Category Archives: In the classroom

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!

Collaborative doc on class guidelines

I participated in a #digped Twitter chat today (run by Hybrid Pedagogy), about class policies on use of electronic devices during class. As always, this chat was very helpful for pushing me to be honest with myself, my motivations, and my desires, as well as to consider new alternatives.

I don’t have a policy against the use of electronic devices in class. I feel it would be hypocritical of me to do so because I rely so heavily on them myself during meetings and conferences–I take all notes electronically, and I frequently engage in Tweeting during conferences to promote interesting ideas or facts I’m learning and let others know what’s happening at that session in case they couldn’t make it. But I do get annoyed, and mostly sad, when I spend SO MUCH TIME preparing for courses (those of you who are teachers know how much time that is) and then feel like all that work is going to very little if many students aren’t paying attention.

The #digped Tweet chat helped remind me that there are different ways of paying attention, and even when you think someone is not engaged, they may very well be engaged in a way that you don’t recognize as such. Plus, people need to be human beings, after all, and have breaks where they just zone out for a little bit and then come back. And I need to get over it when I think there is too much non-engagement (because what I think is non-engagement may not actually be such).
This is a lesson I have to keep reminding myself.

 

But on another note; there was a good deal of discussion about having the class guidelines be set collaboratively, with the students. I have 150 students in my Introduction to Philosophy course. I thought such a thing would be impossible. But in a separate discussion on Twitter yesterday, some colleagues suggested breaking students up into groups and having the groups write on a collaborative doc like in Google docs.

I already had a collaborative doc on suggestions for respectful discussions, so I turned that one into a document about other guidelines for the class too.

 

Here is what I have so far. It’s not currently open to editing, but just to commenting; next week it will be open to editing, but please just let the students in class edit, okay? :)

Click here for the doc; there is an embedded version below if you just want to look at it on this blog post.

 

I’d love to hear your comments on:

1. Are these good questions to ask? Are the questions phrased well?

2. What do I do with the answers? I was going to compile them all into a list of suggested guidelines, but not everyone will agree with all of them. Do I just have a vote on the whole list? Having 150 students makes this challenging…

 

Making argument outlines in groups

As noted in an earlier post, I’m participating in mostly online course about teaching in a “blended” learning environment (partly online, partly face to face). The course is entirely housed within a closed environment on Blackboard Connect, unfortunately, but I’m posting some of my own contributions here so I can have them easily accessible even after the course ends.

During this first week of the course, one of the things we were asked to do was to think about active learning strategies and complete an activity, for which the instructions can be found below in blue. My own answer follows the instructions. After completing this activity we were asked to think about how we might integrate technology into the activity. Since the use of a wiki is already there, I’m not sure I have anything to add to what I’ve already said in the first part of the activity.

Activity Instructions:

1. Identify current practice
To get started, identify a current practice in your course that  you would like to make more active.

2. Identify Active Learning Strategies
Drawing from resources presented above as a reference, explore the wide range of active learning strategies. Identify one of these strategies you’d like to try for your class.

3. Plan and Develop at Least One Learning Activity
Plan and develop at least one active learning activity that you can integrate or scaffold (Bilash, 2009) into your course or module.  

Ensure that your plan includes:
1. A description of the learning activity
2. Your rationale for creating and using it
3. An explanation of how this learning activity links to course materials and objectives
4. Complete and clear Instructions
5. Complete grading information including a rubric should you choose to use one
6. An overview of potential issues and your plan for dealing with them should they occur

 

An activity I’d like to change

In some of my philosophy courses, I ask students to do “argument outlines,” where they have a passage of text and they need to provide an outline of the premises and conclusion. We practice this in class with me first providing my outlines for arguments, and then they can practice in groups, and then they have to do one or two on their own on a quiz or exam. I would like to expand this activity so that they learn even more from their peers and get even more practice before doing it on an quiz by themselves. The following gives a chance for students to see more possible ways of outlining arguments, and to discuss amongst themselves which they think is best. It can also help them to see that there may be multiple ways of doing so that are all valid.

How I’m thinking of changing it (description of the activity)

I’ll ask everyone to read a short passage of assigned text, then come up with their own, individual outlines of it. Then, in a small group, they should share their outlines and decide, as a group, on an outline that they think is a good one. Hopefully they will get ideas from each other as to what might work and what isn’t the best way to go about outlining the premises and conclusion. 

Then, I’ll have a wiki page for each group on the UBC wiki, where they’ll type in their outline (one person in each group will need to have a laptop or tablet). There is a way (though I’m not sure yet how to do it, I’ve seen it done!) to put all the groups’ individual answers into one page after the groups have finished typing in their answers. I’ll have to figure out how to do that.

Finally, in the last step, each group will take a look at the other outlines on the now-collated page, and decide which of those (including their own) they think is best. I’ll use something like “poll everywhere” to have each group to vote on which one they think is best, and see what the result is. We can then have a discussion about results.

Added July 14, 2014: Actually, I think it would be better if they vote on which outlines they think work, rather than which is best. This can cut down on concerns about students feeling bad that theirs isn’t voted “best,” and also drive home the idea that there may be more than one way to do an outline that works.

Of course, outlining an argument is only the first step; we also need to learn how to criticize arguments well. But that is an assignment for another day!

How this fits with course materials and objectives

Learning to identify, analyze, and criticize arguments is one of the basic skills we teach in philosophy courses. It is something that students can use in other courses and in their everyday lives. They won’t need to sit down and outline arguments as formally as we ask them to do, but to be able to identify what is being argued for and how, and then to be able to isolate particular premises and determine which are weak and which are strong, are skills that can be quite useful in the future. They are also some of the skills I ask students to practice and hone in my courses.

Instructions

1. Read the following passage [give specifics on what to read] and write down what you think the conclusion of the argument is, as well as the premises (reasons) given to support it. This part of the activity is to be done on your own. You can write this down on a piece of paper or a computer or mobile device. You’ll have just five minutes to do this part of the activity, but don’t worry; you’ll be coming up with a group outline next, so it’s okay if you don’t finish your individual one. You will need to turn in your individual outline, but I’ll just be looking at it to see that you tried to do it, not marking how good it is.

2. In your small group [determined beforehand, making sure that at least one person in each group has a laptop or tablet], share your outlines amongst yourselves and discuss differences. Take fifteen minutes maximum to come up with a group outline of the argument, one that most or all of you agree with. It’s okay if not everyone agrees; know that there may be more than one valid way to outline any single argument, so there may be legitimate differences without someone being “wrong.” It’s best if most of the group agrees, however.

3. Type your group’s outline on the group page on the UBC wiki [URL will be given in advance].

4. After all the groups have finished typing their outlines in, go to [give URL for collated page] to see all the groups’ outlines. I will also show as many of these on the screen at the front of the room as I can, but the space there is limited so it’s best if you can all look on someone’s screen to see them all. As a group, choose which of the outlines you think is best (it may be your own groups’ outline, or it may be that of another). You’ll have ten minutes to do so. July 14 addition: [Instead of voting on which is best, do the following:] As a group, choose outlines that you think offer a good analysis of the argument noting that there may be several different ones that work. So you may choose several outlines.

5. Using poll everywhere, I’ll ask each group to vote on the outline they think is best. One vote per group. Then we’ll discuss the results together as a class. July 14 addition: [Instead of the above, use this:] Using poll everywhere, each group should cast a vote for the outlines they think work (as many as the group thinks are good, not just one only). Then we’ll discuss the results together as a class.

Grading information

This activity counts as part of your participation mark for the course. I’ll be collecting the individual outlines you are going to do at the beginning of the activity, but just to see that you were there and participating. They don’t have to be finished because you don’t have a lot of time for that part of the activity, but you do need to have started and have something that matches the passage at least somewhat closely. If you wrote it on paper, submit it to me at the end of the class. If you typed it on your computer or tablet, submit it on the course website before midnight on the same class day as you did it. You will get either a plus for full marks, a minus for half marks, or a zero for not completing the activity at all.

Potential problems and how to handle them

One potential problem I see already in what I’ve written above is with grading. At first I thought I’d just do this without any grading at all, but I realized that some students just won’t participate if it isn’t somehow monitored. So I decided to have them submit their individual outlines, and just give them a plus or minus or zero. Most everyone would get a plus unless they just didn’t try at all or weren’t there or were there but didn’t submit anything (zero).

This, of course, only means they need to do the individual portion of the activity. They could then just do other things on their computers during the group portion if I don’t somehow monitor that. If I knew everyone’s names I could walk around the room and see who is participating in the group discussions and who is not, and mark accordingly. I have a few small classes in which I could do that, but many of my classes are nearly 100 students or more, and I don’t know everyone’s name. I could potentially have each group give each other marks, but that seems a bit of work when this is just a one-off class activity for which the groups themselves aren’t getting marks. I could give the group a mark for their outline and then ask each group member to mark the other group members. I’ll have to think about that option. it requires more work on my part (marking the group outlines as well as the individual outlines), and all that adds up when you have so many students!

Another possible concern is that students might feel ashamed or embarrassed in front of their peers if they have to share their individual outlines and then the group comes up with one they mostly agree with; perhaps one or two students will feel that their work just isn’t up to par after this process, and they will be unhappy having shared it with others. Maybe emphasizing that there could be more than one way to correctly outline an argument could help, so those students might think their outlines could still be acceptable. I wonder if coaching the students on how to handle differences constructively might help? And if there isn’t a grade attached to the quality of the outline, just that people tried, this may help too–at least they don’t feel like they are getting a low mark in front of their peers. That’s a reason for maybe NOT grading the group outlines for quality; those groups who don’t receive many votes in the last part of the activity wouldn’t then have to feel that they are going to get low marks and everyone else can see that (which may not be true; popularity doesn’t mean correctness, but they might feel that way anyway). Overall, emphasizing that this is just practice and that mistakes are expected at this point might help as well.

(etmooc) Digital Storytelling, you’re looking better every day

In a recent post I explained that I just haven’t been very into digital storytelling, the second topic in etmooc. While many of the other participants have been busy creating animated gifs, 5 card stories, photo stories and more, I just wasn’t engaged enough to try to do much myself.

But then something happened. Well, Cogdog (Alan Levine) happened.

He gave a presentation on digital storytelling for etmooc, which I was able to join live. I’m not sure what was so inspiring about it, really–he introduced some tools, talked about how to write stories, asked some of the participants to play pechaflickr during the session. But somehow, partway through, I started getting excited.

Probably it was Cogdog’s enthusiasm. He just is so into storytelling, and digital storytelling, that I thought, well, there must be something to this. His excitement was infectious. I caught it.

The part of the presentation that really got me, though, was when he talked about how professional writing could be more like storytelling, that we could provide information, but do it in a more engaging way. He cited a book by Randy Olson called Don’t be Such a Scientist, which discusses the need for scientists to reach a broader audience and the power of storytelling to help do so. Olson was a professor at a university and then moved into filmmaking, and argues that scientists could learn a lot from the world of storytellers, in order to make what they do more accessible.

So could philosophers

And it hit me that this could be a great way to try to make my class lectures, the presentations I do for classes more engaging. I already try to ensure I don’t do too much lecturing and also have a good deal of activities for students to engage in during class time, discussions, working together in groups, etc. But why not find a way to make the lectures themselves more like stories?

This is challenging, but it’s a challenge I’m suddenly wanting to take on. I just needed to find something that I felt passionate about, and getting students as excited as I am about philosophy is that something.

Why not start small, by trying to incorporate some of the aspects of good storytelling practice in some lectures (it will take awhile to change many or all of them!). Why not, for example, start with a hook, something that draws people in, present an obstacle, resolve it, and then set up for a new story? (As discussed here, where storytelling meets math.) This could be done fairly easily without requiring too much in the way of time or learning new technological tools.

But there’s more

Somehow I also got excited about the digital part of digital storytelling. I mean, I started to want to spend time with some of the tools. I started coming up with ideas for stories–like telling the story of a recent trip to New Zealand (some of the photos are posted on flickr, though the ones with people are private), or the story behind the name of this blog–and I was motivated to look around Cogdog’s 50+ ways to tell a digital story site to find tools that would work.

My previous reluctance was due to numerous reasons, but partly because I didn’t want to put a lot of time into learning a new tool and creating something with it, only to discover that in a couple years’ time the tool would disappear. It’s hard to know which of these applications will stick around and which will die off. It seemed a waste of time.

But then in his presentation Cogdog pointed out: sure, some of the tools will disappear, but you will still have all your source photos, video, text, transcripts, etc., and it’s not that hard to create the story again in something new. Good point. I’m still worried about making things for my son that will still be viewable 20 or 30 years down the road, so I’m making a photo book that will be printed; that way, technology obsolescence won’t destroy it (though dirt, water, and forgetting it in a box might).

A true story

So I got up this morning and re-recorded my “true story of open sharing” for Cogdog’s collection. I tried to start with something that was a little more engaging … “I got a comment on my blog.” Okay, that’s not very exciting in itself, but it could make you think about what sort of comment on my blog could lead me to want to tell a story. It might get people wondering.

The rest of the story is rather like it was before, but at least it’s a start. And I played around with iMovie (an application that comes with Mac computers) to add in a couple of titles, at the beginning and end, and put in some transitions from the titles to the video.

 I spent a good deal of time trying to lessen the background noise–an airplane, and my husband trying to get the pilot light on the gas fireplace lit. (I was originally going to film this in front of our fireplace, with the gas flames going, but it’s summer here in Australia and we turned off the pilot light. Turned out there was a trick to getting it back on and it took awhile to figure out! So I just filmed outside instead). I couldn’t really get the background noise gone completely without making my voice sound very, very strange. But it is better than it was.

Then, I put the video into Mozilla Popcorn maker, because I wanted to include some relevant links (e.g., to my home page, to my blog). Here’s the result.

Okay, so it took me a couple hours longer than I thought it would, but now I have the hang of Popcorn Maker. And special thanks to Glenn Hervieux (@SISQITMAN), who came to my aid on Twitter when I ran into a problem with it!

The Power of Space in the Classroom

Most of us know very well the importance of space in the classroom–how the room is set up can really change the dynamics of a class. For example, in a discussion course, I try to set up the room in as much of a circle as possible (which, given the configuration of some rooms, is sometimes impossible). Once I had a seminar-style class in a room where we simply could not put the tables and chairs into a circle, and had to leave them in rows (because there wasn’t enough room to put them in a circle). That was the worst term I’ve ever had for discussion.

A colleague of mine in the Arts One Program was even more innovative in her use of space than I’ve ever thought of being myself.

I have had the chance to view the classes of some of my colleagues in Arts One over the past few years. I wish I had more such chances to see others teach, since I always learn from what others are doing in their classes.

Arts One has two, 75-80 minute seminar-style discussion classes per week, with a maximum of 20 students, so most of the rooms we have allow for circular (actually rectangular) seating. There are tables arranged in a circle, with a big space in the middle of them. That works pretty well, since everyone can see everyone else.

Still, the professor usually sits at one of the “heads” of the table, on one of the shorter ends (we don’t have to do this, of course, but I’ve often seen it done). Subtly, then, we are still making ourselves the focal point by making sure most students can see us well (often students avoid sitting right next to the prof, and sit on the longer sides of the table instead).

This sort of setup is good for having books, paper and computers (if they’re allowed) out on the desk while engaging in discussion, but the tables with the big space in the middle cuts us off from one another in a sense, providing a pretty big distance from one another.

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The flipped classroom in philosophy–need to change lectures too

Somehow I missed all the hype about the “flipped” or “inverted” or “reversed” or “backwards” classroom over the past year or two. Just saw an excellent post on some Twitter feed or other (can’t remember which) that brought the whole idea to my attention–discussed below. At first I thought it meant inverting the classroom in the sense of the teacher no longer being the main expert, or the content-deliverer, but the students taking a more active role. Ummm…no. It’s more than that.

There is a truly excellent discussion of this model over at the User Generated Education blog, called “The Flipped Classroom Model: A Full Picture” (http://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/the-flipped-classroom-model-a-full-picture/). I’m glad this was the first exposure I had to the whole idea, because it really helped me see the “full picture,” or at least the bigger picture, surrounding this new way of handling class time.

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Leaving the room

I have long had a bit of a pet peeve that I think I’m finally coming to terms with: students getting up and leaving in the middle of the class meeting, whether to just leave for good for the day, or to leave for a little while and then come back (presumably to go to the washroom or make a call or something).

This happens quite often, every year, every class, and it’s happening more and more. For a long time I wondered if it was happening more in my classes than in those of my colleagues, which might explain why no one else complained about it. My partner teaches statistics in the Psychology department, and it rarely happens to him; but that’s easily explained by the fact that his students are often terrified of the class and don’t want to miss anything he says in case it could help them on the assignments and exams.

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Making the Reading Worth Doing

The title of this post was the title of a presentation by William J. Melanson (from University of Nebraska at Oklahoma) at the recent American Association of Philosophy Teacher‘s biannual conference at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.  The problem he addressed is:  how can we encourage students to do the reading, when it is often very difficult (especially for those new to philosophy)?  One thing that keeps them from doing the reading is teaching in a way that makes it such that they don’t have to do it.  For example, some of us (myself included) have taken the strategy of telling students they should do the reading before class, and then spending class time outlining what is in it.This makes some sense, of course, when the reading is complex and the argumentation requires careful analysis in order to make it clear.  But it can also send the message that it’s not necessary to do the reading before class, because after all, the professor will just go over it in detail in class anyway.  What other options are there? Continue reading

Learning to read

Upon reflecting on my own lecture style, I found that it is very common for me to spend lectures outlining arguments from the assigned texts–I present main points in the text as I see them, and the supporting arguments.  I am acting as interpreter of the texts, which is not surprising given the difficult nature of many philosophical texts and the fact that I am often teaching first- or second-year students (many of which have had little to no experience reading such texts).  But of course, in doing this I am discouraging students from outlining the arguments themselves, trying to come to grips with them in the readings before coming to lecture.  Why do careful reading of the text before class if the professor is just going to tell you what the text says (in his/her own interpretation)?  Some students will do so anyway and then be able to ask good questions and offer alternative readings, but many will not. Continue reading

Student presentations

In small classes in the past, I’ve had students sign up for a day on which to do a presentation to the whole class. They had to come up with several questions for the group to discuss, and present reasons why these questions are important (maybe some background information, connection to larger themes in the texts, etc.). I found that even when students asked excellent questions in their presentations, it was too often the case that few or no other students would engage with their discussion questions. I’d have to push and pull to get people to talk. I began to wonder if this was in part because of the problem of discussion in large-ish groups: it’s too easy to just sit back and hope someone else says something!

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