Monthly Archives: October 2016

Critical Pedagogy: Be Helpful, Be Honest, Be Human

I was surprised to learn this week that critical pedagogy is kind of already what I do in my classroom. I pride myself on teaching my students to question the world around them and to apply the material we are covering to potentially controversial topics in the news rather than focus on lifeless “stock” examples. For example, this semester I am teaching a class that focuses on classical and operant conditioning. For the midterm project, I asked students to critique an advertisement and break down the classical conditioning being used in the ad to get consumers to purchase the product. To go beyond this, I asked them to spend time in class discussing how conditioning might be used in presidential campaign and attack ads (how is conditioning used to “sell the product” of one candidate or block the “sale” of another?). I think having to discuss such a fresh and controversial topic was challenging for some students, but many of them did give me insightful, thorough written responses that pertained to both major political parties. My students are the architects of their own learning, although I am there to provide blueprints for them. I find myself repulsed by the notion of Fromm’s “necrophilous” person, who thrives on control and believes that education begins and ends with passively transferring knowledge into student receptacles. I note, however, that I could be doing more to encourage students to question the material itself, not just the potential limits of its application, and this week’s readings helped me realize that I could still grow.

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Kinchloe’s overview of Freire’s life and work brings up an interesting effect of classrooms based on critical pedagogy, which is that people from diverse and traditionally oppressed walks of life who may have previously been denied access to the academy can find a new, hopeful place in higher education. In such a classroom, these students would be encouraged to apply the course material to their own struggles and engage in problem naming, critiquing and solving in a way that can benefit their corner of the world. A teacher with a better grasp of critical pedagogy than I might be able to understand how the individual perceptions of these students impact the teacher’s delivery of the material and make some adjustments. A classroom like this would be inclusive and collaborative, with diversity playing a starring role rather than being tucked away in a corner and forgotten. Naturally, this brings up some of our previous discussion on how to construct an effective “brave space” to facilitate healthy, challenging student engagement. It seems that building a successful “brave space” is necessary for allowing students to confront real issues in their communities and feel comfortable and confident enough to challenge the status quo of the material.

I had a couple thoughts on how these two topics might intersect, drawing from Shelli’s slides on critical pedagogy. One is that I think we have to establish the classroom as “ground zero” for making these changes. I’ve used this term before, but what I mean here is that students need to feel safe and at home in your classroom before they will feel comfortable using that space to create and work on difficult problems. I draw an analogy to the adoption system: if you adopt a child, one critical step to helping him or her feel “at home” living with your family is to allow him or her to help create a room of his or her own. This may involve picking out a paint color together, buying sheets and curtains, and choosing furniture. This is a space in which the child has had some input, sending the message that his or her ideas matter. In the same sense, you can allow students to play a role in establishing an atmosphere of respectful and contemplative discussion, and this will give them a “base” to work from when critically evaluating and applying course material. In other words, students ought to feel safe speaking up and sharing their opinions on a topic in your classroom, so that they can feel more comfortable doing so out in the world.

Another thought I had was about unpacking and reconsidering power dynamics in the classroom. To be honest, it takes a lot of pressure off me (especially as a graduate student) if I can admit that I don’t know everything about a subject and allow there to be room for questioning what is covered in the textbook. Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with asking a student to let me go out and do some independent research about a question, rather than saying “I don’t know” or “that’s not on the test.” Freire makes the point that teaching and learning have to occur together to foster critical pedagogy. My experience is that taking off my “instructor hat” and just being more of a guide to my students by asking the questions that will help them work through their own thought processes is effective for helping students settle into the course, and it also seems to make me more approachable when they need help. This practice may help level the playing field for students who are underprivileged or at a disadvantage.

Another of Shelli’s points is to allow personal and political aspects of the material to seep into the room. Part of this process, which goes along with my above point about power dynamics, may be to allow students to see the “human” side of their instructor. I had an unexpectedly emotional moment like this a few weeks ago, when I took Christian’s advice and brought up the recent police shootings to my students. I started out by saying that I was available if anyone wanted to talk about what had happened, and I ended up making the point that a lot of what we talk about with conditioning is used when prejudice and discrimination occurs and students should think about what we’ve discussed when they watch the news. It was interesting to see my students’ faces as I talked about this topic, which has never impacted me directly but does bring up an emotional response because of my commitment to social justice. I could tell that they were really listening to me in a way that they hadn’t before, even as I transitioned somewhat awkwardly into my lecture. After class, a student even asked me if my research was about racial violence, and remarked that I seemed to know and care a lot about the topic. This was unexpected and touching. I’ve talked about the judicious use of self-disclosure before, and I think a little of it goes a long way.

The more I think about it, it seems like critical pedagogy–especially when combined with both deep and broad knowledge of the subject matter–is essential for distinguishing ineffective from effective teachers. I hope that I can continue to grow in my effectiveness by using what Freire wrote so passionately about.

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A Tale of Two Mentors

I am excited that we get to talk about mentorship this week. I have had experiences with many different mentors, and there were definitely some differences in the quality of our mentor-mentee match and what I learned from each person. I value the opportunities I have to mentor my students and to help them forge connections with others in the field as they look toward graduate school, internships, and jobs.

Two mentors specifically come to mind in thinking about what Alex wrote about selecting a good mentor and dealing with a toxic mentor. I am going to be intentionally vague about who I am speaking in an effort to respect both mentors.

I’ll start with the person who was perhaps not the best choice for me. This person would probably fall into Alex’s categories of “the avoider” and “the dumper.” This person practiced a pretty hands-off mentoring style, and at times I felt like other priorities and projects were more important than mentoring me. For a mentee with more experience and fewer distractions and stressors, this mentorship style might have worked, but looking back, I needed a more hands-on approach with more guidance and oversight to be able to perform at my best at that time in my life. When I was self-aware enough to ask for more guidance, I typically found that this person had a full schedule, and the person was often unprepared and frazzled when we finally did find time to meet. I sometimes felt like I had been thrown into the deep end of the pool, and this came back to bite me when my mentor realized some of the mistakes I had made. Thankfully, this person was well connected in the field and could introduce me to other mentors who provided more feedback and opportunities to help me grow, all of whom I still collaborate with and learn from.

One of the people I met through my mismatch with this mentor was someone who turned out to be a wonderful mentor. To use Alex’s example, this person was kind of like Yoda in a few ways. The person was well respected and well connected, and this allowed me to spread my network even further and meet new collaborators. Unlike my first mentor, though, this person did not pass along the responsibility of mentorship to other people. This person gave me an active role in projects and allowed me to take on challenges with appropriate supervision and guidance. Even though it was probably more of a draw on this person’s time than a collaborative benefit, this mentor devoted thought and energy to projects that I spearheaded. This mentor wasn’t afraid to call me out when I wasn’t performing at my peak ability, and I was receptive to this feedback because of our relationship, which was built on mutual respect. I remember one instance in particular in which my emotions and stress overwhelmed me and I was tempted to give up on a project, and this person gently challenged me, reminding me that I could solve the problem if I just kept working on it, and allowed me to come back and try again when I calmed down.

I can take what I have learned from these two very different mentors and apply it when I am thinking about what kind of mentor I’d like to be to my own students. Firstly, I want to develop a relationship based on mutual respect in which I can freely challenge students and feel confident that they will trust my intentions and not get offended or feel like I am trying to talk down to them. To me, learning to be receptive to constructive criticism and guidance is key for developing as a professional, and it is not easy or comfortable for people to get better at doing this. Secondly, I want to take time to help my students get opportunities or forge connections, even if it takes away from something else I am doing or doesn’t directly benefit me. For example, if a student in my class was interested in research, I could help connect them with someone in the department who studies their topic of interest. I could also meet with students in office hours if they wanted to talk about graduate school options or get my advice on writing essays or taking the GRE. I think it is really important to remember that just because you only play a small role in a student’s life, you can still make a big impact, especially if the person who primarily supervises their work does not serve as the ideal mentor for that student. Your willingness to work with them could make a bigger difference than you think.

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Turning a Safe Space into a Brave Space

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Thanks to Kelley Woods-Johnson for inspiring this post.

“Safe space” and “trigger warning” have become loaded terms over the past several months, particularly after the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago sent a letter informing incoming freshmen that the university would not permit the installation of safe spaces in its classrooms. The faculty of the university responded with a letter of their own, accusing the Dean of stripping students of their right to make demands about their own education. As an instructor in the psychology department and student in a mental health-focused field, I have been asked many times about my opinion on safe spaces and trigger warning. My response is typically that these terms are more nuanced than they may seem, and how one interprets their meaning has a lot to do with the opinions one forms about them.

The Dean’s letter characterizes safe spaces as walled-off anti-intellectual realms where students are “safe” to remain entrenched in their own perceptions and opinions without being challenged or exposed to new points of view. From this perspective, I can understand the outrage and protective response from the faculty, who clearly believe (as I do) that students should seize the opportunity in college to explore novel ideas in the pursuit of developing their own independent self-concepts. Furthermore, the faculty and I share the opinion that an atmosphere of mutual respect is an essential ingredient for preserving classroom spaces in which truly free–and safe–exchange of ideas may occur. In my view, then, a “safe space” is defined as one in which students feel comfortable voicing their opinions and, in exchange, agree to be open to and respectful of the potentially opposing opinions of others. It sets up the foundation that the classroom is not a place to be intimidated or harassed, but a place in which one can seek to learn about new, important and meaningful experiences and ideas.

Naturally, there will always be a “counselor” or “therapist” side to me, and it occasionally wars with the “instructor” side of me when it comes to issues like these. The former side feels concern for students who may have experienced trauma that prevents them from approaching these topics with open eyes. In trying to be fair to these students, I see the need for “trigger warnings” in highly specified situations. The latter side, then, tries to include such warnings as needed while informing students about the purpose of the potentially triggering material and encouraging them to see it for its educational merit. I strive to have a clear purpose for everything I show and to not shy away from controversial or probing questions. I pride myself on not letting my students “shy away” from critical thinking opportunities.

With a foundation of mutual respect, the appropriate use of warnings about potentially triggering content, and the establishment of a “safe space” as defined and agreed upon by all participants, I believe that we can move toward the use of “brave spaces” in our classrooms. In my view, the construction of a successful “safe space” naturally leads to the emergence of a “brave space,” in which students and instructor share ideas and together shape their understanding of the curriculum. In a “brave space,” students can fully identify with the topics of discussion and discover their relevance and value. It is a “brave space” not only in terms of the flow of ideas but also in building a sense of trust, such that students are free to question the material and instructors are free to ask students to engage more fully with the material and approach higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy in working with it.

In closing, I have a few ideas about how I would create a “successful safe space”:

  • Negotiate the space cooperatively with students. Consider the message conveyed by an instructor independently establishing a safe space; although it may seem harmless and natural, it could also convey a message steeped in privilege and set up the belief that student voices don’t matter in your classroom. Instead, seek their feedback about what kind of space would be beneficial to them, and keep the conversation going throughout the semester so that students who come into contact with unexpectedly triggering material can speak up about their concerns. Along with this, send a clear message that students are welcome to confide in you if they have reservations about the course and how their experiences might negatively impact what they are able to get out of the course. If possible, seek opportunities for compromise rather than defaulting to the option that students who are worried about being triggered can just be exempt.
  • Show, not tell. Often, syllabi convey that instructors expect respect and participation from students with few overt statements about what students can expect from the instructor in return. Model mutual respect by using preferred pronouns, responding promptly to student questions (even if a little outside research is needed), and adhering to stated office hour schedules.
  • A little disclosure goes a long way. In clinical psychology, some believe in the sparing use of self-disclosure as a method for building rapport with clients. This could also be useful in the classroom. If you have an opinion on a controversial topic, feel free to share it, as long as you have already established the purpose of the discussion and your openness to disagreement. If used tactfully, this technique can help “humanize” you to students and get them to open up.
  • When in doubt, use a “trigger warning.” I would never use a “trigger warning” to, say, open a discussion of the role of implicit bias in police brutality. This topic could be triggering, but in my view, its importance in our current political climate and impact on less privileged communities outweighs any potential (and valuable) discomfort experienced by my students in discussing it. However, I would consider warning students who may have experienced racially-motivated violence if I were going to show a video clip that depicts police brutality against a person of color. My style would be to convey the importance and purpose of the clip and prepare students for what they are about to see, and let them know that I and the rest of the class will not think negatively of them or punish them if they become overwhelmed and need to step out. To avoid singling anyone out, I might frame this as “anyone is free to use the restroom at any time.”

This list is not exhaustive, and I hope it promotes some constructive discussion at our brown bag this week. My overall message and point in writing this post, however, is to ask you to reconsider your perception of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and think about whether they could be useful to you.

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Connecting the Dots

When I was thinking about what to write this week, I was struck by how much the other topics we have covered in GRAD 5114 relate to the idea of intrinsic motivation as described by Dan Pink. I guess you could say I started connecting the dots a little–

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No, no, not like that! More like this:

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Yes, that’s better.

Dan Pink discusses how people tend to respond more to intrinsic motivators, like the love of learning or natural interest in a topic, than extrinsic motivators, like money or a perfect grade. Specifically, this occurs when people are faced with a cognitive task rather than a mechanical one. Unfortunately, students have been conditioned to prioritize getting (note: not necessarily earning) a high grade over actually learning something from a class, because it is grades that factor in most directly to graduate school applications, scholarships, and job placements. There are certain questions I hate that I can always count on students to ask: will this be on the test? Did I miss anything important (read: worth points on the test)? Can you make a study guide for us?

So, how can we foster the resurgence of intrinsic motivation? Some of the readings for this week would recommend getting rid of grades completely, and I’m not sure how I (or my students) would feel about that. A lot of what we have learned in this course so far, though, would be helpful to consider. The use of connected and digital learning enables us to make course content directly relevant to problems faced by our students while pulling in a technological component that could allow them to connect with information and scholars from around the world. This approach implies that we need to reflect mindfully on our teaching and move away from the “sage on the stage” model, and also that we need to foster inclusive and learner-centered pedagogical practices in order to make our courses maximally relevant to many different kinds of people and to help students feel comfortable engaging in and helping to direct the class. Of course, these changes won’t be perceived as genuine unless they come from an instructor taking an authentic teaching stance and learning how to balance being professional and directive with being true to their own style in the classroom.

I would say that connecting the dots is really important for helping my students see intrinsic value in my courses, too. With psychology, this is pretty easy to accomplish, as it relates to many commonly experienced phenomena even if a student isn’t ultimately pursuing a career in the field. Even in other fields, though, I think it can be helpful to ask your students why they’re taking your course or why they chose to major in your field. Have them write about it and share with others. Spend a little extra time to find a clip or example; even if it relates only tangentially, it might make students laugh and get them engaged in what you’re talking about (of course, if you find a particularly clever device, they could also see the value in using it to study for the exam…). For example, this week I am creating a lecture about extinction of conditioned behavior, and I put in some images and jokes that relate to dinosaurs. This is clearly not what I mean by extinction in this context, but it will make them laugh and might help them prepare for their weekly quiz on the topic. As another example, I once took a statistics class I wasn’t particularly excited about, one that was comprised of many different majors, including engineering. My teacher used the example of the O-ring failure from the Challenger disaster to illustrate the importance of precision in measurement. This specific example was very relevant to the engineering students in the room, and I could appreciate the example because of the psychological implications of the shuttle crash. It was an interesting way to “humanize” the topic and help us understand why she chose to cover it.

I guess my point is that it doesn’t take a lot to help your students find intrinsic value in what you are teaching. You don’t have to radically alter your teaching style or completely re-design your course. Students will respond to even small, genuine attempts to make the class more relatable for them.

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#WomenWhoVoteTrump: A Study in Internalized Misogyny

Trigger warning: this post will discuss sexual assault as it has been presented on the national stage.

When I logged onto Facebook today, I was greeted by this image:

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Admittedly, I didn’t think the Trump campaign could get any weirder. I keep waiting for Mike Pence to jump out of a nearby bush and tell the nation that we’re on Candid Camera. I’m not surprised that Donald Trump admitted on tape that he is a sexual predator, a story that has been corroborated by several brave witnesses since it first broke. I’ve been much more surprised by the reaction to this news.

Over the last few days, as the Trump campaign has descended in firey freefall, women have become the central target of those hoping to woo voters away from Trump and those staunchly defending him. Yesterday, after 538 showed that Trump would win in a landslide if only men were voting, Trump supporters–male and female alike–got #repealthe19th trending on Twitter. This hashtag refers to the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Today, the hashtag being promoted by Trump supporters is #WomenWhoVoteTrump, in which female Trump supporters list the reasons that they are proud to be voting red in November. These comments focused heavily on how the media has mischaracterized female supporters and twisted the truth to make Trump look like a disgusting pig.

Out of my own morbid curiosity, I looked at some of the posts with this hashtag. What I found was a study in internalized misogyny, which is the notion that women have come to identify with and perpetuate sexist attitudes (which harm them) as a result of oppression by a patriarchal society.

For example, many women eschewed stereotypically “feminine” qualities (e.g., being emotional or weak) in favor of stereotypically “masculine” qualities (e.g., being rational and self-sufficient):

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Another aspect that came up frequently was slut-shaming (and its twin, victim-blaming). #WomenWhoVoteTrump were willing to demean other women to make the point that they were different and had a higher moral standard.

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One male user used sexy pictures of women to promote the brand of #WomenWhoVoteTrump:

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After I emerged from this rabbit hole, I felt utterly confused. Hillary Clinton is by no means a perfect candidate, and I have frequently railed against the notion that women should feel obligated to vote for her because of #girlpower. At the same time, though, I return to the image at the top of this post. The fact that #WomenWhoVoteTrump can pick and choose which gender-based causes they want to rally behind (preventing trans individuals from using the restroom that best fits their gender identity) and which they want to ignore (advocating for women who were directly harmed by Donald Trump’s privilege and scope of influence) suggests to me that internalized misogyny is alive and well and still being perpetuated by those who would turn women against one another in pursuit of their higher ideals. Before November 8th, I hope that #WomenWhoVoteTrump (and some of the #WomenWhoVoteHillary) will take a moment to engage in self-reflection and make a decision that reflects their beliefs and values as individuals, rather than trying to fit into a woman-shaped mold. No matter your political beliefs, let’s stop allowing any media outlet or candidate to tell us who we are.

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Night of the Heinous Subtweet: #Millennials and Stereotype Threat

Colleagues, there is a dangerous threat roaming our campus as we speak. They are sitting in our classrooms, standing in line at our restaurants, and hanging out in our movie theaters. Each time we attend a VT football game, we are putting ourselves at their mercy. But we must be brave and call out this threat by name. They are… the youths.

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I couldn’t help returning to our discussion from two weeks ago when thinking about my blog post for this week. Our conversation about the modern generation of students was peppered with stereotypes: millennials might be outreach-oriented, digitally savvy and politically correct, or they might be self-absorbed, out of touch with reality and overly sensitive. Someone brought up the excellent point that many people in GRAD 5114 would also be included in the millennium generation. For a long time, I made excuses as to why I belonged in a separate category; I could remember dial-up and Wall Street-sized cell phones, I still played outside a lot as a child, I learned cursive in elementary school. But now, perhaps because of all the unfortunate accusations being lobbed at the younger generation in the current political season, I’ve taken a defensive pride in the label.

Is it possible that our millennial students succumb to stereotype threat? For example, if students are bombarded with the message that they are lazy and entitled, could this negatively affect their school performance? Could it be that students who constantly hear that they are obsessed with social media sometimes have difficulty working on their in-person social skills? Might teachers be inadvertently hampering their progress by not acknowledging and fighting back against these stereotypes in the classroom? Furthermore–and this is a sinister prospect–might some members of the older generation be using these stereotypes to prevent the next generation from overtaking their roles?

So, how could teachers work to combat millennial stereotype threat in their courses? Claude Steele provides some good guidelines that are worth repeating here. One approach is to use positive feedback to motivate students, particularly when you make it possible for them to recognize and praise their own accomplishments. Although you run the risk of feeding into the oft-cited phenomenon of youth entitlement, you could also help these students notice when their hard work has produced quality results. Another approach is to take an incremental perspective and emphasize that students can achieve better performance in your class with increased effort. Be willing to work with students using language they can understand, and set yourself up as being approachable from the get-go so that they feel comfortable disclosing their struggles; this will remove some of the unnecessary professorial “mystique” (and possible generation gap; not everyone in our course would say they are a millennial) and help them see that you are willing to guide them as they work to meet your challenges. Finally, it can be helpful to characterize diversity as a classroom enhancement rather than a hindrance. Show your students that inclusion of their perspectives is a valued part of class discussion, and be willing to modify your strategies to make the subject more accessible for them. Reading a few Tweets won’t kill you, and it might spark their inspiration. Don’t be that teacher who refuses to “keep up with the times” out of laziness or spite.

But, you know… don’t be Bree Van de Kamp, either.

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Assessment: what, how, why?

My students and I agree on at least one thing: exams suck.

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I haven’t given a test since last spring. Although several concerns factored into this decision, it was mostly inspired by several semesters of observation, in which I saw promising students seriously contemplating dropping my class because they didn’t do as well as expected on the first exam. Truly, no amount of consolation (“the first one is always hard, don’t worry!”) makes much of a difference when the test is worth 20% of the total grade. Sure, I try to use the experience to help students refine their study skills and critically examine how they’ve been approaching the material, but that lesson comes too little too late, and often they are unable to turn around old habits in time for the next test. It was unfair, I reasoned, to expect students to cram so desperately for my exams, knowing that a slip-up could permanently sink their grade — especially during midterms and finals, when they are cramming for several difficult exams all at the same time. Of course, this process also creates some discomfort for me as an instructor; I am tasked with grading all the exams, determining how to deal with questions that many people bombed or how to fairly grade open-ended responses, and breaking the news to my students.

So, faced with these clear problems, I decided it was time for an overhaul.

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For the past couple semesters, I have instead been using a quiz, writing, and project-based format. My quizzes are smaller, administered weekly online, and both open-note and open-book. Because quizzes are more numerous and shorter, they are perceived as being “low-stakes” compared to quizzes (altogether, though, they still take up a sizable chunk of the course grade). My aim with quizzes is not just about testing learned material; they also give students a glimpse of how well they understood the previous chapter and might help them understand that they need to read more closely or pay more attention for the next one. Thus, they (hopefully) provide a sort of automated, incremental feedback system. Writing assignments can be used to shake up a traditional lecture and encourage students to think critically about the topic of the day, which helps keep them invested in class and invites discussion. Projects are focused more on application, my Bloom’s taxonomy level of choice, along with some opportunities for analysis and evaluation of existing ideas. I want to see my students relate to the topics we cover, create something new, and get excited about their newfound knowledge, a new tool with which to confront their world.

Testing is a controversial topic in modern pedagogy. David Perry points out that in-class exams force differently abled students to out themselves on order to get accommodations, and they create a context in which a student’s ability to memorize answers and quickly regurgitate them is sometimes more directly assessed than the student’s actual learning. David Gooblar argues that testing has its place, but he agrees with my low-stakes approach, favoring shorter, low pressure tests over traditional multi-chapter exams. Gooblar also argues that using a combination of assignments (i.e., tests and writing) can help bridge the gap between STEM and the humanities and more adequately evaluate students’ diverse abilities than an approach that exclusively utilizes one method.

I’m excited to discuss this topic with the academy next week, and I can’t wait to hear from all of you: what methods do you use, and why? Are you pro-tests, anti-tests, or in the middle? How does your discipline shape these choices? Which levels of Bloom’s taxonomy do you currently tick off, and which would you like to incorporate in future course plans?

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