Tag Archives: use of class time

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!

First posts on Teaching in Blended Learning Environment course

I’m participating in a professional development course at UBC called T-BLE: Teaching in a Blended Learning Environment. It’s a three week course in July 2014 that combines two face-to-face meetings with numerous online components, and is designed to introduce instructors to blended learning (mixing online and face-to-face components). We will be focusing on a particular course of ours that we want to work on changing (I think we’ll be making just one “module” of a course into a blended one rather than a whole course–there’s not enough time in a short three weeks to do a whole course, probably).

It is being conducted in Blackboard Connect, so not visible to anyone except participants in the course. But in order to have my own contributions and work be in my own possession rather than only in BB and then have it disappear when I’m done, I’m including most or all of my posts for that course here on my blog. I won’t include my comments to others because they won’t make sense without the original post! Just what I post myself that makes sense on its own.

The course officially starts July 7, but there were a few pre-course activities we were asked to do.

Introduce yourself and why taking this course

I edited this a bit just to include why I’m taking this course; no need to record who I am, here!

While I was on sabbatical in 2012-2013, I participated in numerous open, online courses, and had very positive experiences with things like synchronous webinars, asynchronous communications on blog posts and discussion boards, and the like. Then when I got back and started teaching in my usual way, I found myself wondering: why am I spending most of the class sessions giving a lecture that I could just as well have recorded and placed online? What value added is there to having me in the room if all I’m doing is lecturing? Of course, I also do other in-class activities, Q&A, etc., but I wondered if I could send more time doing those things if some of the lecture were moved out of the classroom. That’s my general motivation for being here, to explore what options there are for doing some of the class content online and some F2F, and what makes most sense to do when we’re all in a room together, to make the most of that time.

Introduce the course you’re going to be focusing on to make more “blended”

I have asked to teach a section of Introduction to Philosophy in the Summer of 2015 in order to give me time this year to plan it as a flexible learning/blended learning course. This also means it will have fewer students than the usual 100-150 or so, and when I’m doing something quite new to me like this I find it helpful to start a bit smaller when possible!

General info about the course

Introduction to Philosophy is a first-year course that does not have any prerequisites or assume any prior knowledge of philosophy. This course is not required for majors, and the department doesn’t have strict rules as to what must be included; however, there are three “types” of this course and each one has a particular focus. PHIL 101, Intro to Philosophy I (one term long) is meant to introduce students to metaphysics and epistemology in some way; PHIL 102, Intro to Philosophy II (one term) is meant to introduce students to value theory (e.g., ethics, social and political philosophy, and/or aesthetics). Students can take both of these courses, in any order, or just one of them (or none, as they are not required for anyone). Alternatively, they could take a year-long course, PHIL 100, that covers all of those areas in one course. My understanding of these courses is that they are meant to give interested students a taste of what philosophy is all about, and to engage them as much as possible so they might consider taking more philosophy courses (or not…at least having some exposure is good!).

I teach the 102 course, the one focused on value theory. I have taught it in several ways in the past:

  • As a historical overview of majory figures in Western Philosophy in the areas of ethics, social/political philosophy, and aesthetics
  • As a kind of introduction to ethics and moral theory (but this meant it overlapped too much with our second-year moral theory course)
  • As a “philosophy of happiness” course–what have philosophers said about happiness?
  • Most recently, I created the course around the theme: what is philosophy, what do philosophers do, and what is the value of any of this? What have philosophers themselves said about this? What have philosophers used their philosophical work to DO? I think this version worked the best out of all of them.

Here is a link to my most recent course website. Students were also blogging on this site, but I took the students’ blogs off the site after the course was finished, because I didn’t ask their permission to keep them up there!

Basic structure, enrollment, TA’s, assessments

This course is usually 3 hrs per week: 2 hrs of lecture, 1 hr of discussion section (groups of 25 students per section, usually led by TAs). In the past, I’ve used those two hours of “lecture” time to both lecture and engage students in in-class activities like small group discussions, writing answers to questions on a group document such as in google docs, engaging in debates, and more. I plan to use a tool like Poll Everywhere or Learning Catalytics to make my lectures more interactive, to have students give answers to questions, etc. I am not planning to use Clickers because I’m not sure I’m going to be using them enough in my course to justify the expense to students.

When I have taught this course during the winter terms, enrollment has ranged between about 80-120 students, though sometimes it’s a bit more. In the Summer it will probably be around 45 students I think, maximum (unless I get a TA, in which case it will allow more). During the winter terms I usually have 2-3 TAs or so, running the discussion sections and marking some of the essays.

Much of the assessment for the course is based on essay writing, though some of the essays are quite short. I scaffold the essay assignments so they learn to write an essay in small steps. There is also a final exam which is partly essay questions.
How I’d like to make it into a blended learning course

I’m not quite sure yet, as I’m still in the early planning stages. I’m thinking it would be good to have more time in-class for things that really take advantage of us all being in a room together, which lecturing does not always do (unless it’s interspersed with interactive activities). So one idea is to put some of the lecture content online and ask them to read/watch videos before class, then use more of the class time for activities. What those activities will be I’m not entirely sure. And I have to be mindful not to just have this mean that students end up doing more work, having to take the time they would have spent in lecture in class and add it onto their out-of-class activities. I’ll have to cut down on some of the latter to avoid this problem.

I just met with an instructor who recently did a kind of flipped classroom approach, and he suggested that if students could use the class time to work on a larger project, such as a group project, that would help them see the in-class activities as beneficial. So the in-class activities could be small steps needed to work towards finishing a larger project, for example. I think that’s a good idea, though I’m not sure how I’d implement it in my course. It’s just something I’m thinking about.

That’s all I’ve got so far!

 

Where is your course on this blended learning diagram? Where would you like it to be?

Currently

I think my current PHIL 102 course fits in between the face-to-face and the technology-enhanced sections. I’m talking about the “lecture” hours rather than the “discussion sections” once per week, which are different of course. I say in between those two sections of the diagram because while I’ve used some technology to enhance the in-class experience, I’d like to do more. Things I’ve done to use technology to enhance the lecture portions through more interactivity:

  • Asked students to use a Twitter-like program at UBC that allows them to ask/answer questions synchronously during lectures (few did so, but that was a few years ago and maybe I’ll try again). I used “Pulse Press,” a theme on UBC Blogs to do this, since there may not be very many students who have Twitter accounts.
  • Asked students to discuss questions in groups and post their answers to shared documents: sometimes on the UBC wiki, sometimes on Google Docs (so long as there are no names attached, due to FIPPA regulations)

Things I’d like to try in the next academic year:

  • Use a tool like Poll Everywhere or Learning Catalytics to be like clickers (but I’m not ready to ask them to use Clickers yet b/c i’m not sure I’ll use them enough to justify their expense). These would be activities that are not attached to a mark for the students, since I wouldn’t be able to track participation and not everyone may have their own devices needed to participate.
  • Some team-based learning sessions–maybe not a whole course made out of TBL sessions, but one or two in a course.

Aspirations

Where I would like my course to be by the end of the workshop: I’m hoping it’s closer to “Blended Active Learning” on the chart, though maybe I’ll just have started on the road to that by the time this course ends and will have to finish going down the road on my own. But that’s okay–there’s only so much you can do in three weeks! I am considering moving towards “Blended-reduced class time” because I want to avoid burdening students with extra work by moving some of the lecture material to outside class time. One way to do that is to reduce the face-to-face time. I would like to at least explore how one might do this, and whether a case can be made for it in my department. I don’t know what the bureaucratic hurdles might be for having a class meet less than 3 hours per week but count for 3 credits for a term.

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

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

What is class time for? Part II

After a long hiatus for the summer, I am finally getting back to posting on this blog–I was working on research as well as moving to a new apartment, and so my thoughts on teaching were not as prolific as usual during the past six weeks or so.

I am posting one idea I put in place in one of my courses for how to make class time more than lecture with some discussion within the big class group thrown in. I had considered student presentations, but given that my Social and Political Philosophy class has 60 students this term, and given that the term is only 13 weeks long, it’s hard to fit in 60 presentations. Another option that I’ve used in the past is group presentations, where groups of two-three students work together to present something to the rest of the class. In the past I’ve been able to do that because I’ve had break-out discussion sections in addition to the lecture, and the presentations could happen in separate discussion groups. That worked well because then several presentations could happen at the same time. But it requires the discussion-group setup, which my course this term doesn’t have.

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What is class time for? Part I

Barbara Ganley posts a few ideas in response to a question she says she gets regularly: if your students are spending time discussing outside of class (through blogs, discussion boards, or otherwise), then what goes on during class time when discussion would otherwise take place? I am interested in the question of “what is class time for,” not because I have or am planning to take discussion out of the class meeting and put it into blogs or discussion boards instead, but simply as a general question: what is the best use of class time for the sake of promoting learning (especially in philosophy courses)?

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