SIP #5.2 Meeting Students Where They Are

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Professor interacting with students

At MSU Denver, we are dedicated to promoting equity for our very diverse student body. There are two facets of equity to consider:  access equity and equity in outcomes. MSU Denver fosters access equity in a variety of manners: we have a modified open enrollment policy, we have a differentiated rate of tuition for ASSET students, we work with traditionally underserved high schools to promote a college-going mindset and to provide students with the tools they need to make college a reality, etc. MSU Denver also sets a high academic bar and requires that students reach that level in order to progress in their coursework and graduate. Our goal of equity in outcomes, though, requires that all students who come in to the university be able to get out with a degree—no matter what their preparation is when they start. So how can faculty support the students we have in order to achieve equity in outcomes?

Take a SIP of This: Meeting Students Where They Are

Sometimes it can be difficult to visualize how students who are here are going to finish their current courses and, eventually, their degree. We cannot do much about the skills that students come in with, but faculty can control what we and the institution can do to address academic needs. For example, if you see a student who struggles with college-level writing, don’t ask, “Why isn’t this student prepared?” but rather ask, “What can I do to support this student so that they can do the work that I am expecting?” and “What university supports are in place to assist this student with their learning goals?” The student must do the work to meet expectations, but framing the conversation around how we as faculty and staff can intervene to assist better promotes equity.

How can YOU meet students where they are in your classroom? 

  • Remember that you may have both unprepared learners and students who are well prepared for college level work in the same class. Understanding that you may have to provide extra support for some and extra challenge for others can help you to create lesson plans and materials that support a wide range of learners. For example, a faculty in Spanish may have a native speaker and a second language learner in the same class. Developing activities that allow both students to engage and interact with the content and with each other is fundamental to success. By setting the bar high and challenging the native speaker while supporting additional growth for the second language learner, the class will be more effective while providing access for all.
  • Do a baseline assessment at the beginning of every course, or even at the beginning of every unit. Use a KWL chart to find out what your students know—you may have to fill in a few blanks for some before continuing with your lesson with additional lecture or added readings/activities.
  • Employ frequent low-stakes assessments in your class. If you only give a midterm and a final, or if a student’s entire grade is based on one big project, there are more areas in which a student may be unprepared and need help that are missed. Classroom Assessment Techniques can be useful to help incorporate low-stakes formative assessment into your lesson plan. A simple “Minute Paper” at the end of the class can show you what your students learned in class and what kinds of responsive alterations you need to make to your plans for the next class in order to get everyone up to speed. This technique works as well in humanities courses as it does in STEM.
  • Remember that social/emotional factors can influence a student’s academic preparedness and present roadblocks to success. Even if a student is doing well on assignments in your class, don’t forget to consider their level of engagement, understanding of institutional supports like financial aid, and other parts of a college experience that determine persistence.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Meeting Students Where They Are

SIP #5.1 Re-imagining the First Year of College

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Re-imagining the First Year of College AASCU logoThe classes are chosen, the schedules are printed, and the students show up to your class fresh-faced and ready for their first year at MSU Denver. But just who are these first-year students? Many of them are true first-time-to-college freshmen, part of a class comprised this year of about 55% students of color, about 30% first-generation students, and roughly 35% students who are Pell eligible. Many are transfer students—about 60% of the MSU Denver student body comes here from other institutions. These students arrive with high expectations for their college degree and we help them get there, but the first year can be the most unstable in terms of retention and academic success. So how can we best support all of our first-year-at-MSU Denver students?

Take a SIP of This: Re-imagining the First Year of College

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) is sponsoring a national initiative to find the answer to this question, and MSU Denver is one of 44 participating institutions. The initiative, called “Re-imagining the First Year of College” (RFY), seeks to find ways to “dramatically improve the quality of learning and student experience in the first year, increase retention rates, and improve student success.” Now in the second year of this three-year project, RFY participants have been examining how institutional structures, curriculum, and student and faculty actions can be differently envisioned in order to improve outcomes. By focusing on both first-time-to-college and transfer students and approaching their academic and social/emotional needs, RFY participant institutions are sharing strategies that we at MSU Denver can use in order to support our very diverse student body and to promote equity in access and outcomes.

How can YOU support students in their first year at MSU Denver? 

  • Make the students’ social and emotional needs a priority. Help them to “onboard” (integrate into academic and social life on campus) by patiently answering questions about how things work here—even if you have written it into your syllabus or explained it in class ten times!
  • Help students to engage on campus. Encourage freshmen to visit the First Year Success program, and let transfer students know that the office of Transfer Student Success can help them to find their transfer affinity group (TAG). Point all first-year students to Student Activities where they might find a group of like-minded peers with whom to share their unique interests on campus.
  • Create an atmosphere for inclusion in your classroom. Set a tone that shows students that you respect diverse identities and lived experiences, and urge students to bring their cultural capital to bear during class discussions and activities. Let your students know that they belong here!
  • Encourage the development of a growth mindset. Organize your syllabus and assignments so that there are many low-risk opportunities to learn without negatively impacting final grades. Recognize that students in their first year at MSU Denver are managing an emotional load at the same time they are adapting to the informational load of your curriculum, and help them to see that mistakes and setbacks can actually lead to success if approached positively.
  • Help your students to navigate the institutional processes that are unique to MSU Denver. Ask transfer students if their credits have successfully come in, and offer to take a look at DegreeWorks with them to see if they are progressing in general studies or in their major/minor areas. Tell first-time-to-college students about the timeline for registration for spring classes, and remind them of important deadlines for drop-add, financial aid, and tuition payment. Just because the information is “out there” doesn’t mean that it is sinking in the first time—students can be overwhelmed with new procedures and details and it can be hard to remember everything!
  • Make sure that your students know about all of the academic supports available to them on campus. Familiarize them with Academic Advising, walk them over to the Tutoring Center or the Writing Center, and make sure that they know about the support for identity groups offered through the new Center for Equity and Student Achievement (303-556-6970). Directly connecting students with these FREE resources can make a big difference!

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Re-imagining the First Year of College

  • The Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed have been consistently running articles on novel approaches to orientation, first-year pedagogy and institutional practices for retention and success.
  • Check out the list of the 44 institutions participating in AASCU’s Re-imagining the First Year. Peruse their websites and see how they are messaging and enacting models of success for their first-year students.

SIP #3.30 High-Impact Teaching Practices

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HIPsAs faculty, we know about the progression of curriculum in our disciplines, both at the class level (e.g. what we cover in a semester) and at the program level (e.g. the classes a student needs to take, and  the order in which they should be taken). Furthermore, we all serve as advisors and regularly talk to our students about what in-class work they need to do to progress toward a degree. But are we taking advantage of the opportunity to inform students of the other experiences they need to work into their degree plan to make the most of their education?

Take a SIP of This: High-Impact Teaching Practices

One way to do this is to incorporate High Impact Practices (HIPs) into our course design and advising plans. The American Association of Colleges and Universities has identified ten HIPs that have been shown to have a profound impact on a student’s college experience, both academically and in the social-emotional realm. These HIPs are:

  1. first-year seminars and experiences;
  2. common intellectual experiences;
  3. learning communities;
  4. writing-intensive courses;
  5. collaborative assignments and projects;
  6. undergraduate research opportunities;
  7. diversity and global learning (including study abroad);
  8. service learning and community-based learning;
  9. internships; and,
  10. capstone courses and projects.

MSU Denver’s Associate Vice President of Undergraduate Studies, Mark Potter, notes that HIPs alsohave a cumulative effect and are compensatory, so a student starting out who doesn’t have the same level of college preparation can ‘catch up’ by experiencing the benefits of HIPs. So, they’re important to the equity agenda.”

Faculty may notice that many of these HIPs are already integrated into their course designs, such as collaborative projects or service learning assignments. Other times, the implementation of HIPs represents a significant commitment on the part of the professor, like the decision to take on the extra work of making a course writing-intensive, or sponsoring undergraduate research. And still other HIPs, such as capstone courses (senior experiences) and internships need to be woven into the fabric of your department’s major or minor.

Many instruments have measured the effectiveness of HIPs, including the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE, currently going on at MSU Denver), surveys of potential employers, and research done as part of AAC&U’s LEAP project (Liberal Education and America’s Promise). Data points to the fact, though, that if a student experiences at least one HIP per year, they will retain at a higher rate, and that their chances of increased retention grows as their experience with HIPs is more intense.

The documents attached to this SIP provide solid information on how HIPs are employed and assessed. In particular, check out the document on High Impact Practices right here at MSU Denver. Take a minute to reflect on the extent to which you are offering students these valuable experiences, and how you can advise them to seek out HIPs outside of your classroom!

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of High-Impact Teaching Practices

  • MSU Denver’s Undergraduate Studies division houses a number of programs that specialize in creating and implementing HIPs. Check out these areas that are resource centers for HIPs on campus:
  • First Year Success
  • The Applied Learning Center houses multiple HIPs resource centers: the Internship Program, the Service Learning Program, the Center for Urban Connections and the Undergraduate Research Program.
  • The Office of International Education works on diversifying the campus and the curriculum and also helps students to find study abroad opportunities around the world.
  • In addition, the Writing Center can give you pointers on how to make your course more writing intensive. Dr. Elizabeth Kleinfeld, the director of the Writing Center, also has invaluable tips on how to grade writing assignments so that you can ask for more writing from your students while not overburdening yourself with grading.
  • And of course, don’t forget to explore this website for additional SIPs on HIPs!
  • And for ideas on how to design for students a complete degree plan that includes HIPs, see the Queens University major maps with relevant engagement opportunities.

SIP #3.29 Multiple Englishes

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Many of our students are new to academia and its ways of speaking and writing. We who have been in it for years are enculturated and the speaking and writing conventions we follow may be invisible to us. But academic discourse may be mysterious and strange to our students. We may also worry that their way of speaking and writing may disadvantage them in academic and professional endeavors. How can we help our students communicate in ways that are valued in the academic world and in some career fields while respecting their own ways of speaking and writing?

Take a SIP of This: Valuing multiple Englishes

We all come from communities that are defined by their values, traditions, and customs, including ways of speaking. Different communities value different ways of speaking and ways of speaking that are different can be less valued or even considered to be “wrong.” Language is part of culture, which is part of identity; when a particular way of speaking or writing is labeled “nonstandard English,” the identity of the person who speaks that English is being identified as “wrong” or “less than.” The fact is that we all speak a dialect—there is no “pure” form of English. Likewise, we all have an accent—we just don’t recognize our own accents as such.

Scholar Leah Zuidema identifies several commonly held beliefs about English that are inaccurate, including these two:

  1. Some dialects and languages don’t have grammatical rules.
  2. Standard English is better than other varieties.

In fact, all dialects and languages have grammatical rules, and the English we may call “Standard English” is no more clear or sophisticated  than any other variety. Instead of sending the message to students that their dialects or varieties of English aren’t “correct,” which isn’t linguistically accurate, we can empower them to learn to speak and write academic discourse.

Here are some things you can do to help your students learn to speak and write academic discourse:

  • Explain the rules of academic discourse to students, even the rules that you think are obvious. Those within the culture often follow the rules without being consciously aware of them. Delpit (1988) argues that making the rules of the culture of power explicit helps those who are not part of that culture acquire power. Making the rules of academic discourse explicit to students, rather than expecting them to already know the rules, empowers them and gives them access to the language of power. Help them understand the rules of the language you want them to use in your class.
  • Help students understand that academic English or the English valued in your discipline has particular conventions. These conventions can be learned, and depending on time of exposure and other factors, may be learned quickly or may take many semesters. Remember that it may take students who are new to academic discourse many semesters to become enculturated.
  • Recognize that teaching our students of color to speak and write in academic discourse will not protect them from racism. Unfortunately, our views on language are impacted by implicit biases that we all have. When Reeves (2014) asked lawyers to evaluate a written document, they scored the document higher when they thought it was written by a white lawyer and lower when they thought it was written by a black lawyer. These findings support the idea that we make judgments about language based, at least in part, on who is doing the speaking or writing.
  • Understand that it is not linguistically accurate to label any dialect as “bad English” or “wrong.”  Language scholars do not find any dialect to be better than any other dialect.
  • Demonstrate respect for other dialects rather than putting them down or referring to them as “nonstandard.” Remember that language is part of culture and culture is part of identity. When we call a language nonstandard or wrong, we are calling a person’s identity deficient.
  • Before making students’ language usage a factor in grading, consider how much the language usage matters for that particular assignment. For some assignments, language usage may be crucial, but for others, such as journaling or answering homework questions, content mastery or reflection may be more important and the language variety a student uses may not matter as much. Let students know when their language usage will matter in grading and when it won’t.
  • Consider making explicit instruction about how people speak and write in your discipline part of every class. This can be as simple as opening a discussion of an article with an explanation of how academics tend to use colons in their titles.

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Valuing multiple Englishes

SIP #3.28 Strengths of Students with Dyslexia

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Have you ever read a student’s in-class writing assignment that looks something like this…?


The student who wrote this clearly struggles with spelling and handwriting, and at first glance, it is tempting to assume that this is a poor student. However, it is likely that the student who wrote this has a learning disability called dyslexia,  More so, it is highly likely that the student who wrote this has a variety of strengths that far exceed those of their peers. This student’s ability to use their strengths is critical to their learning. How can we as college instructors make sure the strengths of students with Dyslexia are recognized and nurtured?

Take a SIP of This: Strengths of Students with Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that is neurobiological in origin and impacts a person’s ability to sound out words and spell. People with dyslexia may also have poor handwriting, struggle to pay attention, or lose energy by the end of class. As with all neuro-diversities, dyslexia impacts some people more than others. Approximately 15-20% of the US population has a language-based learning disability such as dyslexia. The IQ scores of people with dyslexia and those without are roughly equivalent.

Dyslexics’ strengths come from two sources. First, differences in brain function that make language processing more difficult are often paired with differences in brain function that make other tasks easier. Second, students with dyslexia typically face situational challenges that build strengths. Here are a few common strengths of people with dyslexia.

  • Creative Thinking. When one method for reading a word doesn’t work, the student with dyslexia has to find another. Students with dyslexia are well suited to finding alternatives and problem solving.
  • Visual-Spatial Thinking. People with dyslexia are often strong at thinking in pictures. Strengths in the mental manipulation of objects can help with building and mechanics. Visual imagery is a great tool to use for memorization and story building.
  • Perseverance. People with dyslexia must work harder than typical readers. Sounding out words, particularly those that are used out of regular context, those that are used infrequently, or those with atypical spellings requires additional effort. Over the course of the day the extra effort results in fatigue and stress. Our students with dyslexia continue their education at MSU Denver despite the fact that it can feel like a constant uphill battle.
  • Resilience. Many students with dyslexia have been told that they are stupid. Peers, siblings, tests, and even teachers are guilty of this. Many spent years in “special” classes for remediation of their reading disability, separate from friends and the “normal”  kids. These experience often result in feelings of shame and embarrassment but college students with dyslexia either rejected those experiences or used them to propel forward.

How can the strengths of a student with dyslexia contribute to a productive learning context?

  • Take a break after teaching a challenging concept or process. Have students illustrate the concept or draw a diagram of the process. Then, give students the opportunity to explain their illustration or drawing to a partner or small group. It is likely that the drawing of the student with dyslexia, along with the student’s explanation of their drawing, will increase their classmates’ understanding of the content.
  • Present a problem for the class to solve. Give students time to think about various possibilities before they share. Frequently, the ideas presented by your students with dyslexia will be creative and effective. This type of “out of the box” thinking can benefit students whose ideas are more traditional.
  • The content we teach often includes ideas about failure or defeat and the achievements that emerged from them. The challenges our students with dyslexia faced growing up can allow them to understand the benefit of challenge, and how much of what seeks to hold us back, in fact, pushes us to move forward. Prompt students to think about and discuss the benefits of failure or defeat. Many students who have not faced significant learning challenges will benefit from understanding how setbacks can be used productively.
  • When appropriate, permit students to express what they’ve learned in ways other than writing, such as illustrations, videos, music, etc.

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Strengths of Students with Dyslexia

SIP #3.27 What To Do When Students Talk To You About Suicide

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College can be stressful time for many students. Most students at the college level are in the process of developing careers, relationships, life goals and their own individual identities. Nontraditional students are often juggling family and work demands in addition to their course work. In the college community, about 10 percent of the students may be distressed by depression, acute anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, or more serious conditions.

Faculty and staff are often the first to recognize that a student may not be functioning well emotionally. Students may turn to you because of your position and the respect they hold for you as a faculty or staff member. Faculty members and staff are in a good position to spot an emotionally troubled student. You may observe that at certain times of the year, particularly during examinations and holidays, students experience increased anxiety and depression and may discuss thoughts about suicide with you.

Take a SIP of This: What to Do When Students Talk to You about Suicide

According to the CDC, there were 41,149 suicides in 2013 in the United States– this is equal to 113 suicides each day or one every 13 minutes. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. Individuals who contemplate suicide are not crazy or unstable. Most are experiencing extreme depression and/or stress and may think of suicide as a means of escape from pain. Some students are reticent to reach out for help with this struggle, while others may voluntarily share their thoughts of possible self-harm. By reaching out and communicating with someone about suicide, they are in essence looking for a way to communicate their feelings. Any opportunity to do so should be encouraged.


  • Express your concern in non-judgmental terms.
  • Listen to the student and repeat the main point of what the student is saying.
  • Respect the student’s value system.
  • Ask if the student is considering suicide.
  • Take the student seriously. 80 percent of suicides give warning of their intent. Acknowledge that a threat of or attempt at suicide is a plea for help.
  • Contact the MSU Denver Counseling Center as soon as possible, preferably while the student is with you so that you can make sure the student gets the help they need. If necessary, walk the student to the Counseling Center to make sure they arrive.
  • If you believe a student is in immediate danger to themselves or others, call campus police.
  • For students who are struggling with difficult life circumstances, file a CARE report. However, be aware that these reports are only monitored during business hours.


  • Minimize the situation or depth of feeling, e.g., “Oh it will be much better tomorrow.”
  • Be afraid to ask the person if they are so depressed or sad that they want to hurt themselves (e.g., “You seem so upset and discouraged that I’m wondering if you are considering suicide.”). Some students may not actually explicitly mention suicide, but instead discuss feelings of depression and hopelessness.
  • Promise confidentiality. A life is at stake and you may need to speak to a mental health professional in order to keep the suicidal person safe.
  • Over-commit yourself and, therefore, not be able to deliver on what you promise.
  • Ignore your limitations. We often have an urge to protect our students, but we must keep in mind that we are not their parents.

Suicide is rarely a spur of the moment decision. In the days and hours before people kill themselves, there are usually clues and warning signs. Some warnings sign to look out for in your classroom:

  • Significant grade problems or a significant shift in grades.
  • Change in attendance.
  • Change in pattern of social interaction.
  • Marked change in mood.
  • Marked change in physical appearance.
  • Repeated request for special consideration.
  • New or regularly occurring behavior which pushes the limits and may interfere with class management.
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional response.

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of What to Do When Students Talk to You about Suicide

SIP #3.26 Minimizing Anxiety for Better Learning

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At this time in the semester but really, at any time in the semester), students are faced with the challenges of attending school, engaging in classes, and completing work while also struggling with anxiety. In a 2013 survey by the National College Health Assessment, roughly half of college students reported struggling with debilitating anxiety within the past year. Faculty can take small steps to help students who struggle with anxiety still be successful in class.

Take a SIP of This: Minimizing Anxiety for Better Learning

Students who experience anxiety report blocks to their usual thought processes like memory, attention and concentration. Overwhelming anxiety drains students emotionally. It is difficult for them to attend to class activities or assignments. This leads to difficulties with completing coursework and assessments, which then leads to feelings of academic hopelessness – and the cycle begins again. Here are some concrete steps you can take to help:

  • Help students focus on the material, rather than on their anxiety

Students experiencing anxiety often grapple with what notes need to be taken, and often err on writing everything down or giving everything in class the same level of importance. Instructors can provide lecture notes, structured protocols for note taking, and other strategies to highlight the notable information. Highlight key points and transitions within class.  Focus on the objective of the class and be explicit about it.

  • Encourage active learning

When students are actively engaged in a lesson, they focus less on their anxiety. Class discussions, small group discussions, interactive simulations, Socratic seminars, and other activities that let students be involved during class are helpful. Many SIPs address different ideas to increase active learning.

  • Chunk material

Breaking down big assignments into smaller, more doable tasks is called chunking. Break down large projects, papers, etc. into smaller, doable tasks. This helps students see that every task is just a series of small tasks they are capable of completing. Scaffold supports into each chunked part so that the smaller parts can be part of the grade while simultaneously help meet learning needs.

  • Help anxious students reduce their sense of incompetence

Frequent success is the best way to begin building a sense of competence. If students succeed in following what is going on in class and in participating in the class, then they are going to begin believing that competence is possible. Mistakes are an inevitable part of learning and can be built into the learning process. Giving students opportunities to correct their mistakes through offering rough drafts, reworking problem sets, or revising scientific labs lets students struggle and find success through the feedback cycle. When students have multiple opportunities for assessment over the course of the semester, rather than just a few high stakes opportunities, this reduces anxiety as well, and gives more opportunity to correct misconceptions.

  • Practice empathy

Let students know that you remember how hard it was for you to learn some new material. Acknowledge that their struggles are an appropriate part of learning. Teaching students to acknowledge that learning is hard and needs to be worked at is part of developing a growth mindset (i.e. Carol Dweck’s work). A growth mindset has been connected to higher student achievement in classes.

Encourage students to visit you during office hours to chat and just talk about what is bothering them. Knowing someone is willing to listen to you really helps with anxiety. You don’t feel so alone when you know someone actually cares.

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Minimizing Anxiety for Better Learning

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Call for “Guest SIPs”

Inspire instructors and benefit students by sharing your own Strong Instructional Practices

We invite our readers to share their Strong Instructional Practices through the Submit a SIP! page on The Well. Many will be shared with all MSU Denver faculty and staff through our regular Thursday distribution or posted on The Well. We look forward to reading about your Strong Instructional Practices!

About The Well

Metropolitan State University of Denver appreciates and practices inclusive excellence. A significant part of inclusive excellence is instructional practice that supports the social and academic achievement of all students.

The Well serves as a central repository for university faculty to share ideas and resources for strong instructional practice. It is maintained by the sipsquad, a group of MSU Denver professors who study and use inclusive pedagogy in their teaching.

The sipsquad publishes weekly SIPs written by us and other MSUD faculty who practice inclusive pedagogy. We invite instructors to submit their own SIPs using the “Submit a SIP” form on this site.

In addition, we look out for resources related to strong instructional practice in higher education and share those through the “Sources for SIPs” page and the MSUDenverSIPs twitter feed. We encourage you to send us links to resources that will benefit the university faculty.

Drop us a line at  😎

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