Mid-course feedback & responses, Intro to Philosophy

I asked for feedback on how things are going in my Introduction to Philosophy course, right after Reading Week (which was at the halfway point). Here are some of the common answers, and my replies!

This post was originally posted on my Intro to Philosophy course site, where I put it for the students to read. I’m re-posting here on my blog.


Discussions in class, vs lecture

There were a number of people who made comments regarding the balance of lecture and discussion in the M,W classes.

The majority of students who gave feedback like having discussions in class as well as lecture (twice as many as those who said they want more lecture). One said they wanted more discussion and less lecture.

Some said they appreciated combining ideas on Google docs because that way those who don’t want to speak in front of the whole class can still contribute. That is exactly what I use these for! And don’t forget that you can see them all under “notes” on the main menu, above (notes from in-class discussions). These, plus the discussions in the discussion groups on W, F, plus the discussion summaries are things you can use when thinking about your essays–they provide interesting views on the readings!

A couple of people wanted less discussion during the M,W classes and more lecture. One thought that this was a distraction from the material. But as I said in class last week, learning does not best happen merely by listening to an “expert” and writing down notes. Doing something with the material yourself, whether answering questions, discussing with others, or some other activity, is important for learning. Here’s an article about a recent study about the value of “active learning”. Here’s a list of several studies supporting active learning.

There are some studies that suggest that people can only pay attention to a lecture for a short amount of time, and it needs to be broken up by activities (see, e.g., this article).

When I stop class to ask for comments or questions from the large group, that is also a way to break up the lecture. And some students wanted more people to participate during those times. I try hard to create a comfortable, safe atmosphere in class so that people feel okay doing so; but I realize that some still aren’t willing. So that’s why I do smaller group discussions during the M,W class too!

So the short story here is that it appears it is better for learning and attention if professors don’t just lecture for a full 50 minutes. Which means that the times I do that, I shouldn’t be! :)

And because twice as many people appreciated the discussions as didn’t, that also adds more support for me to continue doing this in class.

To benefit from the discussions, though, you have to actually participate. One person giving feedback said they didn’t find the discussions in the M,W class helpful, but that could be because they weren’t participating. If you are sitting doing something else during those periods, it’s definitely not going to be useful to you.

Learning Catalytics

A few students said they liked using Learning Catalytics, with one saying it should be used more frequently. One said that it encouraged them to keep up with the readings and the class generally (which is certainly part of why I do it!). I said on the syllabus it wouldn’t be used every M,W class, and probably about once a week. But it could be used twice in some weeks!

Lecture pacing and what’s on the slides

There was one student who thought the lectures sometimes went too slow, focusing for too long on one point, and one student who thought they lectures sometimes went too fast and I should slow down. Since there is no consensus on this, I will try to think about when I could speed up and when I might be speaking too quickly or rushing, and try to act accordingly rather than having a blanket change to what I’m doing.

One student wanted more detail on the slides because it’s hard to write down from when I’m speaking. There is a reason why I don’t put more detail on the slides: you can’t listen and write down at the same time, and there is research that shows that if you just write things down verbatim from slides you don’t learn as much as if you have to think and put it in your own words. Plus, if I put everything on the slides then that reduces some of the motivation for coming to class. In student evaluations one year I had a student suggest putting less on the slides for this reason!

Distractions by other students

A few students said they were distracted when others are going on social media or doing other things on their computers, unrelated to the class.

If you cannot stop yourself from doing things on your computer unrelated to the class, please SIT TOWARDS THE BACK so your screen is distracting to fewer people. 

I team-teach a course and attend the lectures by the other professors, and frequently get distracted by students’ screens when they are doing other things. This is a serious problem for those who want to pay attention!

Doing other things during class breaks the collaborative guidelines we came up with, and is not only correlated with doing worse in that class, but also with those around you doing worse. See this page for research on these issues (scroll down below the collaborative guidelines).

It is also distracting when people get up to leave in the middle of class or before class is finished. So if you’re going to get up to leave, also sit towards the back.

Help with writing essays

A few students wanted more guidance for writing essays. I have written a 2-page guide to writing essays, and provided a marking rubric with things we look for when marking, on this page. The page also has links to other philosophers’ writing suggestions that I agree with.

If you want more depth, here is a 5-page set of guidelines I wrote for a writing-intensive course I teach, Arts One. I have changed it slightly so that it fits this course. I’m also putting it on the “writing help” page linked above.

Guidelines for papers (longer)

In addition, the TA’s and I will write up a list of common suggestions for paper number 2, based on what they saw for paper number 1. We’ll send that to you as soon as it’s ready, and also post it here on the site!

The bigger picture

One student wanted to hear more about the bigger picture of what s/he should be getting from the course. What value can one get from what we’re learning and doing? How can it be applied to other courses and one’s life?

I have designed this course to try to address that question, but I need to do a better job emphasizing it! One thing I’ve done is to show how the readings are relating to the bigger picture of the course, which is about what the “examined life” is and why it matters: is the unexamined life not worth living, as Socrates says? Another way to think about this is: what is philosophy and why is it valuable? The parts of the course are designed to show the different reasons why philosophical activity might be useful, for oneself (cultivating a happy life, as per Epicurus) and for others (how do we decide what to do morally? (Mill), what should we do to help those in need? (Singer, Nussbaum).

I am also trying to cultivate skills you can use in other courses: learning how to outline arguments from readings in order to question and criticize them is something you can use in the rest of your life to clarify positions and see if they have good support for them. Learning how to write a clear argument is valuable not just in other courses, but you might need to do that in other aspects of your life such as in a job (granted, not in an academic essay exactly).

I will try to think more about how I can emphasize the bigger picture!

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