Category Archives: Teaching

Use of class time in PHIL 102

I’m teaching PHIL 102, Introduction to Philosophy, Jan-April 2018. I have taught this course many times before (and have blogged about it; see here for posts about the course), and I keep revisiting it and renewing it because I’m never fully satisfied. This year I’m focusing my changes in large part on the question of how best to use class time. See the previous post for some general reflections on that.

Below are some problems I am seeing in PHIL 102 that lead me to wonder about my use of class time and whether I should change it.

General concerns

It’s often not engaging to watch someone talk for long periods of time

icon of a yawning face

Yawn icon from The Noun Project

Even when a lecture is engaging, if it goes on for long enough, it can become boring. And not just students spend time distracting themselves from such things with electronic devices; I’ve seen faculty do it too (and I’ve been known to do so at conferences where papers are read during sessions that I’m just not that into…listening to someone read a paper can be deathly dull).

Instead of only asking students not to be distracted by things on their devices (which I do for the sake of other students getting distracted around them), I want to reduce the amount of time they are passive and thus easily distractable. I’m not saying it isn’t good to practice paying close attention to something for longer periods even when it’s not the most entertaining in the world, but I don’t think the blame should be only on students having a short attention span when they get bored in class. Sitting passively listening to and watching someone talk for long periods of time just often is, in my view, boring. I want to acknowledge that and spend more time asking students to do things.

I am too much in the centre

When I spend a great deal of time standing in front of a large class giving lectures over slides in the background, the signal that sends is that I am the expert imparting knowledge students are to drink in. Don’t get me wrong–this activity is important sometimes, and I do have more expertise than most or all students taking a philosophy course for the first time. I am imparting some of my knowledge, but in my view (and I believe this is widely shared) philosophy is not just about learning what someone else has to say, though you do need to have some of that kind of knowledge to do philosophy well. It’s also about learning how to critique arguments, those of others as well as one’s own, and to contribute to discussions of philosophical issues in a way that helps move the conversation forward towards some kind of resolution.

In addition to providing space for students to learn how to engage in critique and how to effectively participate in philosophical discussions (orally and in writing), I want to de-centre myself a bit more because I learn a great deal from students during classes. It’s not just for the sake of providing them practice, but also because they have useful contributions to make to philosophical conversations.

But the more I stand in front, front-and-centre, the more I could be giving off the message that it is my view they should be paying attention to, that what they are there to do is to learn what I am saying and be able to repeat it back. If much of the class time is like that, it wouldn’t be surprising if students want to focus on things like “what do I need to know for the exam?” rather than “how can I use what we have learned to address a problem or do some activity?”.

I don’t mean to suggest that 90% of our class time is spent with me lecturing in front, but I still think quite a bit is, maybe too much. PHIL 102 usually has two, 50-minute “lectures” and one, 50-minute “discussion” per week. TA’s often run the discussion meetings, so the “lecture” meetings are when the faculty has the chance to do the majority of the “teaching.” As a result, I tend to focus more on lecture during the “lectures” than I might otherwise, wanting to “get certain things across” to everyone in the same way.

It’s possible, though, to take some of that me-in-the-centre stuff and move it outside of class, such as through videos where I do some of the lecture material or explain instructions for assignments or how to practice certain skills, and want to get the same message to all students (with the caveat that I need to be mindful not to simply add more time to students’ out-of-class workload but balance the new out-of-class activities with less other out-of-class activities).

 

More specific issues

Students sometimes struggle with reading texts outside of class

Many students struggle with trying to do the readings on their own, outside of class. This is not surprising or strange–some of the texts we read are complicated, some are written in a style that is not entirely clear to 21st century ears, and philosophical writing can be quite different than most of the writing many students have encountered in their secondary education classes.

icon of an open book

book icon, from The Noun Project

So if I ask them to do the reading on their own, and then they come to class and I explain it to them, and they are having trouble doing the reading on their own, what is the most likely result? They stop reading on their own? That seems a rational response, especially given how many classes and other responsibilities many students have, on top of having to get used to the new atmosphere of university (for many students in my first-year course).

What to do? I’m thinking of using some class time to have students work through difficult texts together and come up with ideas in groups about what the main arguments are. Groups could share their ideas with another group, or with the larger class, and we can decide together what we think the text is saying. Then we can approach it critically.

Somehow I need to set up the in-class activity so that reading the text ahead of time is necessary for doing it well. It’s not very effective when engaged students have to be in a group with others who are not keeping up in class or doing the readings, so the engaged students end up doing everything. Something like the idea of “readiness assurance tests” for team-based learning could possibly work here.

Taking useful notes on philosophical readings can be difficult

This is related to the above point, of course; if they aren’t motivated to do the readings outside of class, and if those readings are challenging, then it can be difficult for them to take effective notes. Yet, having effective notes on the readings can be a big help when writing essays or studying for exams. Essays are usually better if students understand the texts more deeply than only getting what is said by me or others during class time.

It would be useful for me to spend some time talking about reading and taking notes on philosophy texts, and providing them with a way to practice doing so. This might encourage them to do it on their own, outside of class. I’ve considered requiring students to submit notes on some readings, at some points during the class, but the large size of the class and the lack of time for TAs or me to read all of those makes it very difficult.

Here is a nice list of suggestions for students when reading, marking up texts, and creating summaries of philosophical works: How to read philosophy, on the Falasafaz blog. And here is a video based on that blog post, with a little more advice, by Christopher Anadale. These are things we could talk about and practice in class.

It is also possible to get peer feedback on some note-taking practice…see below for one way to do it.

Many students could use more practice writing

One thing that came out of the student evaluations for PHIL 102 last time I taught it (see my reflection on those) is that students wanted more help in writing essays. I give a lot of written advice, and students engage in peer feedback on writing, but it might help if they could have more practice writing somehow.

One thing to do, and that students have said they want, is to create opportunities for rewriting essays. That is in the works for January (it’s something I’ve done in the past but somehow have gotten away from and shouldn’t have). That takes place, rightfully, outside of class time so students have more time to reflect, draft, re-draft, edit, etc.

Another thing I’m considering is opportunities for students to practice writing, and get feedback from peers, during class time. This would provide immediate feedback and could lead to questions being raised by students that they wouldn’t have otherwise thought of until they were outside the class. This way they can get some of those questions addressed in the moment.

There is a new tool at UBC called ComPAIR that could be useful for doing this. It allows students to type in some text in response to an assignment (could even be as long as a whole essay) and then each student compares two responses by others to say which they think best fits the parameters of the assignment. They can also provide feedback to the original author. This can all be done anonymously. I wouldn’t have them write whole essays in the tool during class time, but maybe something like a paraphrase of an author’s argument in a section of their text, or a sample introductory paragraph for an essay the student is going to write, with a sample thesis statement…or the like.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the relevance of philosophical texts to one’s own life

I am a sucker for ancient texts. I love teaching works by Plato, Epirucus, Stoics; and I’m going to add one or two works from ancient Chinese philosophers next time too. It can be especially challenging for some students to see why we should be reading texts from over 2000 years ago. But they do have value or they wouldn’t still endure, and I do think they have relevance.

I could tell them what I think that relevance is, or we could work together or in smaller groups to gather their ideas on this question. That is better not only for keeping attention in class as noted above, but also because they know a lot more than I do about the relevance of these works for their own lives (or lack thereof).

Conclusion

I’ve managed to brainstorm a few ideas for how to use class time in PHIL 102 outside of lectures, to address certain issues I’d like to ameliorate in this class. Time to create a weekly plan and put these and similar ideas into it to make sure it happens in class! If I remember, I’ll share that plan here on my blog when it’s ready.

 

How best to use class time? (11 years later)

photo of a classroom with empty desks and chairs

Classroom by Victor Björkund, licensed CC BY 2.0 on Flickr.

Eleven years ago, during the summer I first started this blog (2006), I wrote a couple of posts about the use of class time: What is class time for? Part 1 and Part 2.

I don’t know whether the fact that I’m still dealing with a version of the same question this many years later means I’m just failing or that it’s a hard problem. I believe the latter, though!

In those posts I wondered what is the best use of the limited time that we have to have students together in a room (if we teach face-to-face courses, that is). What I was used to from my own courses, and what I did when I first started teaching, was to use that time to: (1) do a lecture in which I explain the assigned readings, clarifying complicated points, heading off potential misunderstandings, and then also either offering a critique or inviting students to offer critiques; and also (2) often I would find ways to engage students in a discussion of some philosophical question. This latter would be either the whole class together (depending on the size of the class), or small groups.

Even in 2006, my third year at UBC (my sixth year of teaching after the PhD), I was wondering about (1). Not that I think that is a bad thing to do, but I was wondering how much time I should spend on that, because:

  • Why should students spend time reading (let’s face it, often difficult) texts when they can come to class and get it explained by the prof?
  • My conception of philosophy, especially for students who may take one or two philosophy classes but won’t be majors, is that it could go beyond reading writings by others and discussing them. I think philosophy is valuable and useful beyond the academy, and doing courses in which all students do is read what others have said and critique it can give a narrow view of what philosophy and philosophical activity are and could be. That’s what professional philosophers do, but most students in my 100 level courses won’t become professional philosophers.
  • Does it really help students learn how to understand and critique complicated arguments if the instructor usually does it for them? Some modeling is necessary, of course, but more practice than I used to give (and frankly, more than I currently give) could be pedagogically useful.

Revisiting the question

Now, here I am in 2017, still addressing a variant of the same question: what is the best use of that limited face-to-face time? What do we need to be in the same room together to do, and what can be done without being in the same room together? (The success of many online courses says there may be a great deal that can be done separately, asynchronously, online).

I asked this question in a shorter way in a recent blog post, but am here digging in more deeply.

Lectures

I remember vividly coming back from a one-year sabbatical to teach Introduction to Philosophy in the Fall of 2013 and thinking, as I was standing in front of a large class, why am I wasting everyone’s time by standing up here and talking over a power point presentation? Do we all need to be here in the room for me to do that, or could this be a video they watch outside of class if all I am doing is talking at them?

Now, to be fair, I didn’t even then just talk at students for lengthy periods of time; I have for awhile now had a common practice of breaking up lecture with activities where students were doing something other than just listening and taking notes. But I wondered how much of my lecture needed to be given “live” and how much would be better if it were asynchronous.

There can be a great value in being able to go back and review certain parts of a lecture that you are struggling with, or that you missed because something else caught your attention for a bit (which happens all the time to many people, especially if it’s a long lecture).

Still, I’m not suggesting I or anyone else stop lecturing in class entirely. It can be useful to remind students of various things, to introduce background information for an in-class activity, and more. It’s just that I want to be more reflective about what kinds of lectures I give inside the class and what outside, and why.

One way to think about this is to focus on the kinds of activities that really need everyone in a room together at the same time, and use the inside/outside class time lectures most efficiently to support that: what needs to be said during the class to support that activity, and what works well outside?

And I should say that it’s very important to consider student workload: moving what was done during the class to outside adds to the outside-of-class workload, and this can mean that things that used to be outside of class, like reading assignments, may need to be reduced to avoid creating unsustainable workloads for students.

One thing I’ve done a bit, and want to do more, is to create videos for background information that is helpful to know when reading the text outside of class. Things like historical context or other information helpful to understanding what is going on in a philosophical text can easily be given outside of class, especially if there is a way for students to raise questions about the video and have them be answered relatively quickly.

I have also created a series of videos on the Trolley Problem that were meant to replace a fair bit of the lecture I used to give, so that we could more quickly get to discussion of the problem (which is always very lively!).

The main difficulty I have found in doing more of the “lecture” work outside of class is finding the time to create decent quality videos. Some things I’ve made are nothing more than screencasts of me going through slides, which is pretty boring.

What are some other good uses of the time we’re in a room together?

I’m brainstorming by writing; here are some ideas.

  • Discussions of philosophical questions: These can be done online, asynchronously, but it can also be of value to have the conversation move along more quickly, with people talking together. There is probably value in doing both in-person, synchronous discussions and asynchronous ones, since the latter provides a venue for those who like to think through their ideas before voicing them, and those who for other reasons aren’t entirely comfortable discussing philosophical questions live and in person.
  • Individual, timed assessments: If one wants to be able to control what students can see and use during a quiz or exam, it’s easier to do if they’re all in a room together (which isn’t to say that exams can’t be invigilated online, just than if one has face-to-face time, this seems like a useful way to spend that time because it’s easier than trying to do such things online.
  • Hands-on or other activities that require a particular space/place: Sometimes learning needs to happen in a particular place because it has certain equipment, or because the learning is about that place, or because being in a space affects learning in a way that wouldn’t happen without being in that space. Most of my teaching doesn’t fall under this category, though if I thought hard I might come up with more opportunities for this to be useful in my philosophy courses.
  • Peer instruction: I’m using this term in a general sense, to cover various ways in which students help each other and themselves learn (I’m not sure this is a good term to use, but I’m going with it for the moment). Again, this can be done outside of class, online, but if there is face-to-face time, having students work together can be a good use of that time (rather than having them all sitting in a room at the same time listening to something for 50 minutes).What I’m thinking about as peer instruction includes:
    • peer feedback on assignments
    • group assignments/projects
    • group exams (e.g., two-stage exams)
    • team-based learning
    • think-pair-share and similar exercises
    • classroom response system questions (clickers and the like) answered individually and then answered again after discussing with other students
    • groups creating quiz or exam questions
    • presentations by students to the class, alone or in groups
    • discussions, as above

There is a great deal of literature in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning showing the value for student learning of many of the activities in the above list under “peer instruction,” and as this is an informal blog post for the sake of thinking through my own ideas, I’m not going to try to list all that literature here. Suffice it to say that many of these are not only things that are good uses of us being in a room together, they are also shown to be of value for student learning.

Temporary conclusion

The point of this post is just to allow me to work through my current thoughts, via writing, about what kinds of things work well inside and outside of class.

I want to take these reflections and apply them to my Introduction to Philosophy course I’m teaching in January, but I’ll start a new post for that in order to keep this one to a manageable size!

 

Grading rubrics in philosophy

This is a quick post designed to collect links to grading rubrics in philosophy, for the sake of putting them together in one place for graduate student TAs in our department to refer to if they want to see some examples.

Here is a recent version of a grading rubric for essays that I use in my courses, including Introduction to Philosophy and an interdisciplinary course called Arts One. I’m including a PDF version and also an MS Word version in case anyone wants to use and edit it (Word is often easier to edit). It is licensed CC BY, which means you can use it and change it if state that it’s adapted from mine as the original source.

Hendricks Philosophy Paper Rubric (PDF)

Hendricks Philosophy Paper Rubric (MS Word)

 

Daily Nous had a post in May 2017 with what they called “An impressively detailed philosophy paper grading rubric,” by Micah T. Lewin.

 

 

Mara Harrell of Carnegie Mellon has created this rubric (MS Word) for marking philosophy essays, which is even more detailed than the one above.

 

This paper marking rubric by Melissa Jacquart includes point values for each cell, which is also an option. Giving points for each part of the rubric can make marking quicker, though it also be somewhat problematic because it’s hard to include every aspect of what makes a good paper in a rubric, and sometimes it’s how things work together that leads to a better essay even if some parts are not as strong as one might like.

 

The Teach Philosophy 101 website has a list of rubrics (including some of the above) that has some not only for grading essays, but also for other kinds of assignments.

 

I’d be happy to hear about other rubrics not on this list!

 

 

What needs improvement in Intro to Philosophy

bust of Socrates with the words "PHIL 102: Introduction to Philosophy with Christina Hendricks, University of British Columbia-Vancouver" off to the right of it

Image from front page of my PHIL 102 course site from Spring 2017. Image of Socrates is Bust of Socrates from the Louvre, by CherryX, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 on Wikimedia Commons.

 

I am working on my Introduction to Philosophy course (PHIL 102) again; I’m teaching it next starting in January 2018. But I’ve just been appointed as the Deputy Academic Director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at UBC (starting July 1, 2017) and so I’m trying to get as much planning done on this course before the Fall as I can).

I have taught this course many times already and every year I am not fully happy with it and try to make it better. This year was no exception (I taught it from Jan-April 2017). Some of my previous blog posts about this course are here. The post I did in Summer of 2016 on this course I thought was pretty good on overall learning goal planning and reflection, so I’m going to reuse those ideas.

But this post here will be a bit different; I’m going to approach it from the perspective of what I thought didn’t work so well, and see if I can’t come up with new ideas from there.

Recent student evals

I’ll start with some common comments on recent student evaluations for the last two times I’ve taught the course (Fall 2015 and Spring 2017).

What could be improved

What students commented on most often in the section where we ask for comments about improving the course is the readings:

  • readings are too long or too dense
  • need more context or questions to focus on before students do the reading; some said they couldn’t get it on their own

There were also somewhat frequent comments on:

  • some students want more discussion and in-class activities like we were doing with Learning Catalytics (a kind of clicker-type system that students can use their own devices for)
  • some from this past term (Jan-April 2017) said they didn’t quite understand how the different parts of the course all fit together (I agree!)
  • Some want more information on how to write a good essay
  • Some want a chance to rewrite essays (which I have given sometimes in courses but didn’t this last term); we do peer feedback on essays, and students wanted to rewrite the essays after getting the feedback. I have given that option before and will again!

For the last two bullet points, I do give a fair bit of information on writing–see here. Still, I think that such things can get overwhelming and don’t really mean that much until one actually starts writing and getting feedback. Then the instructions start to hit home more. Thus the need for more chances to write and rewrite.

Of course, we are limited in our time and TA hours for marking essays, which is a bit of a problem sometimes. I have up to 150 students in this course, and marking and giving feedback on essays takes a great deal of time! Thus the peer feedback exercise, so they get more feedback.

What went well

In the part where students give comments about what part(s) of the course taught them the most, the most common answers were:

  • lectures: students appreciated my lectures and my lecture slides, which I make available on the course website
  • discussions: students mentioned both the smaller-class weekly discussion meetings and the larger-class discussions we had on Google docs
  • a few students said that writing essays taught them the most, as that is when they really dug into the arguments/views we were discussing

 

My own reflections

Class time

I have rarely been satisfied with what I do during class time. It’s such a precious few hours in a term and I feel like one should focus on things that it makes sense to do when we’re in a room together, rather than on things that could be done online or in other ways. That means it should be things that require that we work together somehow, not me just standing there talking. Yet, that’s mostly what I do and I’m frustrated with myself for it.

Of course, many, many students think the lectures are what taught them the most (see above), so I’m also torn. Still, I could do the same things with videos, right? I mean, at least with parts of the lectures…the videos wouldn’t be as interactive as the lectures are, since I intersperse the latter (on days when I’ve planned well) with questions on Learning Catalytics or activities on Google Docs or other things.

Me providing many of the answers

This is related to the above; I too often, I think, do for students what I should be asking them to puzzle through in order to learn. I say that philosophy is not about memorizing things about philosophers’ views and I believe it, but sometimes what I do in class operates on that model. I explain the philosophers’ view for them. So what are they supposed to do with that? Memorize it and answer questions on the exam? Well, a bit more than that–they are also supposed to take those ideas and apply them to something else, compare them with other views, come up with questions or possible objections about them, etc. Still, I often operate, during class time, as if my role is to provide content knowledge from the expert perspective and theirs is to take it in.

What’s the problem with this? It’s not always a problem, and sometimes it is very important and valuable to students to “download” knowledge from the professor. But there are some drawbacks, and reasons why this shouldn’t be the only or the main modus operandi:

  • If students are just fed the information, they won’t necessarily feel the need for it themselves; they just take it in because I tell them to rather than because they have an internal sense that they want it or need it for something.
    • In Ambrose et al., How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching they note that “students’ motivation generates, directs, and sustains what they do to learn,” and that students need to see a learning goal as both subjectively valuable and also attainable (p. 69).
  • Active learning, in which students are doing something rather than sitting passively, is more effective for learning.
  • I act as a model for students when I give them the overview of each view, but then also expect them to be able to do this on their own when they leave the class; they need practice to do what I am giving them in lectures.

More time on skills, less on content

In relation to students’ concerns noted above with there being a lot of reading, I really want to help students practice doing reading of philosophical arguments (whether in classically “philosophy” texts or elsewhere) and honing their abilities to analyze and criticize those arguments. That’s so important to carry over into other aspects of their lives–there are philosophical arguments everywhere, and being able to parse them and question/criticize them well is an important life skill I believe.

I have thought in the past about spending time on reading and taking effective notes on readings, finding arguments and outlining them, etc. I’ve done the latter in this course but not the former (how to read, how to take notes has been left behind). This time I really want to include that.

Content

I am not happy with any of the themes I’ve used for this course. It’s an introduction to Philosophy course, but it’s focused on “value theory” (roughly: ethics, social & political philosophy, aesthetics…or any one or two of these). It is not required for majors, and most students who take it won’t go on to take any other philosophy course. So the point is not to make sure they get any particular content, but, from how I think of the class, the content should be a vehicle to teach skills like careful reading, analyzing and criticizing arguments, formulating one’s own arguments, writing, respectful discussion, etc.–things that will be useful in their lives more generally.

Of course, some students do go on to take more philosophy courses, and I’m thrilled when they do! So the content is not entirely immaterial. But it should also be engaging for students new to philosophy who may never take another course in the field. And it should have something to do with value theory without just being a repetition of other courses in value theory that may take in their second or third years. (This is the mistake I made when I taught the course the first couple of times…it was basically the second-year moral theory course that I also sometimes teach, only “lighter.” Which, to me, was too much repetition for those who did go on to the moral theory course.)

I’ve tried the following:

  • Philosophy of happiness
    • Here’s a syllabus I used for one of the terms I did this theme: PHIL 102 Syllabus, Summer 2011 (PDF)
    • I wasn’t that thrilled because I kept thinking that I really needed to know more about psychology to do this well than I do
  • What is Western philosophy/what do Western philosophers do (with a focus on value theory)
  • Matters of life and death (or: living well and dying well)
    • Here’s a syllabus: PHIL 102 Syllabus, Fall 2015 (PDF)
    • This one was pretty good overall, though some students thought there was too much emphasis on death
    • I changed it for Spring 2017 (below) because I wanted even more engagement from students, connection to everyday life, so I included a section on civil disobedience
  • Is the unexamined life not worth living? What is the examined life and what of value is it?
    • Here’s a syllabus: PHIL 102 Syllabus, Spring 2017 (PDF)
    • This was even more nebulous than the second one in this list. I worked really hard to have it work around a single main idea, as you could see in this mind map; but it just didn’t work out.

What do students say they like best in terms of content? Looking just at the last two iterations of the course (3rd and 4th bullet point above), for those that mentioned some content being more interesting or contributing to their learning more, the common responses were:

  • Ancient Greek philosophers: Socrates, Epicurus in particular
  • Existentialist philosophers: Camus and Sartre
  • Ethical issues: Singer on world poverty, Nussbaum on the capabilities approach, and the trolley problem
  • When I taught the course on matters of life or death, a number of students thought the discussions on death were really interesting (only one said they thought there was too much on that)
  • For the Spring 2017 version of the course a few students mentioned the civil disobedience section as being most engaging

What I am thinking right now is that the course should have some “applied” topics (a few students said they liked those better than the more theoretical discussions), and that everything should fit together into a somewhat coherent whole (some students got a bit frustrated in the Spring 2017 course about this, and I did too).

 

What to be sure to do for next time

I’m out of time and so finishing this off even though there are probably other things I could add to the section on what I think should be improved. So I’ll end with a few notes to myself.

  • focus on how to read and how to take notes; provide practice
  • find ways to help students see why the things we are studying are important, so be curious to figure out some of the difficult readings rather than me just feeding the views to them
  • make sure class time is optimized by being spent on those things that need us to be in the room together as much as possible
    • make more videos for the course for stuff they can just watch outside rather than watching me lecture
  • give fewer readings; provide context for each reading before asking them to do it (background on the philosopher, why we’re reading it, how it connects to other things, etc.); also provide things to look for while reading

 

More to come on all this…I’ll be doing planning of this course in the open as I often do!

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!

Collaborating with students on objectives & assessments

I just did a quick read of the following article:

Abdelmalak, M. (2016). Faculty-Student Partnerships in Assessment. IJTLHE : International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 28(2), 193–203.

See the TOC for this issue, with link to the open-access PDF of the article, here.

The article reports on a study of a course in Education in which 6 graduate students collaborated with the professor on developing the course objectives, the assessments to meet those, and the criteria for assessing the work. The students brainstormed ideas, and then they agreed on objectives, goals, criteria based on what they shared in those ideas, and based on negotiations afterwards. Clearly this process would work best in a small class.

The author found that for the grad students involved,

  • collaborating on these things gave them a sense of control over their learning (unsurprising), which increased their motivation to learn.

However,

  • even though they had agreed to provide peer feedback on a writing assignment, most felt uncomfortable providing deep feedback to their peers due to a sense of lack of knowledge and a reticence to take up a perceived position of power over other students
  • some found the whole process difficult because they were used to an instructor deciding all of these things for them.

 

I have been thinking a lot lately about getting students more involved in creating assignments, though mostly what I teach are first-year courses and I think their lack of knowledge about the subject at that point means it would be best to not have them try to decide all the assignments. Plus, I have over 100 students in some of my first-year courses, and that makes such things difficult.

But I think something like this could work in a 4th year course (my 4th year course is max 25 students). The students still might not be able to come up with objectives that have to do with specific content they have yet to learn, but they might be able to come up with good ones about other aspects of the course; and I like the idea of them deciding on assignments after and grounded in the objectives they hope to achieve. Why write a paper, for example? Just because that’s what we always do in Philosophy, or for some other reason? What are we trying to achieve by writing papers? Are there other ways to achieve those goals?

In my experience, most fourth-year students in Philosophy courses don’t have too much issue with providing peer feedback that is critical and useful, so I don’t think I’d run into that problem. But it might be a bit difficult for them to go through this whole exercise because they’re not used to doing it. I think it would be really useful for them to work through why courses are designed as they are, and re-design them as needed to fit goals that are shared by the class.

I haven’t taught a 4th year course since 2014, and I’m not scheduled to do so next year either, but maybe the next time I do I’ll try something like this. Perhaps not for all the assignments, but for one or two to start with.

Has anyone tried anything like this before? If so, how did it go?


Update later on Aug. 12:

Robin DeRosa responded on Twitter that she had done this sort of thing with a first-year composition class–see the thread of that conversation here.

The syllabus, with student-created objectives and policies for that course, is here.

I had thought this wouldn’t work with first-years, but I can see how it works for a composition course in which students come in with some general knowledge about writing–you can get a sense of that from the objectives they created.

For first-year philosophy students, I think they might have a harder time determining just what they want to get out of a course when many of them don’t even really know what philosophy is yet, or why it is worth taking a course on!

Robin had a good suggestion:

So one could have them collaborate on one or two things that they can bring to the table.

And I love this point:

 

Also, Juliet O’Brien gave some great ideas via Twitter, which I’ll just post here as they are pretty self-explanatory I think!

 

 

You can see more about Juliet’s courses from this page: https://metametamedieval.com/courses/

And here is a link to a PDF that explains some of what she’s talking about above.

 

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…

 

Conclusion

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!

 

Reflections on Academic Integrity

I’m part of a group of people who are having some conversations on academic integrity, especially in first-year courses, and recently we were asked to reflect on some questions and send our thoughts to the organizers of the discussions. I thought this was a very useful thing to do for making clear to myself some of my own thoughts on this issue, and that I might as well share them with others in case they find them useful, and to possibly engage in conversations about these things here on the blog!

Note: what follows is what I think as of early June 2016, and we’ll be having more discussions in the future so my thoughts might change. Here is at least some of what I think now (it was getting so long I just stopped writing after awhile because it’s too much to read!).

What is your personal understanding of why it is important for students to conduct their coursework with academic integrity?

One of the things we are doing in the university is adding to the body of human knowledge—we faculty as well as students. And to do that well, we need to both recognize what’s out there already and what needs to be added to it or changed. This is where it gets tricky; we could just do this without acknowledging the contributions of anyone, including ourselves; we could just say that information and arguments are important, not who made them. So it wouldn’t matter what came from you and what came from others that you’re building on. What would matter is that new knowledge is created and we can all benefit from that.

I do lean to that picture of knowledge creation to some extent, but there is the other aspect of the university too, which is that we are here to teach students noun_373429_ccand evaluate their work. That’s where the value of fairness comes in: for better or worse, we have to grade some students as having achieved learning objectives of our courses better than others, and those grades matter for various opportunities in the future (scholarships, entrance to further programs of study, sometimes jobs, etc.). And it is simply unfair and unjust to give people an advantage in terms of grades (and the other opportunities those can bring) when they haven’t put in the work that others have, when they have claimed to have come up with an idea or argument themselves but this is untrue.

So while in one sense one could say that it doesn’t matter where ideas and arguments and results come from so much as that they make sense and add to our body of knowledge, there is also the reality that in our society it matters who came up with those things and there are rewards that come with being the one who did that shouldn’t be given to those who didn’t do the work. Thus in part, for me, it’s an ethical issue, and one I am very, very concerned about (being as fair as possible in students’ grading is a major worry for me, something I spend a lot of time trying to ensure).

noun_38995_ccThere’s another important reason too, though. Asking students to read/watch/hear what others have had to say and what they’ve done, and then come up with something of their own to add to that or criticize or question it is an important part of thinking well. Knowing that you yourself have something useful to say and do in response to what others have said and done, that you don’t just need to learn what they’ve said but also can add to it, is valuable for our efforts to help students develop as careful, confident thinkers and contributors to their social world. I often tell students in Arts One: I’m less interested in what others have had to say about [whatever work we’re discussing] than what you have to say. And that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and look at what others have said, but it does mean that you have to take it in, reflect, consider it critically, question, and then come up with what makes sense to you after you’ve done all that. What you produce then is your work, even though of course influenced by what others have said (including your professors and fellow students). If students don’t do this, then they are missing out on a valuable aspect of education; they are just taking what others have said and listing it as their own without doing the important work of reflecting, questioning, coming up with arguments, etc.

 

What are the positive consequences of doing so that you want to promote, and what are the negative consequences of committing academic dishonesty that you want to prevent? 

I think possibly I’ve already answered these in the above question to some extent. The positive consequences include getting students experience in thinking for themselves, even while being influenced by others (as we all are). I hope this is something that learners take with them beyond university.

The negative consequences of committing academic dishonesty that I want to avoid include:

  • Giving students an unfair advantage when they claim to have done work that they haven’t done, while others have done the work and got worse grades
    • I think if one doesn’t talk about academic dishonesty, or doesn’t try to find it and do something about it but just hopes it’s not happening, this can send a message to students that one isn’t that concerned about avoiding injustice. I’m not saying that’s how people actually feel when they don’t pursue it (usually it’s a matter of not having enough time), but it can send that message whether one thinks that or not. Students are well aware that this sort of thing happens in classes, and I imagine that it could be disheartening to be working hard and thinking that others are getting advantages they don’t deserve and you aren’t doing as well but are at least trying.
    • I’m not suggesting we publicize who has committed academic dishonesty in our classes so students know we’re doing something! But rather, at least talking about it, discussing why academic integrity is important, and signalling that you care and will be working to try to avoid it in your classes, I think is not only pedagogically beneficial, it could also send a message to those students who are not committing academic dishonesty that you care and are trying to foster fairness in your classes.
  • Then there are the negative consequences for those who engage in academic dishonesty, such as grade penalties, hearings, possible suspensions, etc.
    • These are bad in themselves, but what’s also bad is when they fall on some kinds of students disproportionately to others. For example, some students may be able to pay for others to write essays for them, and this gives them an unfair advantage due to wealth because it’s harder to “catch” those kinds of academic dishonesty than the student who is stressed out and has too many commitments and going through a tough time emotionally and panics in the face of a deadline but doesn’t have the money to avoid getting “caught” by doing it the way a richer student might. What I’m saying is that there is something wrong even in the consequences when they fall disproportionately on some kinds of students. That is something we need to take into consideration somehow, though I don’t have the answers right now how. At least, we can recognize the mitigating factors for why it happens (such as stress, having to work long hours in addition to school, emotional or family issues) and take those into account when considering consequences.

Please give your reactions to the following documents on academic integrity

[one of the documents I can’t find on the web and I’m not sure it’s licensed to allow re-posting so I won’t include that here]

Bill Taylor, “Academic Integrity: A Letter to my Students”

I really like how he points out that academic integrity means everyone in the class has responsibilities they need to live up to: he needs to come to class prepared, for example. I like pointing to how I, too, have commitments to them like I’m asking them to have commitments to the class and each other, but I wonder if that’s best described in terms of academic integrity? Maybe. I’d have to come up with a definition of integrity that I could use to explain why all of these things fall under it.

Overall, I like his approach here a lot. It holds the professor and the student accountable for responsibilities in the learning enterprise, and encourages students to “call [him] on it” if they think he is not fulfilling his responsibilities. And to go “above” him if his response to their calling him on it is not satisfactory. That is helpful for when he later asks them to call each other on not living up to their responsibilities (and for when he says he will call them on it if he finds instances of academic dishonesty).

Just one question. He focuses in the beginning on how integrity is important in life generally, and how if we don’t mind not having it in the small things, we might just not have it in the larger things too. I’m not sure that will be persuasive to all students—isn’t it possible to do a little lying, a little cheating here and there without thinking that one is thereby going to do it “when it really matters”? Then there are the students who would just as easily cheat when it comes to “areas where money might be at stake, or the possibility of advancement, or our esteem in the eyes of others”; indeed, they might be most likely to cheat then! So while I agree with him on what he says on this first page overall, I wonder how much the point about a kind of slippery slope of integrity will speak to students.

Gerald Nelms, “Why Plagiarism Doesn’t Bother me at All: A Research-Based Overview of Plagiarism as Educational Opportunity.”

“Not all student plagiarism rises to the level of academic dishonesty.” Definitely true, though I find myself wondering if I agree when the author says that “Does it really matter if one paragraph in a 20-page article includes enough overlap of language to be considered plagiarism? Does that amount of plagiarism really rise to the level of academic dishonesty?” I think it does. It’s still a matter of passing off someone else’s views as your own, even if it’s just one paragraph. But to me, the important question is whether it was done with the intent of trying to pretend it’s one’s own views when one knows that one is doing that, vs. doing it because one doesn’t realize how to cite or paraphrase correctly. That’s what “dishonesty” vs a “mistake” or “ignorance” means to me.

“We might also ask ourselves whether an accusation of academic dishonesty is truly warranted if there is evidence that the student writer has made an effort to adapt—that is, to integrate—the source material to fit into her writing and not mindlessly adopt that material.” This one really got me thinking. There is a difference between trying to work someone else’s view into your own and add to it but doing it not very well and changing words so that it’s harder to get caught because it looks more like your own work. The difference is, again, between dishonesty and a mistake. How do we tell the difference between these two scenarios? Same as above, I guess: talking with the student seems our best option here.

These points go along with what the author says about unintentional plagiarism and patch writing as a step along the way in developing one’s writing skills. I definitely agree there, and wouldn’t want to penalize students for honestly making mistakes rather than trying to be dishonest. I also agree that some who intentionally plagiarize are doing so because of outside pressures beyond their control, or inability to self motivate. And when those things are the case, they should be taken into account in handing out consequences for intentional academic misconduct. The trick is, of course, trying to be as fair as possible when considering mitigating circumstances for students in various situations.

“In some “real-world” contexts, plagiarism is not only acceptable but is expected,” such as when one uses a report template for creating new reports, using the same language as in previous reports. Another example is when instructors use wording on their syllabi that they’ve seen on other syllabi and liked, without citation. It’s true that sometimes this sort of “plagiarism” is accepted, but then it’s not really dishonesty at that point. The general expectation may not be that we have to have original wording in such contexts and it’s not useful to have it (it’s often more efficient, as the article points out, to re-use wording, especially when that wording says something really well). It’s different in educational contexts with things like assignments because there the work often just is to re-think, to evaluate, to come up with one’s own arguments. The expectations, and the value of the enterprise of doing this kind of work, are different than when one is writing up a quarterly report. For the latter, what matters is that you got the data right and presented it clearly, not that you came up with your own arguments or interpretations.

 

I welcome any comments on the above reflections, as I’m still formulating my ideas…

Presentation on SoTL research re: peer feedback

In mid-November I gave a presentation at the SoTL Symposium in Banff, Alberta, Canada, sponsored by Mount Royal University.

It’s a little difficult to describe this complex research, so I’ll let my (long) abstract for the presentation tell at least part of the story.


750-word abstract

Title: Tracking a dose-response curve for peer feedback on writing

There is a good deal of research showing that peer feedback can contribute to improvements in student writing (Cho & MacArthur, 2010; Crossman & Kite, 2012). Though intuitively one might think that students would benefit most from receiving peer comments on their written work, several studies have shown that student writing benefits both from comments given as well as comments received–indeed, sometimes the former more than the latter (Li, Liu & Steckelberg, 2010; Cho & MacArthur, 2011).

There are, however, some gaps in the literature on the impact of peer feedback on improving student writing. First, most studies published on this topic consider the effect of peer feedback on revisions to a single essay, rather than on whether students use peer comments on one essay when writing another essay. Cho and MacArthur (2011) is an exception: the authors found that students who wrote reviews of writing samples by students in a past course produced better writing on a different topic than those who either only read those samples or who read something else. In addition, there is little research on what one might call a “dose-response” curve for the impact of peer feedback on student writing—how are the “doses” of peer feedback related to the “response” of improvement in writing? It could be that peer feedback is more effective in improving writing after a certain number of feedback sessions, and/or that there are diminishing returns after quite a few sessions.

To address these gaps in the literature, we designed a research study focusing on peer feedback in a first-year, writing intensive course at a large university in North America. In this course students write an essay every two weeks, and they meet every week for a full year in groups of four plus their professor to give comments on each others’ essays (the same group stays together for half or the full year, depending on the instructor). With between 20 and 22 such meetings per year, students get a heavy dose of peer feedback sessions, and this is a good opportunity to measure the dose-response curve mentioned above. We can also test the difference in the dose-response curve for the peer feedback groups that change halfway through the year versus those who remain the same over the year. Further, we can evaluate the degree to which students use comments given by others, as well as comments they give to others, on later essays.

While at times researchers try to gauge improvement in student work on the basis of peer feedback by looking at coarse evaluations of quality before and after peer feedback (e.g., Sullivan & Pratt, 1996; Braine, 2001), because many things besides peer feedback could go into improving the quality of student work, more specific links between what is said in peer feedback and changes in student work are preferable. Thus, we will compare each student’s later essays with comments given to them (and those they gave to others) on previous ones, to see if the comments are reflected in the later essays, using a process similar to that described in Hewett (2000).

During the 2013-2014 academic year we ran a pilot study with just one of those sections (sixteen students, out of whom thirteen agreed to participate), to refine our data collection and analysis methods. For the pilot program we collected ten essays from each of the students who agreed to participate, comments they received from their peers on those essays, as well as comments they gave to their peers. For each essay, students received comments from three other students plus the instructor. We will use the instructor comments to, first, see whether student comments begin to approach instructor comments over time, and to isolate those things that only students commented on (not the instructor) to see if students use those in their essays (or if they mainly focus on those things that the instructor said also).

In this session, the Principal Investigator will report on the results of this pilot study and what we have learned about dealing with such a large data set, whether we can see any patterns from this pilot group of thirteen students, and how we will design a larger study on the basis of these results.


 

It turned out that we were still in the process of coding all the data when I gave the presentation, so we don’t yet have full results. We have coded all the comments on all the essays (10 essays from 13 participants), but are still coding the essays themselves (had finished 10 essays each from 6 participants, so a total of 60 essays).

I’m not sure the slides themselves tell the whole story very clearly, but I’m happy to answer questions if anyone has any. I’m saving up writing a narrative about the results until we have the full results in (hopefully in a couple of months!).

We’re also putting in a grant proposal to run the study with a larger sample (didn’t get a grant last year we were trying to get…will try again this year).

Here are the slides!