Category Archives: course design

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!

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!

 

Planning a course using Fink’s integrated course design

I was introduced to L. Dee Fink’s integrated course design worksheets when I took a UBC professional development course on Teaching in a Blended Learning Environment. I have really enjoyed using his approach to course design, because it asks you to think about learning goals and learning activities in ways far beyond just thinking about what content students should leave the course knowing. He asks you to consider learning goals in areas such as:

  • Caring goals: developing new feelings, interests, values
  • Human dimension goals: what they should learn about themselves and others
  • Learning how to learn: how will their work in this course help them to learn better in the future?

… among many others.

He also has you start with the learning goals, and then think about content and activities in the course, which seems to me the right way to go about doing things. I used to (and still feel the pull to) start with content and the types of assignments I’d have, and then base the learning goals on those. But of course it makes sense to start off with what you’d like the students to learn, to be able to do, and then have that guide the rest.

I’m working on redesigning my Introduction to Philosophy course, which is a one-term course focused on value theory–anything having to do with ethics, or social and political philosophy, or aesthetics. I have tried several different themes in the past and haven’t really been happy with any of them. This time I’m trying a kind of “life and death” theme, focused on what some philosophers have said about how we should live, and what we should think about death.

I have gone through the process of using these worksheets on this blog before, but this time I am using Workflowy, on the recommendation of Paul Hibbitts. He pointed out to me how easy it is to share parts of your Workflowy lists with others (so they don’t have to see all of what you’re working on, but just the stuff that’s relevant to a particular audience). The free version gets you quite a lot; I’ve been using it for awhile and haven’t run up against the limits to the free version yet. It’s not big on style, and it seems like it wouldn’t be that useful, really, until you get into using it and see the power of zooming in and out of your documents/lists. It’s like being able to go to a particular part of a very long document really easily and ignoring the rest.

Now, I wish I could embed this Workflowy list into my blog post, because then you could see the changes as I update it. But for now, this will have to do.

Here is my working through of Fink’s worksheets for my Introduction to Philosophy course: https://workflowy.com/s/mnpuEmtnAu

And here is a copy of what I’ve done so far, just copied and pasted from that Workflowy list today. I’d welcome any feedback you have!

 


Starting to work through the course design worksheets on Workflowy

Dee Fink’s integrated course design In what follows I am using Dee Fink’s course design worksheets: http://www.deefinkandassociates.com/GuidetoCourseDesignAug05.pdf

  • Situational factors to take into account when designing the course
    • students--what do they tend to be like? prior experience with philosophy? attitudes towards the subject?
      • most tend to have little or no prior experience with philosophy; few know what philosophy is
      • most tend to find the readings very challenging
      • some think that works in the history of philosophy are not relevant to their everyday lives; they prefer the more recent works
      • mostly first and second-year students, so many of them are new to UBC (esp. since this is first-term course)
      • most taking lots of courses, and/or working alongside their studies; they generally have too much to do and not enough time, so often stressed
    • number of students, physical meeting space, structure of the weekly meetings, etc.
      • max 150 (currently 136 enrolled)
      • large lecture hall, with tables and immovable chairs: https://ssc.adm.ubc.ca/classroomservices/function/viewlocation?userEvent=ShowLocation&buildingID=LSK&roomID=200
        • will be somewhat difficult to do small groups b/c can’t move chairs around; tried small groups in a room like this in the past and it was difficult
      • 2 50-minute classes per week with all students; each student also part of one 50-minute discussion section with 25 students and a TA (I run one of these)
    • the course–particular departmental or institutional requirements?
      • not required for majors, so there is no particular curriculum that must be followed, no philosophers that have to be discussed, etc.
      • focused on value theory: ethics, social and political philosophy, aesthetics, the meaning of life, the good life… anything in one or more of those areas
      • should just introduce students to such topics and get them interested in philosophy if possible, maybe draw in to take more courses (or just get a decent sense of what philosophy is like and then they may never take another philosophy course again)
    • special pedagogical challenges of the course
      • making philosophy interesting and relevant to newcomers without sacrificing rigor
        • exemplifying what philosophers do in a way that makes it seem like something useful for all of us, while still showing how difficult and complex it can be
      • for me, showing the value of reading and discussing people like Plato, Epicurus, Mill to those who find them just old and no longer relevant
        • why are works in the history of philosophy still important to read and talk about? Why not just read stuff from the last 50-100 years?

 

  • Learning goals #LOs
    Fink suggests thinking about learning goals in several categories, noted below

    • Foundational knowledge: what key information or ideas, perspectives are important for students to learn?
      • This is a tough one because of the nature of the course: there is no specific curriculum or set of information that must be taught in the course. But there are still some things I think they should know by the time they finish the course.
      • What is an “argument”? They should be able to outline an argument in a philosophical text, identifying premises and conclusion, and be able to evaluate it effectively.
      • They should come out of the course with an understanding of:
        • What an “examined life” is, acc. to Socrates, the Socratic method
        • Some of the basic arguments of Epicureanism and stoicism, existentialism, utilitarianism, Nussbaum’s “capabilities” approach
      • [The following is for an earlier version of the course, for when I thought I might focus it on the philosophy of happiness] Name and explain three approaches to the philosophical study of happiness (e.g., hedonism, desire satisfaction, eudaimonism…what else?) and correctly connect one philosopher to each
      • [The following is for an earlier version of the course, for when I thought I might focus it on the philosophy of happiness] Explain how philosophers study happiness as distinguished from empirical, psychological research, and say why the philosophical approach is also valuable.
    • Application: what kinds of thinking are needed, such as critical, creative, practical? What sorts of skills do they need to learn?
      • critical thinking (analyzing and evaluating): analyzing and evaluating arguments in the texts, and arguments by themselves and peers
      • creative thinking (imagining and creating): come up with own criticisms of arguments and better ways to approach the issues; come up with creative solutions to ethical problems discussed
      • practical thinking (solving problems and making decisions): take what they understand about sound argumentation and apply it to their own arguments, whether oral or in writing; also do so with the arguments of their peers in class or in peer feedback on writing
      • skills
        • being able to outline and evaluate arguments by others in the readings, as noted above
        • write their own arguments, in various formats such as informal blog posts and formal essays
        • evaluate arguments and writing by their peers, as a means to help improve their own writing
    • Integration: what connections should students make between parts of the course? between what’s in the course and other areas, such as their own lives?
      • It would be great if they could see why philosophical thinking about many issues is valuable
        • What is philosophical thinking/activity and why is it useful more generally?
        • How do they already do philosophy in their university studies or other parts of their lives?
        • How might philosophical thinking be good for them to continue in the future?
      • I don’t think it’s required, but it would be nice if the things we’re studying affected their own views of what a “good life” is, and had an impact on how they live their own lives
      • They should be able to understand how the various approaches to “living well” and approaching death well differ, the strengths and weaknesses of each vis-à-vis the others
    • 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 happiness (and other things, potentially), and why it might be good to examine those
      • Learn that philosophical activity is something that they can and already do in their lives outside of class
      • 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?
    • Caring: what changes would you like to see in what students care about? In their interests, values, feelings?
      • 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
      • 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
      • Care about whether their own arguments for “big questions” like happiness or the good life are sound
      • 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
    • 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
        • 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 how to take notes on the main points of complex, philosophical texts
      • 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?
      • recognize the importance of writing and rewriting, that a first draft of a piece of writing is usually not the best, and revising to create new drafts is important
      • understand that philosophical texts may require more than one read to understand them well

 

  • Draft learning objectives developed from the above #LOs
    These don’t address all of the goals above; some of those goals are addressed in what we’ll be doing in the class, but don’t show up specifically as objectives

    • For reference, LO’s from PHIL 102, Summer 2015 syllabus (this version of the course was on a different topic)
      • 1. Give an answer to the question (one of many possible answers!): how would you describe what (Western) philosophy is, what philosophers do, and how such activities might help to make people’s lives better, based on your experiences in this course? (“philosophy in the world” assignment)
      • 2. Explain at least one way in which they engage in philosophical activity in their lives outside this class (“philosophy in the world” assignment).
      • 3. Explain the basic structure of an argument–premises and conclusion—and outline an argument in a philosophical text (argument outlines, final exam)
      • 4. Assess the strength of arguments in assigned texts, in oral or written work by other students, and in their own writing (argument outlines, essays, peer review of other students’ essays, group discussions)
      • 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 (small group discussions)
      • 6. Write an argumentative essay that outlines and evaluates the views of other philosophers (essay assignments).
      • 7. Explain how at least two Western philosophers might answer the question: what is philosophy/what do philosophers do, and how might it help make people’s lives better? (essay assignments)

 

  • Draft Learning Obj’s for this course: Students who successfully complete this course should be able to:
    • 1. Define and explain at least two philosophical approaches to how we should live (such as Epicureanism and Stoicism) and give the name of at least one philosopher who espouses each. Explain the similarities and differences between those approache sand evaluate each.
    • 2. Explain the utilitarian approach as well as the capabilities approach to how we should help others to live well, and give the name of at least one philosopher associated with each. Explain similarities and differences between these approaches and evaluate each.
    • 3. Explain the basic structure of a philosophical argument–premises and conclusion—and outline an argument in a philosophical text
    • 4. Assess the strength of arguments in assigned texts, in oral or written work by other students, and their own arguments (oral or written)
    • 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. Produce a polished piece of philosophical writing, with a sound argument, strong evidence, and clear organization
    • 7. Read a complex philosophical text and take notes that distinguish the main points of the arguments therein.
    • 8. Based on what we’ve studied in the class, give one (of many!) possible answers to the question: What is philosophical activity and why might it be useful? How do you engage in philosophical activity outside this course?
  • Assessments to fit these objectives (TBA)
  • teaching and learning activities to fit these objectives (TBA)
  • consider whether the parts of the course are integrated (TBA)

 

 

Starting to design a blended “Intro to Philosophy” course

Socrates Drinking Hemlock by Canova. Posted on Wikimedia Commons by Artgate Fondazione Cariplo, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Socrates Drinking Hemlock by Canova. Posted on Wikimedia Commons by Artgate Fondazione Cariplo, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

 

I am scheduled to teach an Introduction to Philosophy course in May and June of 2015, and I am hoping to make it at least a partially “blended” course, meaning that it’s partly online, partly face-to-face. This one, the first time I am trying this sort of thing, will be mostly face-to-face, I think, because there is so much to learn about doing this sort of thing well that I want to start off kind of small.

I started designing this course last summer, when I took a workshop at UBC called “Teaching in a Blended Learning Environment” (which I am now co-facilitating in February and March of 2015). My blog posts related to my work in that course last summer can be found by clicking “T-BLE” in the tag cloud off to the right.

One of the resources I found very helpful from that course is “A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning,” by Dee Fink (2005). She suggests that one engage in “backwards design” of courses, starting with what one hopes the students will be able to do as a result of taking the course, and working backwards from there to teaching and learning activities like assigned readings, assessments, etc. Which only makes sense when you think about it, really, but so often in the past I have started with the readings and assessments and then formulated the learning goals on the basis of those–if  students complete these readings and these assignments, what does it make sense to say they’ll be able to do? But why not start with the learning goals and then design the rest on the basis of that? Duh.

 

Situational Factors

Fink actually suggests one starts with “situational factors,” such as the size of the class, the likely knowledge of the students of the subject when they start, what expectations are there of this course from the perspective of the department or the university, what are the students’ learning goals and expectations, and more. I’ll just mention a couple of things along these lines about this Intro to Phil course:

  • This is a first-year course, with no prerequisites. Most students taking it will not have had any philosophy before, though there may be a few who took a philosophy class in high school. There are not likely to be many philosophy majors–by that I mean those who are in upper years who are taking this course during that time–because this course is not required for the philosophy major. Some students may, however, go on to become philosophy majors after their first exposure to philosophy.
  • Expectations of this course from the department:
    • This is one of two “introduction to philosophy” courses: PHIL 101 is broadly about metaphysics and epistemology and PHIL 102 (this course) is broadly about value theory (which can include ethics, social and political philosophy, and aesthetics).
    • Other than that, the only thing I think the department expects of this course is that we make it interesting enough that we could attract some students into taking more philosophy courses. There don’t seem to be a lot of specific expectations for PHIL 101 or 102.
  • Usually this class is between 75-150 students or so, but in the summer I think it will be capped at 40-45 maximum (I’m not certain about that, but it will likely be somewhere around that number, unless I also have a TA assigned, which I usually don’t for summer courses).
  • I don’t know what the students’ learning goals or expectations will be; I’d have to wait and ask them!
  • I taught this course most recently in the Fall of 2013; my course website for it can be seen here. It was focused on the topic of “what is philosophy and what is its value?” That is not really a value-theory-specific question, as one could approach that question in a course focused on numerous other areas in philosophy as well, but I asked students to read works in value theory in particular.

 

Learning goals/objectives

Fink suggests that one think about learning goals in a few different areas, listed below in bold and in italics. What I came up with is listed in normal font.

“A year (or more) after this course is over, I want and hope that students will be able to …”

  • Explain what makes a question a philosophical one as opposed to some other kind of question.
  • Describe at least two things that philosophers do.
  • Explain at least two ways in which they themselves use philosophical thinking or questions in their everyday lives.
  • Analyze and evaluate an argument in a passage of argumentative text: identify premises and conclusion and say whether the premises support the conclusion well or whether there are problems in the argument.
  • Participate in a discussion with others on philosophical issues or questions: clarify positions and arguments from themselves or others, criticize flawed arguments, present their own arguments, and do all this in a respectful fashion

 

Foundational Knowledge

What key information (e.g., facts, terms, formulae, concepts, principles, relationships, etc.) is/are important for students to understand and remember in the future? What key ideas (or perspectives) are important for students to understand in this course?

  • Arguments: being able to outline premises and conclusions in arguments; being able to evaluate premises and whether they support conclusions
  • Socrates and Plato (Euthyphro, Apology, Gorgias)
    • Socratic method and how it’s used in Euthyphro
    • Socrates as a “gadfly”
    • philosophy vs oratory, acc. to Socrates in Gorgias
  • Epicurus:
    • Static and kinetic pleasures
    • natural/necessary vs unnatural/unnecessary pleasures
  • Stoics:
    • How Stoics define virtue
    • Living according to nature
  • Mill & Singer
    • utilitarianism (act and rule)
    • applying utilitarian principles to the question of poverty, animal rights
  • Nussbaum:
    • Capabilities approach

I’m going to add to this list later, because I haven’t yet fully decided on which topics/readings to cover. Plus, I notice that I’m starting with topics/readings here and then designing learning objectives from those again. Honestly, for “foundational knowledge” I’m not sure how else to do it.

 

Application Goals

 What kinds of thinking are important for students to learn?

  • Critical thinking, in which students analyze and evaluate
  • Creative thinking, in which students imagine and create
  • Practical thinking, in which students solve problems and make decisions
  • What important skills do students need to gain?
  • Do students need to learn how to manage complex projects?

In PHIL 102:

  • Critical thinking: evaluating arguments that they read or hear from me or each other
  • Creative thinking: coming up with own arguments for own views, being able to defend one’s own views well with reasons and evidence
  • Practical thinking: trying to solve difficult philosophical and ethical problems; at least getting some clarity on these even though one might fully “solve” them

 

Integration Goals

What connections (similarities and interactions) should students recognize and make…:

  • Among ideas within this course?
  • Among the information, ideas, and perspectives in this course and those in other courses or areas?
  • Among material in this course and the students’ own personal, social, and/or work life?

In PHIL 102:

  • See that the different things philosophers talk about are nevertheless all somehow related such that we call them “philosophical” issues.
  • See how philosophical thinking and discussion is already part of their everyday lives, and how the work they do in class honing their thinking, discussing and writing skills can therefore apply in their lives beyond this class.
    • I’ll be asking students to attend a “philosophy café” or something similar, to see that philosophy is being done by people out in the community beyond just professional philosophers

 

Human Dimensions Goals

  • What could or should students learn about themselves?
  • What could or should students learn about understanding others and/or interacting with them?

In PHIL 102:

  • That they already do philosophy in their everyday lives, and that they can learn to think and write more clearly to do it better.
  •  That philosophical thinking and speaking and writing has value in their lives outside of this class.
  •  That they can disagree with others and do so respectfully in conversation and in writing, using the principle of charity and genuinely trying to come to agreement (but still respecting the other when they don’t agree).
  •  That even views that seem utterly foreign and strange can have value that they can see.

 

Caring Goals

 What changes/values do you hope students will adopt?

  • Feelings?
  • Interests?
  • Ideas?

In PHIL 102:

  • Ask, reflect on, and discuss more philosophical questions in their lives after the course.
  • Hopefully be more interested in philosophical questions outside the course, as they come up in their own lives.

 

“Learning-How-to-Learn” Goals

 What would you like for students to learn about:

  • how to be good students in a course like this?
  • how to learn about this particular subject?
  • how to become a self-directed learner of this subject, i.e., having a learning agenda
  • of what they need/want to learn, and a plan for learning it?

 

In PHIL 102

  • Be able to identify main arguments/main ideas in philosophical readings on their own, and take notes on this
  • Be able to outline premises and conclusions of such arguments in order to better analyze them and consider whether the arguments are strong or not
  • Identify what they do/do not understand and determine what they have to do to learn what they do not understand
    • How to do this? I was thinking maybe short quizzes in class or online, or clicker-type questions done using an online polling tool like “Poll Everywhere.” That would help them see what they don’t quite get yet, but how to help them grasp what they need to do in order to learn it?

 

Reflections on all this

I like that Fink suggests looking at many different kinds of learning goals. But the result of going through all this is that I have, what, like 20-30 learning objectives? That’s too overwhelming for students, I think. In the course I taught most recently, I had 8 learning objectives, and that already seemed like a lot (you can see the syllabus for that course here).

So I’m not sure I’ll put all of these on the syllabus, but rather combine some, pick and choose from others. But it’s a good exercise to go through them all oneself to help in course design. If I want the course to do all of these things for the students, I need to consider how I’m going to make sure it does so. Activities, readings, etc. should be directed towards fulfilling these learning goals.