Meditation or Mind Lab?

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Slide introducing a Mind Lab Exercise

I arrived on campus a few days before classes began to find my classroom. The room number suggested that I had to go to the gym to find my classroom, so I was curious. After being directed by a few students on the basketball team, I came to find that I was slated to teach my Zen class in a dance recital room, complete with mirror and ballet barre…and no desks what-so-ever.

I immediately went to the department to see if I could switch rooms, I had no idea how I could conduct a religious studies class there. I was told that room was selected because the previous instructor  – someone I knew was wildly popular – had requested to teach there. It immediately made sense – his Zen class was all about the practice of Zen (meditation) while mine was going to be about the history of Zen (myth, lineage & literature).

This immediately struck me. I love when I find someone who has a completely different approach to the same material. I talk a lot about the history of meditation in my classes on Buddhism, delving into its correlation with cosmology, the debates over non-cognitive states, the endlessly varied terminology the English term “meditation” masks, the arguments over the modern mindfulness movement, and so forth. I encourage students to seek out meditation clubs or to sit on their own time, but I dutifully omit much meditation practice in class. Perhaps when I discuss the Seven Point Vairocana Posture and ānāpānasmṛti (Mindfulness of Breathing) will I ask students to briefly engage in sitting – to get the flavor of it.

Part of this reasoning is simply practical. Much of my lecturing on the history of meditation was developed while students were actively engaged in sitting regularly during the Woodenfish program. My lectures tried to give context to their practice – they did not need me to teach them the practice as well.

Buoyed by the potential expectations of my students who planned to meet in the dance hall, I decided to introduce what I had been calling Mind Labs – quick and simple exercises to help get students to develop their own personal phenomenology of mind. (I suppose one could call these Thought Experiments too, but I prefer Mind Labs…)

For example, when the Abhidharmists claim that mental events can only occur in quick succession, and not simultaneously, I prefer to do an exercise which asks students to determine what they think first. Another question I like to ask is whether or not students always have an affective coloring to their thoughts (for Theravādin Abhidharmists, unless a highly achieved practitioner, the answer is typically “yes”).

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Slide introducing a Mind Lab Exercise

For all Mind Lab questions I ask that students write down responses and had them in to me for tallying. I try to quantify the results the best that I can and identify patterns of belief. During our next meeting I will have a small discussion about the results and try to relate the discussion back to the “standard” Buddhist position.

Thus while I do not typically engage in much meditation practice during class time, I feel that there are numerous other philosophical exercises of mind that may touch upon similar aspects.

 

Zen and the Art of Multiple Choice Exams

Scantron scoring machines are fairly common, if not universal, on university campuses. Thus one can infer that multiple choice exams are equally widespread. But how do they stack up against other kinds of assessment, especially in classes where higher-level thinking (application, analysis, evaluation), and not mere memorization (recognition and recall), are emphasized?

Crafting good multiple choice (MC) stems (questions) and conceiving of plausible distractors (wrong answers) are skills in themselves. Yet, when artfully done, MC exams can be effective in testing higher-level cognitive abilities – it just takes time and effort.

It had dawned on me a few years earlier that it would benefit students to shoulder some of these question making responsibilities. Coming up with plausible (dare I say artful?) distractors is part of the practice I so enjoy about writing MC exams. I try to think of the reasons why a student may choose a wrong answer (is X conceptually close to Y?, is it easy to confuse X for Y?, is X actually the opposite of Y?, does X actually negate Y?, is X spelled similarly as Y?, and so forth), and include those as the distractors.

Indeed, through this very process of crafting good questions with good distractors I come to have a better understanding of the relationships between concepts, in other words, I built a strong network of reinforced meanings. This is precisely what I want students to do!

Thus, I decided for my Zen class to unveil a new extra-credit option: for student to craft five of their own MC questions following the criteria I set out for them. From my perspective this had the following benefits:

  1. Students would create their own web of meaning between conceptually similar or confusing terms. This was a coercive way to get them to study in a new manner.
  2. Students wold post their MC questions on an online forum, and thus would get the opportunity to take several practice tests.
  3. By selecting several of the best MC exams, students would feel they had a sense of agency in the learning process.
  4. It might save time on my end from having to craft so many MC questions.

Overall, about 50% of my class took me up on the offer. Many of the MC questions did not match my highest standards (but, honestly, not all of my questions are perfect!), but several were thoughtful and well-crafted and were incorporated into our exams.

Something I would consider doing in the future is to have students explain why they selected each distractor (laying out the relationships I noted above).

Taking multiple choice exams will never replace the value of writing well-reasoned prose, but having students write well-reasoned multiple choice questions is a step in the same direction.

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The Art of Multiple Choice Exams