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The Conversation: Dealing with test anxiety – and re-think on what testing means

[Students write an exam in a gymnasium]
Much like older students, younger students are increasingly experiencing test anxiety (Photo by Shutterstock)

The term “test anxiety” typically conjures up images of a high school or university student obsessing over an upcoming exam.

Certainly, older students have been the focus of more than a half a century of research examining test and assessment anxiety and its impact on grades. Researchers know that such test anxiety generally has a negative impact on academic achievement.

Yet we also know schools and parents are recognizing anxiety in younger children. Researchers have probed how, in particular, a rise in test anxiety in schools corresponds to an increase in the use of standardized testing increasingly mandated for accountability and evaluation purposes.

Coupled with growing awareness of responding to mental health challenges in schools, educators and policy-makers need to understand how to confront and minimize the effects of testing on students’ anxiety.

In the big picture, current assessment methods must adapt to reflect contemporary knowledge of both children’s diverse cultural contexts and a more nuanced understanding of developmental competencies.

In the day-to-day, parents and teachers can empower themselves to be better prepared to support student well-being by re-thinking their own approaches to tests, and what adults are modelling.

What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety is generally regarded as a “nervous feeling” that is excessive and interferes with student performance. Symptoms of test anxiety may fall into four broad physical, emotional, behavioural and cognitive categories.

Children could exhibit physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, sweating and shortness of breath or feelings of fear, depression and helplessness. Behaviours might include fidgeting, pacing and avoidance. Cognitive disruptions could look like “going blank,” racing thoughts and negative self-talk.

[A young female students awaits teacher.]
Left prolonged or unattended, test anxiety can lead to negative outcomes. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Although not all students experience each of these problems, the impact of one or more of these symptoms can be debilitating. Left unacknowledged or unaddressed, in time such symptoms may lead to personal negative outcomes or harm, and difficulties at school.

The trouble with testing policy

Our research in Canada and abroad has consistently found that when policy-makers seek school reform, there is an ensuing emphasis on testing for accountability.

In these contexts, teachers and school administrators will focus classroom and school instruction on select areas and ultimately undermine a more holistic approach to children’s education. Standardized testing for accountability is also associated with heightened educator and student stress.

A narrow sense of “achievement” — such as is measured via standardized tests in select subject areas — is inadequate to capture key knowledge, skills and dispositions children need to be successful in contemporary schooling and life.

For these reasons, policy-makers would be wise to consider multi-dimensional approaches to holding schools accountable. For example, educational reforms are more likely to be successful when they use collective processes that incorporate perspectives of educators and communities.

What parents and teachers can do

In the context of these systemic and long-term issues, parents and teachers can intervene to reduce test anxiety for young children in the following ways:

1. Offer positive messaging

One of the simplest and most effective ways parents can combat test anxiety is through positive messaging.

For example, research demonstrates positive benefits when parents encourage positive self-talk, offer relaxation techniques and reassure children that anxiety is a natural feeling. Parents should know that psychological research suggests a certain amount of heightened arousal is necessary to perform well, a state of balance-in-tension.

2. Keep communication open

Parents also need to maintain open lines of communication with their child’s teachers — particularly since students do not necessarily exhibit test anxiety in all subjects.

3. Lower the stakes

Too often parent expectations increase the perceived “stakes” of the tests for students, assigning additional consequences or judging a child’s merit and ability on the outcome of a single test.

Instead, it is important for parents to understand and also convey to their child that tests are one indicator of their performance in a subject. No test is a perfect reflection of what a student knows or is able to do.

Seeing tests as one piece of information about how a child is progressing, and seeking out additional information as needed, will help parents gain perspective.

4. Take care of yourself

Ironically, one key issue both parents and teachers need to consider when attempting to assist students with test anxiety is to first take care of themselves.

Just as parents must be aware of what messsages they send, teachers also need to attend to their own well-being and avoid inadvertently transmitting their own anxieties to students.

For example, the relationship between teachers’ math anxiety and student math anxiety is well-established prompting some researchers to explore ways of breaking a mathematics anxiety cycle.

Similarly, teacher worry about large-scale test results, such as provincial or state-wide assessments, can transfer to students.

Thankfully, a positive development to emerge from some of these troubling findings is that there is a growing recognition of the relationship between teacher and student well-being.

5. Emphasize test skills, not drilling

Teachers can also help students combat test concerns by offering test-preparation skill development and reviews before important assessments.

The latter should not be confused with “teaching to the test,” which both narrows curriculum and may relentlessly drill test content.

Rather, practicing strategies such as re-reading difficult questions, writing brief outlines beside short answer questions and managing time during tests will be helpful.

Preparing students to write tests effectively also includes teaching students about test structures — question formats, the rationale of scoring schemes and common pitfalls with different question types.

Collectively, these skills can be applied to any curriculum or test. Students who have been prepared in both content and skills tend to have lower levels of test anxiety and are more capable of managing their time and responses.

Not surprisingly, these types of strategies are more effective when they are supported by parents and caregivers.

Optimally, parents, teachers and policymakers can work in their various roles to support children’s success while learning about possibilities for more complex and intelligent forms of accountability.

Overall, we need to re-think what matters in schools and what’s worth measuring.The Conversation


Christopher DeLuca is an associate professor in classroom assessment and acting associate dean, Graduate Studies & Research, Faculty of Education, Queen's University. Louis Volante is a professor of education at Brock University. 

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca

Survey shows more work needs to be done on diversity and inclusion in workplaces

A new study commissioned by Smith School of Business and Catalyst Canada found that while a majority of working Canadians have positive attitudes towards diversity and inclusion programs (69 per cent), many employees don’t know whether their companies even have D&I initiatives (40 per cent). Further, men are significantly more likely than women to believe that organizational diversity and inclusion initiatives are no longer necessary (33 per cent of men vs. 20 per cent of women) and that Canadian society is sufficiently inclusive (58 per cent of men vs. 43 per cent of women).

Smith surveyAs an important step in solving organizational diversity and inclusion challenges, and to develop more inclusive leaders, Smith School of Business and Catalyst Canada, a global non-profit organization dedicated to advancing women in business, have announced a strategic partnership. 

“As a leading business school, we know the importance of developing leaders who can create and manage diverse and inclusive teams,” says David Saunders, Dean, Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. “We are proud to partner with Catalyst Canada to accelerate our shared goal of creating a more inclusive workforce.”

The survey, which polled 1,000 working Canadians, also found that women working in organizations without D&I initiatives are less likely (65 per cent) than men (79 per cent) to report that they can be authentic at work without pretending to be someone else to fit in. This difference disappears in organizations that have diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Overall, attitudes towards D&I initiatives are positive, with 70 per cent of surveyed employees believing that such initiatives help encourage all employees to reach their full potential.

“At Catalyst, we know that an increasingly diverse workforce powers innovation and measureable success,” says Tanya van Biesen, Executive Director of Catalyst Canada. “And while companies may be investing money in diversity and inclusion initiatives, they can’t achieve their full impact if more employees don’t know about them. We need to help companies tell the story of the impact of D&I inside their organizations. Partnering with Smith enables us to reach a broader audience of Canadian managers and leaders – and now students – with training and thought leadership.”

The partnership will focus on three key areas: a corporate discussion forum, research, and training.

A membership-only corporate discussion forum will bring industry leaders, Smith faculty and Catalyst experts together to share best practices and challenges, with the aim of achieving greater inclusion in the workplace. A new research hub, led by Smith faculty, will harness the input of corporate Canada to create research on the new frontiers of diversity and inclusion. Participating companies will get first access to research findings.

Catalyst Canada will also help develop diversity and inclusion programming for working managers, which will be delivered through Queen’s Executive Education

Additionally, Smith will integrate core content from Catalyst’s inclusive leadership training into the academic curriculum for current students, including courses on building inclusive communication skills and how to manage unconscious bias in the workplace. Smith School of Business is a market leader in developing students’ personal capabilities through SmithEdge. An important set of skills to help students thrive in the workforce, SmithEdge comprises three critical dimensions: insights on human dynamics; self-awareness and resilience; and experiential opportunities. This new content from Catalyst will help Smith students develop the interpersonal skills needed for leadership roles in today’s business environment.

“In order to make sustainable change, we need to activate many inclusion initiatives concurrently. There is no one silver bullet solution to creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces,” says van Biesen.

More details on training programs and how companies can join the corporate discussion forum and research forum will be announced later in 2019.

Queen’s entrepreneurs set to accelerate with ONRamp

Partnership provides new space for Kingston startups to grow profile in Toronto.

Main floor space at the ONRamp facility in Toronto.
Main floor space at the ONRamp facility in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of University of Toronto)

Queen’s University is the newest member of ONRamp – a University of Toronto-led collaboration built to support entrepreneurship and help accelerate new businesses by providing access to work space, events, and networking opportunities. With facilities based in downtown Toronto, ONRamp will allow Queen’s and Kingston-based startups to connect with a broader network of innovators and potential investors.

“Queen’s and its partners in Kingston have nurtured a thriving innovation ecosystem here in the city,” says Kimberly Woodhouse, Vice-Principal (Research). “ONRamp will extend the influence of our entrepreneurs in Southern Ontario, increasing awareness of the cutting-edge research, invention, and commercialization coming out of our university and community.”

Top floor space at the ONRamp facility in Toronto.
Working areas inside the Toronto-based ONRamp facility.

The ONRamp space is located at the University of Toronto’s Banting Building near Queen’s Park, major hospitals, and across the street from MaRS Discovery District. Its 15,000 square-foot facility provides free, secure co-working space for members, 24-hour meeting rooms, a kitchen and lounge, and technology-enhanced rooms for presentations and more.

Queen's plans to use the ONRamp space to showcase startups and researchers, to host pitches, networking events, and consultations with Toronto-based stakeholders, including alumni, government and industry partners, and venture capitalists. Queen’s will also invite entrepreneurs, startups, and community partners to use the ONRamp facilities as a landing pad for meetings in downtown Toronto with potential investors, customers and suppliers, and government officials.

Queen’s is the newest academic partner to join ONRamp, joining the University of Toronto and three other university partners, including McMaster University, the University of Waterloo, and Western University. Launched by U of T in 2017, ONRamp has since been utilized by 50 startups, and currently has 600 active users.

“We’re thrilled to have Queen’s join the ONRamp entrepreneurship community,” says Derek Newton, Assistant Vice-President of Innovation, Partnerships, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto.

For more information about ONRamp, or how to access ONRamp facilities and programs via Queen’s membership, contact Amanda Gilbert, Communications Coordinator at Queen’s University’s Office of Partnerships and Innovation. The ONRamp initiative is the latest innovation partnership for Queen’s, adding to other partnership efforts in Kington, Ottawa and Eastern Ontario, and in Upstate New York. Visit the office’s website for information about all Queen’s innovation initiatives.

Upcoming ONRamp events will be posted on the Queen’s events calendar.

The Conversation: Why governments are so bad at implementing public projects

Research shows a consistent pattern of failures in public sector policy and project implementation. Yet we continue to embark upon implementation built on bias and faulty logic.

[Decision making]
Around the world, government officials fail often at implementing policy and public sector projects. Here’s why. (Helloquence/Unsplash)

As Canada’s federal government starts looking for a replacement for its failed payroll system and the Ontario provincial government launches yet another major shake-up of its health-care system, it’s useful to remind decision-makers of a long history of failures in major public sector implementations.

Research from around the world shows a consistent pattern of failures in public sector policy and project implementation. Yet we continue to embark upon implementation built on bias and faulty logic.

So maybe it’s time to better understand the architecture of failure and what can be done to overcome it.

[The Conversation logo]Recent publications from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States deliver some consistent messages. The Blunders of Government delves into the many restarts of the UK National Health Service. The Learning from Failure report details major project failures in Australia. In the U.S., A Cascade of Failures: Why Government Fails, and How to Stop It, reports similar themes. In Canada, the auditor general’s latest reports on the Phoenix pay system echo the common basis for implementation failure. It’s not often an auditor uses the phrase “incomprehensible,” but there it is.

When distilling all this research and all these investigations, certain themes are common to them all.

First and foremost in the public sector, announcement was equated with accomplishment. This is the equivalent of thinking that just cutting the ribbon is enough.

A corollary of this is that most projects get lots of attention by both political and bureaucratic leaders at first, but that attention fades as the boring, detail-oriented work begins and the next issue, crisis or bright shiny object comes along.

‘We design it. You make it work.’

In many cases, there is a cultural disconnect in the project design that prevents bad news from making it to those at the top of the chain of command, minimizes problems that are often warning signs and deliberately downplays operational issues as minor.

What can be called the “handover mentality” often takes over between a project’s designers and the people who have to actually implement it and get it up and running. It’s best characterized by the phrase: “We design it. You make it work.”

The next element is that when things go wrong, those who speak up about the problems are dismissed, discounted or just plain punished. This leads to groupthink, a failure to challenge assumptions and to just go along, even when danger signs are in full sight.

Policy designers and those who must implement government projects or infrastructure are often guilty of what’s known as optimism bias (“What could possibly go wrong?”) when, in fact, they should be looking at the end goal. They should be working backwards to identify not only what could go wrong, but how the whole process will roll out.

Instead, they focus on the beginning — the announcement, the first stages.

We hear the word complexity a lot when examining government project failures. Indeed, most of the problems examined in the aforementioned research pointed to the increasing complexity in failed implementations that went well beyond IT, and the failure to map those complexities out.

But that complexity increases the risks of some moving part of a government project malfunctioning and shutting down the entire system.

Gears start slipping

People get busy and distracted. If a policy is just the flavour of the week and something else becomes popular next week, the project starts to lose momentum, needed attention, reaction and adaptation to inevitable challenges. The gears start to slip.

Then there is the churn of officials. At both the political and bureaucratic level, this is a consistent theme in projects failing or in governments responding poorly to crises as they arise.

The champions for a policy simply move on, and their successors are left to decide how much energy to put into someone else’s pet project. Similarly, the rapid turnover of senior managers in government often leaves well-intentioned people to respond to emergencies in areas where they have little experience.

An interesting element in all of this research is the confirmation that cognitive biases play a significant role in assessing risks in policy implementation in a number of ways, often in the face of a mountain of contrary evidence.

Cognitive biases tend to confirm beliefs we already have. Biases block new information. While we need biases to short-hand our interpretation of events, they often filter and discount new information. Our experiences are our greatest asset and greatest liability in this process.

The bottom line on the causes of major implementation failure really rests with a culture focused on blame avoidance and getting along. We now know enough to avoid failure, backed by ample evidence that confirms common sense about how to better structure policy, its implementation and our major projects.

Can we do it?The Conversation


Andrew Graham is an adjunct professor in the School of Policy Studies with research interests in public sector financial management and management in the public sector.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca

A little nudge goes a long way

Nicole Robitaille, a professor at Smith School of Business, studies consumer behaviour and how to get people to make good decisions.

[Nicole Robitaille]
Nicole Robitaille, an assistant professor of marketing at Smith School of Business, studies how consumers make decisions and why they choose to engage in certain behaviours.

Every day, 22 people die waiting for an organ transplant. Twenty-two! That’s just in the United States. Many of these deaths can be prevented – if only people would sign an organ donor card. But only a handful do.

Are people against donating their organs? Hardly. Surveys show broad public support. But most people don’t bother to register. And if they die suddenly, their heart, lungs, kidneys, and other parts can’t save someone else’s life.

Several lives actually. One organ donor can save up to eight people.

Is there a way to get more organ donor cards signed? Research by Nicole Robitaille says yes. And it starts with a nudge.

Help for society

Dr. Robitaille is an assistant professor of marketing at Smith School of Business. She studies how consumers make decisions and why they choose to engage in certain behaviours – some of which aren’t always good for them, such as procrastinating or overspending. She also examines how to change population behaviour to improve consumer welfare, fulfill government policy and drive marketing results.

Not long ago, Dr. Robitaille conducted field research with the Ontario government to increase organ donations. In Ontario, someone dies every three days waiting for a transplant. Only a quarter of Ontarians are registered organ donors. How to increase that figure? Dr. Robitaille and fellow researchers Nina Mazar, Claire I. Tsai and Elizabeth Hardy investigated.

In Ontario, as in many jurisdictions, the decision to donate organs happens most often when people renew their driver’s licence. Trouble is, when they walk into a motor vehicle office, people aren’t thinking “organ donation,” they just want to update a licence. So when suddenly asked to become an organ donor, they’re caught off guard, Dr. Robitaille says. “And when people are asked to make a decision that they don’t feel they’ve put adequate time and effort into considering, they choose not to decide. They put it off.”

Dr. Robitaille and her fellow researchers wanted to make it easier for people to make an informed choice. They tested several options. One, for instance, was to have a government employee hand people a brochure on organ donation when they came in to renew their driver's licence. They could peruse the brochure while waiting in line, so by the time they were called to the service counter, they were more knowledgeable about organ donation.

Working with the Ontario government, they also tested a simplified organ donation consent form with only two questions: “Do you want to be an organ donor?” And a checkbox question: “Which organs will you donate?” Previously, all sorts of personal information was asked for, most of which the government already had on file.

Then came the nudge. At the top of each consent form, several statements in bold text were tested: “If you needed a transplant, would you have one?” And “How would you feel if you or someone you loved needed a transplant and couldn’t get one?”

Such nudge statements are designed to help indirectly influence a person’s decision, without actually deterring them from making another choice. The term nudge was first made popular in the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

The organ donor nudge statement, Dr. Robitaille says, helped people put themselves in the position of someone needing a transplant. And it led to a big jump in organ donor registrations.

In an eight-week trial conducted at a ServiceOntario office (where driver’s licences get renewed), they found that with the most effective nudge statement, organ donor registrations rose 143 per cent. If rates were to rise similarly across the province, the Ontario government estimates it could increase organ donor registrants by more than 450,000 a year – up from the current number of approximately 200,000. Many of the insights uncovered by Dr. Robitaille and her fellow researchers, including the nudge statement, are now used on Ontario’s organ donor consent form.

Dr. Robitaille says the results of the study show that business research into consumer behaviour can benefit society.

“You hope your work has impact, and to know our work might actually save lives is something quite special,” she says.

Licence to misbehave

Dr. Robitaille didn’t set out to be an expert on what makes consumers tick. Born in Calgary to an artist mother and environmental engineer father, she grew up in Boston and Pennsylvania, where she played competitive hockey. In high school, her family moved to Quebec City, then to Montreal.

Dr. Robitaille first wanted to be a neurologist. In 2006, she earned her undergraduate degree in psychology (with a specialty in behavioural neuroscience) from Concordia University in Montreal. But during a summer pre-med program, she found that she enjoyed helping doctors do their research more than she did visiting with patients.

Around the same time, she began to ponder how psychology could be applied to marketing. Working in a Zara clothing store, she was fascinated by the great variety of responses shown by shoppers to merchandise displays and fashion recommendations from staff.

“Simply by moving the same items around the store, customers would feel like there was new inventory and be more likely to visit the store regularly to see the ‘new’ merchandise,” she recalls.

Soon, Dr. Robitaille was studying marketing at Concordia. In 2008, she received her master’s in marketing. In 2014, she earned her marketing doctorate from Rotman in Toronto. The same year, she also joined the faculty at Smith, where she now teaches commerce students.

Dr. Robitaille says she especially enjoys the process of doing research and asking questions.

“It’s amazing when we find the answers," she says. "Sometimes we were right and sometimes we were wrong. But it’s all exciting.”

She also loves when her work has practical applications. “It’s seeing a real problem, and how we can solve that.”

Take personal finance, for instance. In one study, Dr. Robitaille and a team of international researchers showed that people actually do feel pain when they buy something with cash. On the other hand, they don’t hurt nearly as much when paying with debit or credit. The findings have implications for financial-literacy efforts. Educators must appeal to people’s emotions about money, not just their sense of reason.

Dr. Robitaille has also studied people’s “licence to misbehave.” That is, they do a good deed, then follow it up with behaviour that counters it. For instance, her research found that people who recalled times in the past when they did a good deed would then spend less time helping others. They were then more likely to cheat for personal gain and had higher intentions of engaging in selfish behaviours.

“When you start to understand what causes people to behave well, and what allows them to give into temptation, you can encourage positive action and discourage misbehaviour,” she says. “And in my research I’ve always been interested in helping people make better decisions.”


This article was first published in Smith Magazine.

Read more about faculty research at smithqueens.com/insight

The Conversation: Social media fantasies can demolish confidence, but it’s not all bad

[Woman viewing her cellphone]
Sometimes faking it on Instagram is just fine. (Photo by Bruno Gomiero/Unsplash)

If social media was a person, you’d probably avoid them.

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are loaded with pictures of people going to exotic places, looking like they are about to be on the cover of Vogue, and otherwise living a fairy-tale existence. And, like all fairy tales, these narratives feel a lot like fiction.

[The Conversation]When you compare the “projected reality” to your lived experience, it would be easy to conclude that you do not measure up. Research shows that young adults are especially vulnerable to this phenomenon.

We have also studied this trend in graduate students, our next generation of scholars: they too, implicitly compare themselves to their peers, sometimes automatically. We’re socially trained to do this as shown by a litany of research studies exploring our relationships with other’s projected images.

These implicit comparisons can threaten your innate psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Not just one of them. ALL OF THEM. And such comparisons have shifted life online towards an unwinnable competition.

We are outnumbered and out-posted by other people and it can make us feel unequivocally terrible if we let it. It’s never been easier to be insecure about ourselves and our achievements thanks to the ever-present torrent of “updates” posted by mostly well-meaning people seeking opportunities for connection and validation.

Where did this come from?

Social media fills our days, but it hasn’t always. In fact, the birth of sites and apps like the micro-blogging platform Tumblr (2007), the bite-sized conversation builder Twitter (2006) and star-studded Instagram (2010) all arrived on the technology scene in tandem with the e-book revolution. And yet, in just over a decade, these tools have exploded across our browsers, into our phones and onto our self-perceptions.

People appear to be spending an hour a day on various social media apps, which doesn’t sound too rough if we assume everyone is only using one app. However, the tendency for younger users to embrace multiple social media apps (and to access their accounts multiple times a day) is increasing.

What that means for many of us is that we are spending hours each day connected and consuming content, from short tweets to beautifully staged #bookstagram images to painstakingly crafted selfies that sometimes make it seem like our friends are living the glamorous life, even when they’re waking up before dawn to take care of their little ones.

Social media presences are not inherently fake, but some people interacting in these spaces feel pressure to perform. And that’s not always bad!

As argued by Amy Cuddy, sometimes it’s helpful to pretend we are who we want to be in order to give ourselves the confidence to grow into our futures. There’s a rich history to “acting as if” in spiritual and growth-oriented spaces. But there’s a line between “fake it till you become it” and spending the afternoon shooting awkward photos to gain more “likes.”

Dark point of the soul

After conducting about 60 interviews and 2,500 surveys across two ongoing studies of post-secondary students, the findings indicate that being constantly compared to other people can demolish our confidence quickly.

For example, one first-year PhD student told us: “I feel like a failure because I don’t have any papers out and I haven’t won a major scholarship like the rest of my lab group.” A first-year student?!

Another commented: “All my peers are better than me, why am I even here?”

These are high-performing thinkers, and yet their confidence is being steamrolled in part because social media does not facilitate fair comparisons.

[Man looking at his cellphone in a restaurant]
Being constantly compared to other people is not good for us. (Photo by PJ Accetturo/Unsplash)

We wish these experiences were unique to certain contexts, but they are ubiquitous. We’ve become so used to seeing the world through social media that we give it false equivalence with our lived experience. We implicitly compare our lives against the sensation of social media and consider it a fair contention.

Of course, the mundane doesn’t measure up to social media. Social media posts need to be epic to be shared.

Hardly anyone posts a “meh” status update; our social media posts are typically at one extreme or another, good or bad, and we are left to compare our individual realities with an exceptional anecdote devoid of context. It’s all of the sugar, with none of the fibre.

It’s not all a pit of despair

Despite this relatively grim picture, the way we’re performing on social media isn’t entirely destructive. For starters, the awareness that we all seem to have about the inauthentic presentations of people’s lives that we consume online (and the painful comparisons that often follow) has also spawned subversively creative acts of satire.

[Woman and her child using a laptop computer on top of a bed]
‘It’s Like They Know Us’ posts stock photos with captions.

One example comes from “It’s Like They Know Us,” a blog/book/parenting subculture that’s built around taking stock images of families and providing captions that poke fun of the impossible standards these images perpetuate. And articles like the recent “How to Become Instagram Famous Experiment” remind us all that behind the carefully cultivated images rests a series of failed attempts and sometimes ridiculous efforts to capture the perfect shot.

There’s a perverse kind of creativity that our image-saturated web presence has spawned. And as often as we fall into the destructive cycle of comparing our messy, authentic lives to the snapshots of perfection that we see online, we just as often step back and laugh at how silly it all is.

Perhaps we’re merely playing along; isn’t it fun to think, just for a moment, that somewhere out there, someone is really living their best life? And maybe, just maybe, if we arrange our books in an artful composition or capture a stunning selfie on the 10th attempt, maybe we will be able to see the beauty that exists in each of our imperfectly messy, chaotic, authentic realities beyond the picture.

Maybe it’s good for us to “act as if,” as long as we remember that the content we share and engage with online is only a fraction of our real stories. Remember, even fairy tales have a grain of truth.The Conversation


Eleftherios Soleas is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education at Queen's University. Jen McConnel is a  PhD Student in the Faculty of Education at Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca

Together We Are: Studying the past to dream our future

[Together We Are]

In this piece for the Together We Are blog, Adnan Husain, a professor in the Department of History, talks about using education to combat stereotypes, and he explains how universities provide us with the opportunity of learning from the past to build a better future.

As a historian, my reflex is to look to the past to analyze contemporary conditions and understand recent experiences. When I first began to study medieval European and Middle Eastern/Islamic History as a university student, I did not imagine that my preoccupations with how religious identities were formed through the interrelationships between Muslims, Christians and Jews in the pre-modern world would seem so relevant to so many others. My interests at the time developed from a more personal perspective as a Muslim from a religiously observant family raised in North America. I was seeking historical grounding for what seemed an eccentric problem – being what one scholar would later term a “Western Muslim.” My exploration of inter-religious interaction was meant to satisfy an internal dialogue about identity and its diverse sources and to discover ways to integrate and reconcile disparate influences of my heritage and formation.

[Adnan Husain]
Professor Adnan Husain, Department of History

It soon became clear that much more could be at stake than my own individual curiosity and exploration, even in such a remote and apparently distant past that initially seemed an antiquarian escape from modern relevance. But I discovered that so little of the surprising intellectual, humanistic and scientific achievements of pre-modern Islamic societies were generally appreciated or their profound contributions to Europe even commonly acknowledged. A diverse, complex and interconnected world of commercial, cultural, and intellectual interchange among Christians, Muslims and Jews had flourished around the Mediterranean and even sustained multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies for centuries. These untold stories and forgotten histories of the Medieval Mediterranean world hardly figured in Eurocentric narratives about our past and seemed crucial to me if we were ever to imagine a collective and cosmopolitan future.

Yet, medieval history continued popularly to be represented as entirely divided by narrow religious bigotry, crusading conflict and cultural isolation. And this vision of the past seemed increasingly attractive to extreme ideologues — nationalists and religious fundamentalists alike — emerging at the end of the Cold War. Right at the time I started graduate studies, Samuel Huntington published his infamous article The Clash of Civilizations? which attempted to use this distorted perspective on pre-modern global history to ground a conservative investment in exclusivist identitarian conflicts based on religious and “civilizational” identities.

Since the Gulf War of the early 1990s to our own era of terrorism, interventionist warfare and massive migrations of refugees, studying the historical relationship between “Islam and the West,” as it is typically and crudely formulated, has possessed undeniable relevance and importance. However, approaching the relationships from a skewed set of assumptions like Huntington did leads dangerously towards re-enacting the bigotries of the past in the present and regarding them as natural.

At our campus, our challenge is even more immediate than this. The general absence of curriculum on Muslim societies and diasporas globally affects our intellectual and academic community rather profoundly. In my two history seminars this term — one on the Crusades and another on Muslim, Christian and Jewish in the Medieval Mediterranean world, we examine and discuss together the episodes of conflict or persecution as well as the long periods of coexistence and cooperation that patterned a shared past and allow us to consider and imagine a shared future. Rather more such opportunities are needed in our curriculum and at our campus. Education affords us the chance to critique dangerous misconceptions and to combat the stereotyped fears that fuel Islamophobia and other forms of prejudice. It allows us to reflect on important contemporary issues or share experiences in an environment of genuine inquiry and respectful discourse. These are precious opportunities that universities can provide toward dreaming and, hopefully, building a more equitable future together.

The Conversation: How analyzing patterns helps students spot deceptive media

[Demographics graphic]
All demographics of people are susceptible to being deceived. (shutterstock.com)

With the current pervasive use of online media for personal and academic reasons, it’s necessary for students to have skills to confidently filter and decipher what they’re reading.

As such, educators have called for a new approach to teach students how to analyze digital media and some tech and media organizations are getting involved.

Education policy-makers have added new media modules to recently revamped curricula that aims to help students become better-informed and critical future citizens.

But the questions explored in public school media units are also important for people of all ages to consider. Recent studies have shown all demographics of people are susceptible to being deceived.

Showing students how to determine source credibility, and to analyze tone, bias and motive, is a great way to help them with their media literacy. Another helpful way to teach students to think critically about media is to teach them to examine media formats and media patterns.

What exactly does that mean and how do patterns work to manipulate viewers?

Patterns structure our expectations

People have become familiar with, and expect, specific patterns within specific genres of media. Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan famously argued that “the medium is the message:” the media format or genre (including its patterns), can influence people’s thoughts and beliefs.

Each genre has a unique set of characteristics — for example, a haiku poem’s three lines have a particular number of syllables (five, seven, five).

[Haiku poem]
Haiku form: five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. (shutterstock.com)

The genre of documentary film often includes suspenseful music, interviews with specialists and recorded footage or re-enactments.

Or consider the television news broadcast: there are often two anchors, and the colours blue, red and white are seen alongside an animated globe or map.

Even the news music itself has a common pattern. The “Six O’Clock Soundtrack” episode of the podcast Every Little Thing by Gimlet Media documented how news music is a global genre, and is difficult to create.

Yet news music composers from Israel, India, England and the U.S. all agree news music has three common patterns:

  1. The music starts by grabbing the attention of the viewer, and is usually quite catchy.

  2. The rhythm is constant, which often provides a feeling of reliability for the viewer.

  3. The tone of the music conveys a sense of urgency and importance, but at the same time, allows the viewer to feel things are still under control. The music, while tense, still provides a safe and authoritative feeling.

In my research, I have found that specific media forms and patterns can impact viewers’ understanding of important issues. Further, I have begun exploring how the success of deceptive media relies on manipulating viewers’ understanding of patterns. “Deceptive media” encompasses all forms of media that persuades or dupes, including fake news in all its possible formats (for example, print or video or other electronic content).

For example: Hollywood films can easily mimic such iconic aural or visual patterns of news to create a representation of reality which almost instantaneously invites particular viewer expectations. A movie like Anchorman is funny because it creates a satirical story based on viewers’ existing knowledge of news.

[Generic Breaking news logo]
Patterns associated with news: red, blue, white and a globe.

Producers of deceptive media use such representational patterning techniques to deliberately stimulate the viewer’s expectation that they are delivering factually-based news — even when they’re not.

Patterns plus personal experiences

In some instances, drawing upon people’s expectations of patterns in particular media formats, plus their lived experiences can make deception possible.

For example, Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds radio play, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s book broadcast by CBS on Oct. 30, 1938 mimics an interruption of a radio broadcast: it starts with information about the weather, and later plays ballroom music, which is then abruptly interrupted by the events of an alien invasion of Earth.

The opening of Welles’s play actually explained to listeners that the broadcast is an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel.

Yet there were instances when some listeners believed the broadcast to be true.

Media scholars Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow have determined most of the so-called hysteria was exaggerated. Researchers have found it was immediately fuelled by some newspaper journalists’ efforts to discredit broadcast media; later, the event’s legacy was amplified by a questionable academic study on psychological panic.

Still, because Welles followed the representational patterns of a radio broadcast, and drew upon people’s realities of surviving the First World War and being on the brink of the Second World War, Welles’s broadcast successfully convinced at least a portion of his audience the events were authentic.

Considerations for the classroom

A number of online resources offer ways for educators to help students detect deceptive media. Some provide checklists of characteristics to explore. PBS offers lesson plans on teaching students about fake news.

Such resources may be helpful, but coaching students to consider patterns in genre, and to look for representational patterns is also relevant.

I would like to thank collaborative researcher Ernesto Peña, with whom I have led workshops about genre and representational patterns in the Faculty of Education at UBC, and with teachers and teacher librarians in the Vancouver School Board.The Conversation


Claire Ahn is an Assistant Professor of Multiliteracies inf the faculty of Education at Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca

The Conversation: Get Back – When The Beatles rocked the rooftop

Planned only a few days earlier, the Jan. 30, 1969 rooftop concert by The Beatles was their last. It is fitting the show included Billy Preston who symbolized their global collaborative efforts.

File 20190124 196215 opdvdm.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
John Lennon belts it out during The Beatles’ last concert, Jan. 30, 1969. (You Tube/The Beatles)

On a cold, gusty, grey afternoon half a century ago, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr climbed the five storeys of their office building at 3 Savile Row in central London. They then made their way out onto the roof, where they played an unannounced 42-minute set for friends, employees and office workers who clambered out of windows and onto adjacent roofs. A crowd steadily gathered in the street below.

There was no way of knowing it then, but Thursday, Jan. 30, 1969, turned out to be the last time The Beatles performed together in public.

Accompanying them throughout the impromptu show was the American keyboardist Billy Preston, who had been invited by Harrison to join them in rehearsals a week earlier.

Preston’s spirited playing lifted several of the songs they performed that day on the rooftop. His participation in the concert also demonstrates the ways in which The Beatles repeatedly opened themselves up to diverse creative sources that took them in new directions, and that fired their extraordinary musical and artistic growth.

The weeks preceding the “Rooftop Concert,” as it is now known, had been for the band full of both corrosive hostility and deepening lethargy, in the middle of which Harrison walked out altogether, only to return a few days later.

Yet once the four of them took to the roof and began to play, the strength and warmth of their music quickly turned them into a remarkably tight and still immensely charismatic unit even as the rain clouds and the winds — somehow symbolic — buffeted and chilled them.

They open with two different takes of “Get Back” and they close with the same song, in between which they play “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” twice, and “Dig a Pony” and “One After 909” once.

There are shaky, even laughable moments, as Lennon flubs the words on “Don’t Let Me Down,” or Ringo yells “Hold it!” just as the other three launch into the opening riff of “Dig a Pony.” But these miscues only heighten the sense of the uniqueness and unpredictability of the occasion, providing a kind of light relief before the superb quality of their songs, their musicianship and their vocals reassert themselves.

Preston’s piano solo

Yet as compelling as it is to see and hear the four of them playing in public together for the final time, it is also telling to watch for and listen to the 22-year-old Preston, clad in a black leather jacket and tucked in behind McCartney on the left.

Preston was an old friend of The Beatles. He first met them in Hamburg in 1962 when he was a teenager backing up Little Richard, and they were all playing together at the Star Club. “Right from the start, I fell in love with the Beatles,” he later said. “I was probably their first American fan and friend.”

Billy Preston behind McCartney on the left. (You Tube/The Beatles)
Billy Preston behind McCartney on the left. (You Tube/The Beatles)

On the rooftop, Preston made his biggest contribution to “Get Back,” where his electric piano solo highlights the song. Released as a single a few months later, “Get Back” was credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston,” and went to No. 1 in Britain, Australia, Norway and North America.

Today, in addition to his work with The Beatles and later the Rolling Stones, Preston is probably best remembered as the co-author of the ballad “You Are So Beautiful,” which he released in 1974, the same year that Joe Cocker issued his slower and much better-known version.

Bidding the world goodbye

Preston’s relationship with The Beatles also reveals something fundamental about the band itself. The Beatles always revelled in the new and the untried, and across their career they repurposed highly disparate influences with astonishing energy and inventiveness. Rooted in the north of England, they were shaped in Germany and deeply indebted to Black American music.

Once they hit the big time, the pattern deepened as they transcended, ignored and dismantled cultural and social boundaries in the glare of global attention.

They were a western band fascinated by the East. They were the most popular mainstream band in the world even as they embraced the counter-cultural, the experimental and the avant-garde. This open and avid pursuit of innovation and reinvention enabled The Beatles to transform popular culture and modern music, and to imbue both with previously unmatched vitality and variety.

Inviting Preston to join them on the rooftop was typical of the band, and mutually beneficial. Preston was Black and gay. Fifty years ago, that might have made a difference to many, but it didn’t matter to the Beatles. Preston is clearly at ease with them as they are with him, and he takes a supporting role on the stage even as they showcase his brilliant playing.

The Beatles idolized older American musicians such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. And they knew and accepted that their recently deceased manager Brian Epstein was gay. “Brian was a beautiful guy,” Lennon later remarked.

The Beatles disbanded just 15 months after the rooftop concert, but our fascination with them and their music continues unabated. Among their greatest legacies is the way in which, from the start and to the core, they had a international ethos that grew even more expansive when they achieved fame, and that always fuelled their remarkable productivity and creativity.

There is much about the rooftop concert that is magical: Lennon, McCartney and Harrison singing three-part harmony on the chorus of “Don’t Let Me Down” always stands out. It is also clear that Preston is an intimate part of the magic. On that chilly and dull January day, Billy Preston played a central role in helping them to catch fire even as they were bidding the world goodbye.The Conversation


Robert Morrison is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature. 

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca

Funding focuses on humanities, social sciences

Minister Kirsty Duncan makes $141 million funding announcement at Queen's University.

  • [Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport]
    Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport, announces $141 million in funding for researchers across Canada through the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), during a special event hosted at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen's University on Wednesday, Jan. 30. (University Communications)
  • [Principal Daniel Woolf at SSHRC funding announcement]
    Principal and Vice-Chancellor Daniel Woolf comments on the funding announcement on Wednesday at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, highlighting some of the amazing research being conducted at Queen's. (University Communications)
  • [Lee Airton speaks at SSHRC announcment]
    Lee Airton (Education) speaks during Wednesday's funding announcement Dr. Airton's research explores how gender expression is being explicitly defined, and implicitly constructed, in the human rights, diversity and equity policy documents of Ontario’s publicly-funded school boards. (University Communications)
  • [Christine Moon at SSHRC announcement]
    Christine Moon, a MD/PhD in sociocultural studies at the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, explains her research into medical assistance in dying, and what assisted dying means to racialized Canadians. (University Communications)
  • [SSHRC announcement podium group]
    Speaking at Wednesday's announcement were, from left: Graduate student Christine Moon; Minister of Science and Sport Kirsty Duncan; Principal and Vice-Chancellor Daniel Woolf; Professor Lee Airton; Associate Vice-Principal (Research) Sandra Den Otter; and SSHRC President Ted Hewitt.
  • [SSHRC President Ted Hewitt]
    SSHRC President Ted Hewitt (Photo by Bernard Clark)
  • [Ted Hsu, Stéphane Courteau, Kirsty Duncan, and Mark Chen]
    Ted Hsu, Stéphane Courteau (Physics), Kirsty Duncan, and Mark Chen (Physics). (Photo by Bernard Clark)
  • [Una D'Elia (Professor, Art History) with Kirsty Duncan]
    Una D'Elia (Art History) with Kirsty Duncan. (Photo by Bernard Clark)
  • [Kirsty Duncan meeting student researchers]
    Kirsty Duncan meeting student researchers. (Photo by Bernard Clark)
  • [On tour in the Art Conservation lab]
    On tour in the Art Conservation lab. (Photo by Bernard Clark)

More than 90 Queen’s University researchers, including faculty, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows, are the beneficiaries of Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funding announced Wednesday by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport.

At an event hosted by Queen’s at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Minister Duncan announced $141 million in research funding for almost 3,000 researchers across Canada through the SSHRC Insight Development and Talent grant programs.

A total of $4.6 million is earmarked for Queen’s researchers.

Minister Duncan was joined at the event by SSHRC President Ted Hewitt, and Queen’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor Daniel Woolf.

“With the support of these funds, over 90 faculty and students across disciplines at Queen’s will contribute evidence-based research to issues of importance to Canadians and global citizens – from gender expression to assisted dying,” says Principal Woolf.  “The strength of our social sciences and humanities research in this country positions Canada as an international leader in facilitating dialogue, informing policy, and providing concrete solutions to global challenges.”

Speaking on behalf of recipients across Canada at the announcement were Queen’s faculty and student representatives, Lee Airton (Education) and Christine Moon (Kinesiology and Health Studies). Dr. Airton’s research explores how gender expression is being explicitly defined, and implicitly constructed, in the human rights, diversity and equity policy documents of Ontario’s 76 publicly-funded school boards.

• A total of close to 2,300 social sciences and humanities scholars at the master’s, doctoral and post-doctoral levels will benefit from today’s announcement.
• In addition, 677 faculty researchers and their teams received Insight Development Grants. This number represents a 74 per cent increase from last year.
• Queen’s University is one of 79 universities to benefit from the $141 million to support close to 3,000 researchers at institutions across Canada.
• The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s (SSHRC) Talent and Insight programs support post-secondary based research and research training in the humanities and social sciences.
• The Canada Graduate Scholarships are awarded by the three granting agencies – SSHRC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

“We are analyzing hundreds of school board policy and guideline documents produced because of changes to human rights law, but also because schools already know that this guidance is needed,” says Dr. Airton. “It’s needed because gender is changing, and the future of gender is walking into Canadian schools every day, and schools are now legally required to offer a welcome: not a correction or a blind eye. This grant has established our research program, and with SSHRC support we will be able to help Canadian institutions like schools to offer this welcome, every day, to everyone.”

Moon, a MD/PhD in sociocultural studies at the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, will examine medical assistance in dying, and what assisted dying means to racialized Canadians. This is the first ethnographic analysis of assisted dying in Canada.

"It is my intent that my research will contribute both to Canadian public policy and to the everyday lived experiences of Canadians," says Moon. "I am grateful for the support I receive from SSHRC, and the opportunity I have been given to better the lives of Canadians with my research."

After the formal presentation, the podium party, including Minister Duncan and Dr. Hewitt toured the Art of Research photo contest exhibit. The annual photo contest is a unique opportunity for faculty and students across disciplines to showcase their scholarship in a non-traditional way, and a number of the exhibitors were present to highlight their research projects.

The official visit concluded with a tour of the state-of-the-art, interdisciplinary painting and art conservation laboratories. Queen’s offers the only Master of Art Conservation program in Canada and it is one of only five graduate programs in North America. Minister Duncan met graduate student recipients of the SSHRC Talent Fund and learned about the innovative research being applied to conserve art and artifacts to preserve our history

“Social sciences and humanities research is at the heart of understanding the challenges and opportunities facing our communities and our people,” says Minister Duncan. “Nurturing young talent in these disciplines is one of the best ways to build a healthier, stronger and more prosperous Canada.”

For a list of all the funding recipients visit the website.

VIDEO: SSHRC Research Funding Announcement. January 30, 2019


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