Tag Archives: course design

Starting to design a blended “Intro to Philosophy” course

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

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


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

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

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


Situational Factors

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

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


Learning goals/objectives

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

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

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


Foundational Knowledge

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

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

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


Application Goals

 What kinds of thinking are important for students to learn?

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

In PHIL 102:

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


Integration Goals

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

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

In PHIL 102:

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


Human Dimensions Goals

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

In PHIL 102:

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


Caring Goals

 What changes/values do you hope students will adopt?

  • Feelings?
  • Interests?
  • Ideas?

In PHIL 102:

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


“Learning-How-to-Learn” Goals

 What would you like for students to learn about:

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


In PHIL 102

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


Reflections on all this

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

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