Story by Ashleigh Balsamo
Photo by Madelaine Williams
It’s 10 minutes before the start of class when Professor Kimberly DuVall walks into Miller Hall 1101. Instead of the lecture hall falling silent with intimidation, DuVall’s presence seems to excite her students.
Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” plays over the speakers. At the front of the room, a group of students line up at the podium to speak to her while the others find a seat in the crowded lecture hall and pull out their notebooks while they wait for further instruction. Once she’s finished with her one-on-one student discussions, she quiets the music and begins her Human Life Span and Development (PSYC 160) class, a cluster five option in the general education program. Everyone falls silent as they open up the lecture PowerPoint and follow along with the class notes. Surprisingly, not a single computer is logged into Facebook or surfing the web.
DuVall uses her class time to lecture in a way some may call unconventional. Instead of droning on with content, she uses personal anecdotes, as well as ones from students to teach lessons.
“I’m a storyteller,” she says. “That’s what sticks to people. Here’s the theory, here’s how you apply it and here’s my story.”
This is one of many reasons why DuVall is one of the highest rated professors on the student frequented website RateMyProfessors.com. Her overall quality score sits at a perfect 5.0 rating with over 200 positive student comments urging others to take her class. Overall, DuVall is the sixth most rated professor at JMU and has the most ratings out of any other professor with a 5.0. The large number of ratings come as a shock to her, because she says she’s never talked to her students about the site or requested that they rate her. While some students may dread GenEds or classes outside of their major, DuVall’s is one they don’t want to miss. She usually has full attendance, despite the fact that there’s no policy in place to force students to come to class. “I pass around the sheet just to get a feel for who’s there and who’s not,” she says. “If I see someone’s missed a whole lot of classes, I’ll email them and ask if they’re OK. I’ve found more than a handful of students who need my help, and I’ll get them help and do whatever I can for them.”
Her high attendance rate also contributes to her class’ high test average. “The test average is usually around 82 percent,” she says. “I’m just fortunate that the students get where I’m going and actually want to learn.” DuVall, who has been teaching since 1988 and has been at JMU full-time since 2009, never thought she would be a teacher and is genuinely shocked by how well she and her class are received by students. “If somebody would’ve said to me, ‘You’re going to be a teacher,’ I would have said, ‘Yeah, right,’” she says. Prior to teaching, Duvall worked at the University of Virginia as a researcher and practitioner of cognitive therapy. As a neuropsychology psychometrician, she worked with people with head injuries and studied the brains of death row inmates before they were put to death. She didn’t make the transition to teaching until she had no other choice.
In grad school, DuVall was told that she had to teach a class or two if she wanted her schooling to be paid for. As someone who considers herself a shy introvert, this was no easy feat. “I was the one who would just break out in hives if I had to teach or talk in front of somebody, but I had to do it for the money,” she says. DuVall credits overcoming her shyness to the positive feedback from students, which she has gotten ever since her grad school teaching days. Because of this, her class load increased each semester. Now, she teaches five classes including a GenEd, a 4-semester practicum program and independent studies with students. She’s also an academic adviser, which allows her to get even more one-on-one time with students.
When the overwhelming support from students is brought up, DuVall is nearly speechless. The only thing she can seem to attribute this success to is the fact that she really cares about her students. “I think students can see through fake and they know that I genuinely care,” she says. “I try to make psychology relatable every day … bringing in real life situations, and if I don’t, I feel really bad. I want them to go, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize we perceive things this way,’ and I think that’s what makes it.” One of her former psychology students, 2015 alumna Alexis Morse, couldn’t agree more.
“[Professor DuVall]’s like a ‘mom-away-from-home,” Morse says. “Her personality is open, inviting and accepting, and students feel as though they can go to her for anything, big or small.”
DuVall was first made aware of her presence on RateMyProfessors in 2010 when The Washington Post reached out to her about being the No. 1 professor in the nation. “I thought it was a joke,” she laughs. “It was my first year after being part-time, and all I could think was how fortunate I was to be teaching at JMU.” Morse thinks the main reason DuVall has her reputation is because she always finds time to meet with students and make each individual feel like they’re her priority in that moment. This is despite having hundreds of students (including 200 advisees) and running the psychology peer advising program. “It’s a hard skill to perfect and one that first-year students undoubtedly find appealing,” Morse says. “[She] gets great reviews, but the ratings speak more to the person she is than the class itself.”