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.

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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).

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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.

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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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