (the respondents had at least a 70% SRTE response rate and at least 30 students in their classes). 

Some of the faculty said they tell students about ways SRTE feedback has allowed them to improve their classes; some mentioned the importance of gathering feedback throughout the semester; and some had still other strategies. You can find tips from faculty in their own words here. We’ll be adding to the list over time, so make sure to stop back. And if you have a tip of your own, please add a comment to this blog!


Helpful Tools for Teaching Philosophies

Several graduate students and postdocs have asked me to review their teaching philosophies in the past week, and I think some of my colleagues have been providing similar help. Writing a teaching philosophy — whether we’re a grad student, postdoc, or faculty member — can be a difficult thing, since it’s such a personal document and since there’s no one set format. In this blog post, I’ll provide a quick overview of some resources that can make the job easier:

–If you’re like me and learn best by having examples to analyze, check out our compendium of philosophies submitted by Penn State faculty and graduate students. The philosophies are grouped by discipline. I find browsing through the examples to be helpful — I get to see the many different ways people organize their philosophies. You can find additional examples on the teaching-philosophy sites of the University of Michigan  and Ohio State.

–We’ve also provided a rubric you can use to evaluate the draft of your teaching philosophy. For a different rubric, see the University of Michigan’s site.

–The teaching centers at Vanderbilt University and Ohio State both offer a good overview of the process of writing a teaching philosophy.

–If you’d benefit from some small-group discussion about the process of writing a teaching philosophy, attend the Schreyer Institute’s workshop on “Preparing Your Teaching Philosophy for the Job Market,” which will be held on March 14 from 11:15 to 12:30. Lauren Kooistra and Andrew Porter, the graduate instructional consultants at SITE, will be leading the workshop.

–And finally, if you’d like some one-on-one feedback, we’d love to schedule a free consultation with you. Just drop us a line at to set up a time.

Offerings Galore

At the Schreyer Institute, we try to offer a varied schedule of workshops, and I think we succeed. Just in the next week, our workshops include the following:

–Assessing Student Learning at the Program Level: Three Faculty Members Share Their Plans

–Discussions and Strategies: Working with TAs in Large Classes

–Getting through the Stack: Grading for Learning

–Best Practices for Designing Effective Multiple Choice Tests

–Evaluation in Three Acts (for faculty at Penn State Fayette)

One thing I’d like to point out: If you or your department would like us to customize a workshop for your particular participants, we’d be happy to do so. Just email us at For more details about the events listed above, or other upcoming events, go to our events page.

In Praise of Good Teaching

I’m in the midst of reading nominations for Penn State’s teaching awards, and I’ve been extremely impressed by the nominees. All sound extremely dedicated to their students’ learning, and the letters from students are especially impressive. In addition to content knowledge and ability to create good learning environments in their classes, one thing that’s mentioned often is the ability of some faculty members to be open and approachable — to make students feel like this person is a mentor and source of advice, even if not the student’s official adviser.

That makes me think of Bernie Asbell, whose magazine-writing classes I took when I was a junior at Penn State many years ago. He was a journalist and author who had turned to teaching late in his career. In addition to being dedicated to making us all into better writers, Bernie was an approachable human being. When my writing alluded to some thorny issues I was dealing with, he privately talked with me in a very empathic and caring way. (I remember this conversation, on a bench near Old Main, like it was yesterday.) His wise words helped me figure out my dilemma, and I will always be grateful. I never really told him that, though — he died several years ago — so I’m pleased to see so many students taking the opportunity to thank outstanding faculty by nominating them for teaching awards.

Timely Reminders

As the end of the semester looms nearer, some reminders:

–Many of our students are starting to “hit the wall” around this time in the semester. (If only they knew that so are their faculty.) If you have major projects due in the next few weeks, consider checking in systematically with your students to gauge their progress. How many of them have completed the literature review for their research papers? Have their groups been meeting regularly to prep for their upcoming class presentations? The ideal situation is if you have built these checkpoints into your syllabus; even if you haven’t, consider whether you can informally check in now.

–Make sure your grade book is current. I’ve sometimes been guilty of waiting until the last minute to compile my end-of-semester grades. Not recommended, unless you like stress. Consider whether your grades are all up to date, and if not, there’s no time like the present.

–Prepare for those SRTEs. Although end-of-semester student evaluations are still a few weeks away, David Perlmutter offers some good tips about intepreting them — and preparing students to take them — in the Chronicle of Higher Education. One interesting suggestion: “In the case of course objectives, on the first day of class, lay them out carefully, noting that they are also spelled out in the syllabus. In a later class, perhaps the one previous to the session in which you will hand out the evaluations, reiterate your course objectives and explain how they have been achieved. That’s not pandering to students; that’s transparent teaching.”

–Remember that extra hour we all get this Sunday, when we turn the clocks back one hour. You might use it to sleep or to catch up on academic work. Don’t worry though — we’ll have to pay for this next year when we “spring forward.”

A Philosophy of Teaching Philosophies

I read a lot of teaching philosophies as part of my consultation work at the Schreyer Institute. What makes a teaching philosophy good, in my opinion?

In no particular order, three tips:

1) Its formatting allows the reader to quickly skim it and still come away with a sense of the writer’s teaching persona. Hiring committees tend to be busy people, and we can’t count on them to read the whole document.

2) The philosophy includes some examples that help me see the teacher — and the students — at work in the classroom or outside it. As James M. Lang points out in a great Chronicle article about teaching philosophies, it’s easy enough to write the current buzzwords, but it’s more difficult to give evidence of something substantial. (Or as Susan Ambrose from CMU’s teaching center said in a workshop the other day, the term “active learning” should be banned. “Meaningful learning” is much more to the point, she said.)

3)  The philosophy shows the students learning, and not just the teacher teaching. Both are important, but at the Schreyer Institute we caution people against putting all the emphasis on what the teacher is doing — because success hinges on what the students are producing. As Ambrose stressed in her talk, the student is the one responsible for learning.

I’d welcome your suggestions about what makes a good teaching philosophy.