2017 Silver Circle winner Matt Motyl

Matt Motyl

“Critical thinking and intellectual exploration will help [students] think outside of the box and be innovators and leaders in whatever field they choose to pursue,” says Matt Motyl. Photo: Jenny Fontaine

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Since 1966, the Silver Circle Award has been presented to some of UIC’s best teachers. Winners, who are honored at their college commencements, receive $500 and their names join a long list of distinguished colleagues. But what makes the award especially meaningful is its selection committee: the graduating seniors.

Matt Motyl believes genuine enthusiasm for content is a remarkable pedagogical tool.

“Students, who may have had minimal interest in the course topic coming in, are befuddled when they see their instructor so engaged in something that they had thought incapable of capturing anyone’s interest,” the assistant professor of psychology wrote in a statement describing his teaching philosophy.

From courses involving cultural and social psychology to laboratory research, his overall goal is to help them understand complicated ideas and think in ways to advance scientific understanding.

Part of this process involves encouraging students to pursue interesting questions, critique what they have learned about and develop new ideas to potentially move understanding forward.

Motyl, a first-time Silver Circle winner, noted in his statement that one-on-one debates or weekly blog entries help students “dig deeper” to engage the material directly, and to cultivate their ability to discuss or write about high-level concepts.

“This critical thinking and intellectual exploration will help them think outside of the box and be innovators and leaders in whatever field they choose to pursue,” he wrote.

Motyl assigns students weekly essays to raise a critical question from their readings.

“These essays tend to point to theoretical gaps or contradictions in the past work,” his statement explained. “As the semester progresses and the students’ skillsets grow, they start to propose testable hypotheses that could reconcile conflicting ideas.”

Conflict is at the center of Motyl’s often-published research that lately examines how people’s moral, political and religious ideologies steer them into segregated ideological enclaves.

He is co-founder of CivilPolitics.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public on evidence-based methods for improving intergroup civility.

He and other scholars help policymakers, community groups and individuals to develop methods and ideas to bridge moral divisions and cultivate a more respectful political environment while also creating measurement tools to assess the effectiveness of those interventions.

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