Category Archives: Lectures & discussion

Use of class time in PHIL 102

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

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

General concerns

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

icon of a yawning face

Yawn icon from The Noun Project

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

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

I am too much in the centre

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

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

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

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

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

 

More specific issues

Students sometimes struggle with reading texts outside of class

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

icon of an open book

book icon, from The Noun Project

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

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

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

Taking useful notes on philosophical readings can be difficult

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

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

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

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

Many students could use more practice writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

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

photo of a classroom with empty desks and chairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting the question

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

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

Lectures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temporary conclusion

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

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

 

What needs improvement in Intro to Philosophy

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

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

 

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

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

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

Recent student evals

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

What could be improved

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

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

There were also somewhat frequent comments on:

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

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

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

What went well

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

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

 

My own reflections

Class time

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

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

Me providing many of the answers

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

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

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

More time on skills, less on content

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

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

Content

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

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

I’ve tried the following:

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

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

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

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

 

What to be sure to do for next time

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

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

 

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

Mid-course feedback & responses, Intro to Philosophy

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

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


Discussions in class, vs lecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Catalytics

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

Lecture pacing and what’s on the slides

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

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

Distractions by other students

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

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

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

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

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

Help with writing essays

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

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

Guidelines for papers (longer)

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

The bigger picture

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

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

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

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

(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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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

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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Discussion Stagnation

[Note after writing this: I see that I was asking this question a number of months ago in my blog…guess it’s an unresolved issue and has been for awhile…]
Seminar discussions in my Arts One class this past year were not as lively as they have been in past years. This class meets in a group of about 20 twice a week for 75 minutes, after a 2 hour weekly lecture. This is quite a bit of time for first year students to be responsible for discussion each week. My strategies in the past have been to spend part of the time outlining main points in the readings, then pose some questions that should generate discussion; start with some writing assignment that will generate thought and discussion; ask for student questions for discussion; start with student presentations where they prepare questions before the class. These have all worked okay except “ask for student questions for discussion.”

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