More course planning with Dee Fink


I am back to planning a course using the Integrated Course Design model by Dee Fink, outlined in this document & set of worksheets. I worked with this model and the same course about a year ago, and blogged about it briefly here.

Now I am preparing for a presentation on using Fink’s ideas for developing course goals and assessments, as well as using David Wiley’s suggestion of practicing open pedagogy through using renewable assignments (which I discuss in this article). I’m presenting on this at the upcoming American Association of Philosophy Teachers’ conference, which is held every two years and is easily one of my favourite conferences–it’s filled with people who love teaching philosophy!

Here in this post, I’ll focus on drafting learning goals with Dee Fink’s Integrated Course Design. I’m also presenting on Wiley’s idea of “Renewable Assignments,” and I’ve already reflected on some ideas for those in a previous post.

I’ve been working on my Philosophy 102 course again, because even though I’ve taught it many times, I’m still not entirely happy with it. I feel like it could be more engaging for students, and since there really are few restrictions on what I can teach in that course (it’s an intro course focused on value theory…anything within that is fair game) then there’s a lot of freedom to consider how to make it more engaging.

Like last year, I’m using Workflowy to do the planning. Here’s a link to the part of my Workflowy list about this course that focuses on the learning objectives. While I find Workflowy excellent for planning in list format, it’s not so great for long-form reflecting, so I’m moving over here to my blog for that.

Draft Learning goals for PHIL 102

One of the things I love about Fink’s model for course design is the expanded kinds of learning goals he asks one to consider. He suggests setting goals in the following areas:

  • Foundational Knowledge: what key information or ideas, perspectives are important for students to learn?
  • Application: what kinds of thinking are needed, such as critical, creative, practical? What sorts of skills do they need to learn?
  • Integration: what connections should students make between parts of the course? Between what’s in the course and other courses? Or between the course and their own lives?
  • Human Dimension: what should students learn about themselves? About interacting with others in the future?
  • Caring: what changes would you like to see in what students care about? What changes like to see in their interests, values, feelings?
  • Learning How to Learn: What would you like students to learn about how to learn well in this course (and beyond)? About how to become self-directed learners, engage in inquiry and knowledge construction?

On my Workflowy list I went through each of these areas and answered the questions (see here for my answers), and then came up with a draft list of Learning Objectives for the course as a whole. Here they are in their current form, but if you go to the link in the last sentence, you can see any updates I make later.

  1. Explain the basic structure of a philosophical argument–premises and conclusion—and correctly outline an argument in a philosophical text
  2. Assess the strength of arguments in assigned texts, in oral or written work by other students, and their own arguments (oral or written)
  3. Read a complex philosophical text and produce notes that distinguish the main points of the arguments therein.
  4. Make a claim about a philosophical issue and defend it with sound reasoning, orally and in writing
  5. Participate in a respectful discussion with others on a philosophical question: clarify positions and arguments from themselves or others, criticize flawed arguments, present their own arguments, and do all this in manner that respects the other people in the discussion
  6. Based on what we’ve studied in the class, give one (of many!) possible answers to the questions: What is philosophical activity and where do we see it in the world outside this course? How do you engage in philosophical activity beyond this course?

What’s missing

Now, one of the great things about Workflowy is that I can go through and tag items in my list so as to just view them on a page and clear everything else out. I found a number of things in the 6 areas of learning goals (Foundational Knowledge, Caring, Learning how to Learn, etc.) that were not reflected in my draft set of learning objectives. I tagged them with #attn (for attention) and was able to just focus on them. Here is what I don’t have in my learning objectives or ideas for course activities yet:

  • Human dimension: what should students learn about themselves? about interacting with others in the future?
    • It would be good if they learned the degree to which they tend to rely on unexamined beliefs and values in their thoughts about the questions we’re discussing, and why it might be good to examine those #attn
    • Learn the value of respectful, philosophical (or other) dialogue with peers–how can we engage in dialogue that respects everyone and yet moves forward rather than sitting with everyone’s differing opinions and not going anywhere out of fear of offending anyone? #attn
    • At the same time, don’t want them to just rely on relativism–your view is okay and so is mine, there isn’t an answer. Need to find a way to both recognize that you might be wrong, and yet hold steady to what you have good reason to believe in b/c of evidence, good arguments behind it, etc. Still open to questioning and challenge from others. #attn
  • Caring: what changes would you like to see in what students care about? What changes like to see in their interests, values, feelings?
    This is a hard one–how can one work to change what people care about? #attn

    • I would like them to care about careful, philosophical inquiry, argument and dialogue, about how such activity can be helpful in addressing disagreements, if done well #attn
    • Care about whether their own views and values have been examined, whether they can provide adequate arguments for them, and what to do if they think they can’t #attn
    • Care about whether their own arguments about the content of the course are sound #attn
    • Care about treating with respect those whose views differ from theirs, but not thinking that this must mean we have to be relativists, that there are no objective truths about value #attn
    • Care about working together with others to solve problems/try to answer complex questions #attn
  • Learning how to learn: what would you like students to learn about how to learn well in this course (and beyond)? how to become self-directed learners, engage in inquiry and knowledge construction?
    • learn the value of working together with peers to learn; that sometimes learning on one’s own works well, and sometimes it’s also valuable to learn with peers #attn
      how to get them to see this?

      • learning with and from peers is not a waste of time compared to getting info from the prof as expert
      • recognize that even when they feel they know more than others, “teaching” others is a very useful way to better understand something; we learn by helping others to learn, not just by getting information from them
    • learn what to do if something isn’t making sense; what options do they have for getting help? How can they avoid just being confused and not doing much to solve the problem? #attn
    • understand that philosophical texts may require more than one read to understand them well, and have the patience to do work hard to understand something that is challenging. Of course, time pressure is also an issue, so want to make sure not overwhelming them. #attn
      how to help them see this?

Okay, so how?

Here is where I start reflecting on the things I’ve marked “attn,” above. It’s interesting to me that the ones I’m having the most difficulty with are the ones I hadn’t really thought of much before reading Fink’s work–goals about caring, the human dimension, and learning how to learn. My course goals were more content-focused before that.

Caring goals

I’m going to start with the hardest one, in my view. How do I get them to care about certain things, if they don’t already? I feel the need to tread carefully here, as there are ethical concerns with trying to change people’s values when you’re in a position of significant power in comparison to them. I don’t think I should require students to care about certain things so much as show evidence of doing certain things (whether doing so has entered into their emotional or value structure deeply is their own concern).

So while I’d like them to care if their arguments are sound or if they are relying on assumptions that they can’t defend, I can’t require them to show that they care about such things–only that they do unpack their assumptions and that the arguments they produce are sound. And while I would like them to care about working together with others to solve problems and treating them with respect in discussions, all I can require is that they do so.

One thing I could do is to model my own enthusiasm in striving to unpack my own assumptions and produce sound arguments, model respect in discussions, and show how I think of myself as working with them to address the problems we are discussion (which I do think, and I can model that). I can also explain why I believe those things are important, as a way of explaining why I require them, and then these reasons may resonate with others as well.

So while I don’t think the Caring goals will show up in my learning objectives, they will operate in how I teach, and how I explain why I’m teaching that way.

Human Dimension

  • Learning about how they might rely on unexamined beliefs: could help them see this by asking them to reflect on their views about certain issues and come up with arguments to support them, examining those premises as deeply as possible.
    • I’ve done this in the past when I’ve asked students to pick a current issue in the news and write blog posts about views one might have about that and arguments they can come up with to support them. I have always said it doesn’t have to actually be their own views, but the views someone could have (because some students are wary of blogging in front of their classmates about their own views).
    • I have run into issues where students have gotten upset by what others have written (one student was upset by a blog post about how abortion is wrong, because, this student said (in anonymous feedback), other students in the class may have had abortions. So this is not without dangers. One option is to just have all of them submit these posts privately to me, which has always been an option and students sometimes take it, but other students don’t mind blogging publicly and that’s how this student got upset.
    • Still, isn’t there a teaching moment there, or something valuable in determining how to deal with the fact that there are different views in our class just as in the world, and we need to learn how to engage with others who disagree? Probably, but I’m not sure I’ve yet figured out how best to handle this. So I’m still undecided on whether to require all such writing to be private to me or to let them post just to the class, or publicly, as they choose (which has been my practice so far).
  • Learning the value of respectful dialogue with others, but not falling back into relativism: mostly I think I just hope this happens when I require them to talk in small groups about the issues we’re discussing. I and the TA’s try to monitor the tone of such discussions, but we can’t be in all groups at the same time. Here are some things I could do:
    • Have us come up with ground rules for discussion, collaboratively. I have tried something like this with large classes before. It worked pretty well; the large class was split up into groups of 25 for one hour a week, and I had a google doc for each of those small groups. Then I compiled all the results into one doc.
      • I think in future I need to not just collate what students said, but use those as a basis for a concise set of simple guidelines that we can easily refer to throughout the class. So I’ve started this process by gathering what students have said, but just need to finish it by making the resulting set of guidelines easier to read and refer to.
    • How to avoid falling into relativism? How to get them to recognize that while each view could be debated and needs to be justified by reasons that others could question, this doesn’t mean all views are equal?
      • I do talk about the difficulties that ethical relativism puts us into, so that’s one thing.
      • I could also try to require each group to come up with one thing they or most of them think is justifiable, rather than just letting them discuss and not requiring them to come to some kind of conclusion (which is what I sometimes do).
      • I have in the past used Google docs for this, again–I have had a section on a google doc for each small group in the Friday discussion meetings (about 5 or 6 per discussion meeting) where they have to record something concrete, some kind of answer or argument. Possibly this could help with the relativism issue?

Learning How to Learn

  • Learning the value of learning with peers: This is a tough one. Many of us think, and there is research to back this up (geez…I need to have that at my fingertips, but I don’t!), that learning with and from peers is valuable, but there are still a number of students who resist it. So many times I’ve heard from others that students complain about the professors not doing their jobs when they focus part of class time on peer learning, or that they have paid tuition and fees and what are they getting out of it? I haven’t heard that myself (yet?), but it’s an important problem. How to address it?
    • I suppose one way is to point to the research on the value of learning with peers. I need to write something up on my course websites about such research so that students can understand it quickly but also dig more deeply into the articles if they wish.
    • I might also stress that I ask them to engage in peer learning because I firmly believe that each one of us has valuable things to contribute to philosophical discussion. I don’t believe that philosophy can only be done by experts (thus I would like to see more philosophy in schools, in earlier grades than university, even when kids are just starting school). We experts do have significant roles to play, but since my focus in this intro course is less on content and more on skills development regarding reading, writing and discussing, peer learning makes sense: I can model those skills, but so can other students. I am there to help refine the skills that many people already possess to some degree. And I can answer questions about the philosophers we’re studying with my disciplinary expertise. But other than that, you don’t need to be a philosophical expert to engage in philosophical discussion and help each other do it better.
    • I wonder if I could give an example or two where I learned just as much, if not more, from peers than from the expert? I wonder, not because I can’t think of any, but because I am not sure it would resonate with them. My “peers” are already “experts” to some degree. But we are not always experts in what we’re trying to learn, so maybe this sort of personal story would help?
  • Learning how to recognize when you need help and how to get it: I’ve found that too often, when students are struggling, they don’t reach out for help…perhaps because they don’t know how, or are intimidated. And that can be when things like plagiarism happen. Here are some thoughts on what I might do.
    • How many first-year students don’t really understand “office hours”? I say I have them, I talk about rescheduling them when I can’t make them one week, etc., but do I really explain what office hours are for? Do I make sure to continually invite students to come when they would like help? Do I say that I’m available even if students just want to better understand something but aren’t really having significant difficulty? Do I emphasize that they can talk to TA’s if they prefer (sometimes students find TA’s more approachable)? I think I could do better in these areas.
    • Of course, being approachable in class is important–having a demeanour that shows you really care and want to talk to students. I try to do this all the time, and student evaluations do show that many think I am open and kind and approachable. Not sure I need to do anything more in that regard.
    • I could do more to emphasize the various support services for students on campus. Sometimes they don’t want to talk to their professors about things that are going on with them, and there are wonderful supports for them that are available but they may not know them. I could put a line or two in the syllabus, but also have a section on the course website devoted to that. And talk it up in class, particularly during midterms and towards finals time.
  • Learning how to read philosophy… carefully and more than once: introductory students often struggle with primary texts. Sometimes people don’t assign them for that reason. I still do, and I think there can be value in learning how to read challenging things. But I also need to better support students in doing so.
    • Assign less reading: one common issue that comes up in student evaluations is that students often find it difficult to keep up with the amount of reading I assign. I keep cutting, but perhaps I still have to do more cutting next time. If what I care about is less the content than the skills, then students need time to practice the skills. And if there is less, then I could in all seriousness and practicality ask them to do the readings more than once.
    • I already have in the draft learning objectives above (#3) that they will be asked to write notes on texts that distinguish one or more of the main arguments in the text. That should help with this concern as well–they’ll have to read carefully to do this, and probably more than once!. I won’t ask them to do it on every single reading (I have over 100 students…I couldn’t possibly grade all those!), but on at least a few. And they’ll be practicing this in small groups first.
      • I suppose I wouldn’t have to grade them all…I could ask them to do peer comments on each others’ rather than grading all of them. I could grade one or two and then have one or two just have peer comments after that. A possibility….
    • I wonder if I could create a more “fun” way to ask students to summarize the main points in a reading? So far I’ve just been thinking of them doing an outline of one of the main arguments in a text in standard from (premises and conclusion). That’s important to learn, and I’ll keep doing that, but are there other, more engaging ways to summarize an argument in a text? Just some brainstorming below…might not use any of these…
      • write a summary in a “tweet” form (140 characters)
      • do a drawing that summarizes an argument somehow; or a comic strip
      • write a short dialogue between two or more people that summarizes the argument in your own words–maybe one person asking questions or bringing up objections
      • write a newspaper headline that summarizes the argument; or a short newspaper column
      • write about the reading in the style of a Wikipedia “lead” section–that part of a Wikipedia article before the table of contents, that is supposed to give a summary of the main points so you could get a good sense of it even w/o reading the whole article
        • of course, they could just go to the Wikipedia page of that reading, but not all of them are very good, actually, so perhaps the students could improve them!
      • Do a slide presentation with a few slides that explains the reading (with images so more visually interesting; will have to be sure they understand open licenses!)
      • Will keep thinking for more…



This was a very useful reflective exercise for me, even though it’s probably too long for others to read! And one thing I learned is that without realizing it, I’m already doing a few things that are helping to support the learning goals I thought at first I wasn’t addressing!



  1. I’m so glad you mentioned blogging yesterday at the AAPT! I assign elements of Fink to my graduate students but had somehow forgotten to go back to him in designing my classes for this fall.

    Your process here is really helpful to see, too. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. I’m glad to hear that sharing the process was helpful! I have found this way of planning my courses to be extremely valuable, and I always think: well, why not share my planning process with others? Maybe even students might stop by and see my thought process in planning the course, which I think is valuable.

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