Tag Archives: Introduction to Philosophy

Some end-of-term thoughts on Intro to Philosophy

statue of Socrates, showing just the head

Socrates, by Ben Crowe, licensed CC BY 2.0 on Flickr.com



Classes for this term ended yesterday, and I have a few immediate thoughts/reflections after the term has finished, about my Introduction to Philosophy course that I wanted to write down so I don’t forget them when I’m planning for the next time!

Here are a few things I struggled with determining how to do best this term.

Lecture & non-lecture time during class

This class meets Mondays and Wednesdays for 50 minutes in a big group, and then students also attend one more 50-minute discussion group run by a Teaching Assistant. I run the M,W classes, and it’s often a struggle for me to figure out how best to balance lecture vs. active learning time in that class.

On one hand, there is a great deal of research literature showing that students learn better if they don’t only listen to lectures but also do something with what they’re learning. On the other hand, I do think lectures can be quite useful if done well (and I try my best!); plus, students need to have some kind of basic understanding before active learning on the material can be effective. This can be gotten through what they do outside of class, but just reading philosophy texts on one’s own, if one is new to philosophy, isn’t usually the best way to get that understanding. I have created a few videos to help students with some of the readings but these are time consuming to make and I haven’t made very many.

In addition, since students also attend a full discussion group meeting once a week, I feel like I don’t want to do too much in the way of activities in the M,W class because I need to leave some of that available for the other class.

I did a midterm survey to get feedback partway through the course, and most students seemed to think the balance of what we were doing in class was fine; some wanted a little more lecture, some wanted a little less, and there wasn’t a strong majority on one side or the other.

Still, I feel like I want to work on this more, partly because of the next thing.

What to include in lectures

One student on the midterm feedback survey made an important point: they said that they felt like the people who did the readings before class (which I ask students to do!) got punished, in a way, because the lectures often went back over the readings. I agree! I struggle with this too.

The issue with intro to philosophy courses is that philosophy texts are not always easy to read and understand, for those new to the field (and also sometimes even for those familiar with the field!). As a result, all of my experience as a student, a grad student TA, and visiting others’ philosophy courses at times, shows that we tend to ask students to do the reading before class and then we go back over the reading in class to clarify the arguments. It is of course critical for all of us to have the basics of the arguments before writing essays about the philosophical views.

But I think I can work on this further by having more guidance for students while they’re reading or just before class. So, videos to help break down the basics, or formative (non-graded) quizzes to help them get the basics before coming to class, e.g. This is not something that can be done quickly but I can build it up over time.

I also want to take more time in class to talk about how to take notes on philosophical texts, and find ways to encourage more note-taking while reading. One way would be to ask them to submit notes from time to time that are graded just for completion. I made that an optional way to earn participation marks this term and those who did it did a great job! The only thing that has kept me from making this required is the large number of students in this course (usually between 100 & 150), and the difficulty of keeping up with marking. But I’m going to give this some more serious thought.

Then we could do other things in class, like delve more deeply into potential criticisms of the arguments–if they have the basics first then we can go deeper in class.

Peer feedback on essays

Last year I asked students to submit their completed first essays for peer feedback: after they submitted their first essays, they shared with one other person who read the whole essay and gave feedback for the purpose of improving the writing for the second essay. On the student evaluations some students wanted to be able to use peer feedback before they submit the essay for a mark.

So I changed things this year and had students submit something for peer feedback before each essay. For the first essay they submitted a draft introduction paragraph with a thesis statement, plus topic sentences for each body paragraph. That was due a bit over a week before the essay, and then students got comments from two other students (ideally) before finalizing their essays. For the second essay we did something similar, though this time they could submit up to 350 words of a paragraph about one of the philosophers’ views, if they wanted, or the same kind of thing they submitted for the first essay. The purpose of the paragraph option was to get feedback on whether they got the philosophers’ views correct and on the balance between quotes and paraphrases in the paragraph.

We did the peer feedback online (on Canvas), and it worked mostly okay. The main concerns I had were that some people submitted work but didn’t give any feedback on others’ work. The system automatically assigns two other students’ work for each student who submitted something. So for the surprisingly significant number of people who didn’t do any peer feedback, those other students missed out on comments (the TAs and I offered to talk to students who didn’t get any feedback from any other students, to discuss their work–which is of course something any student could also do!).

I’m struggling with:

  • How valuable it is to get feedback on small snippets before submitting a full essay, as we did this year, or whether I should go back to having students provide feedback on a completed essay
    • If the latter, probably the option to rewrite the essay should be made available.
  • How to get students to actually do peer feedback online (make it worth more, perhaps)
    • Last year we did peer feedback in person–students could only participate if they came to class and exchanged their essay with someone else. This meant that students actually did it, but it also meant it couldn’t be anonymous. There are pros and cons for each!


Those are my initial thoughts here at the end of the term. I will do more reflecting after the student evaluations of teaching results are out!

Planning a course using Fink’s integrated course design

I was introduced to L. Dee Fink’s integrated course design worksheets when I took a UBC professional development course on Teaching in a Blended Learning Environment. I have really enjoyed using his approach to course design, because it asks you to think about learning goals and learning activities in ways far beyond just thinking about what content students should leave the course knowing. He asks you to consider learning goals in areas such as:

  • Caring goals: developing new feelings, interests, values
  • Human dimension goals: what they should learn about themselves and others
  • Learning how to learn: how will their work in this course help them to learn better in the future?

… among many others.

He also has you start with the learning goals, and then think about content and activities in the course, which seems to me the right way to go about doing things. I used to (and still feel the pull to) start with content and the types of assignments I’d have, and then base the learning goals on those. But of course it makes sense to start off with what you’d like the students to learn, to be able to do, and then have that guide the rest.

I’m working on redesigning my Introduction to Philosophy course, which is a one-term course focused on value theory–anything having to do with ethics, or social and political philosophy, or aesthetics. I have tried several different themes in the past and haven’t really been happy with any of them. This time I’m trying a kind of “life and death” theme, focused on what some philosophers have said about how we should live, and what we should think about death.

I have gone through the process of using these worksheets on this blog before, but this time I am using Workflowy, on the recommendation of Paul Hibbitts. He pointed out to me how easy it is to share parts of your Workflowy lists with others (so they don’t have to see all of what you’re working on, but just the stuff that’s relevant to a particular audience). The free version gets you quite a lot; I’ve been using it for awhile and haven’t run up against the limits to the free version yet. It’s not big on style, and it seems like it wouldn’t be that useful, really, until you get into using it and see the power of zooming in and out of your documents/lists. It’s like being able to go to a particular part of a very long document really easily and ignoring the rest.

Now, I wish I could embed this Workflowy list into my blog post, because then you could see the changes as I update it. But for now, this will have to do.

Here is my working through of Fink’s worksheets for my Introduction to Philosophy course: https://workflowy.com/s/mnpuEmtnAu

And here is a copy of what I’ve done so far, just copied and pasted from that Workflowy list today. I’d welcome any feedback you have!


Starting to work through the course design worksheets on Workflowy

Dee Fink’s integrated course design In what follows I am using Dee Fink’s course design worksheets: http://www.deefinkandassociates.com/GuidetoCourseDesignAug05.pdf

  • Situational factors to take into account when designing the course
    • students--what do they tend to be like? prior experience with philosophy? attitudes towards the subject?
      • most tend to have little or no prior experience with philosophy; few know what philosophy is
      • most tend to find the readings very challenging
      • some think that works in the history of philosophy are not relevant to their everyday lives; they prefer the more recent works
      • mostly first and second-year students, so many of them are new to UBC (esp. since this is first-term course)
      • most taking lots of courses, and/or working alongside their studies; they generally have too much to do and not enough time, so often stressed
    • number of students, physical meeting space, structure of the weekly meetings, etc.
      • max 150 (currently 136 enrolled)
      • large lecture hall, with tables and immovable chairs: https://ssc.adm.ubc.ca/classroomservices/function/viewlocation?userEvent=ShowLocation&buildingID=LSK&roomID=200
        • will be somewhat difficult to do small groups b/c can’t move chairs around; tried small groups in a room like this in the past and it was difficult
      • 2 50-minute classes per week with all students; each student also part of one 50-minute discussion section with 25 students and a TA (I run one of these)
    • the course–particular departmental or institutional requirements?
      • not required for majors, so there is no particular curriculum that must be followed, no philosophers that have to be discussed, etc.
      • focused on value theory: ethics, social and political philosophy, aesthetics, the meaning of life, the good life… anything in one or more of those areas
      • should just introduce students to such topics and get them interested in philosophy if possible, maybe draw in to take more courses (or just get a decent sense of what philosophy is like and then they may never take another philosophy course again)
    • special pedagogical challenges of the course
      • making philosophy interesting and relevant to newcomers without sacrificing rigor
        • exemplifying what philosophers do in a way that makes it seem like something useful for all of us, while still showing how difficult and complex it can be
      • for me, showing the value of reading and discussing people like Plato, Epicurus, Mill to those who find them just old and no longer relevant
        • why are works in the history of philosophy still important to read and talk about? Why not just read stuff from the last 50-100 years?


  • Learning goals #LOs
    Fink suggests thinking about learning goals in several categories, noted below

    • Foundational knowledge: what key information or ideas, perspectives are important for students to learn?
      • This is a tough one because of the nature of the course: there is no specific curriculum or set of information that must be taught in the course. But there are still some things I think they should know by the time they finish the course.
      • What is an “argument”? They should be able to outline an argument in a philosophical text, identifying premises and conclusion, and be able to evaluate it effectively.
      • They should come out of the course with an understanding of:
        • What an “examined life” is, acc. to Socrates, the Socratic method
        • Some of the basic arguments of Epicureanism and stoicism, existentialism, utilitarianism, Nussbaum’s “capabilities” approach
      • [The following is for an earlier version of the course, for when I thought I might focus it on the philosophy of happiness] Name and explain three approaches to the philosophical study of happiness (e.g., hedonism, desire satisfaction, eudaimonism…what else?) and correctly connect one philosopher to each
      • [The following is for an earlier version of the course, for when I thought I might focus it on the philosophy of happiness] Explain how philosophers study happiness as distinguished from empirical, psychological research, and say why the philosophical approach is also valuable.
    • Application: what kinds of thinking are needed, such as critical, creative, practical? What sorts of skills do they need to learn?
      • critical thinking (analyzing and evaluating): analyzing and evaluating arguments in the texts, and arguments by themselves and peers
      • creative thinking (imagining and creating): come up with own criticisms of arguments and better ways to approach the issues; come up with creative solutions to ethical problems discussed
      • practical thinking (solving problems and making decisions): take what they understand about sound argumentation and apply it to their own arguments, whether oral or in writing; also do so with the arguments of their peers in class or in peer feedback on writing
      • skills
        • being able to outline and evaluate arguments by others in the readings, as noted above
        • write their own arguments, in various formats such as informal blog posts and formal essays
        • evaluate arguments and writing by their peers, as a means to help improve their own writing
    • Integration: what connections should students make between parts of the course? between what’s in the course and other areas, such as their own lives?
      • It would be great if they could see why philosophical thinking about many issues is valuable
        • What is philosophical thinking/activity and why is it useful more generally?
        • How do they already do philosophy in their university studies or other parts of their lives?
        • How might philosophical thinking be good for them to continue in the future?
      • I don’t think it’s required, but it would be nice if the things we’re studying affected their own views of what a “good life” is, and had an impact on how they live their own lives
      • They should be able to understand how the various approaches to “living well” and approaching death well differ, the strengths and weaknesses of each vis-à-vis the others
    • Human dimension: what should students learn about themselves? about interacting with others in the future?
      • It would be good if they learned the degree to which they tend to rely on unexamined beliefs and values in their thoughts about happiness (and other things, potentially), and why it might be good to examine those
      • Learn that philosophical activity is something that they can and already do in their lives outside of class
      • Learn the value of respectful, philosophical (or other) dialogue with peers–how can we engage in dialogue that respects everyone and yet moves forward rather than sitting with everyone’s differing opinions and not going anywhere out of fear of offending anyone?
    • Caring: what changes would you like to see in what students care about? In their interests, values, feelings?
      • I would like them to care about careful, philosophical inquiry, argument and dialogue, about how such activity can be helpful in addressing disagreements, if done well
      • Care about whether their own views and values have been examined, whether they can provide adequate arguments for them, and what to do if they think they can’t
      • Care about whether their own arguments for “big questions” like happiness or the good life are sound
      • Care about treating with respect those whose views differ from theirs, but not thinking that this must mean we have to be relativists, that there are no objective truths about value
    • Learning how to learn: what would you like students to learn about how to learn well in this course (and beyond)? how to become self-directed learners, engage in inquiry and knowledge construction?
      • learn the value of working together with peers to learn; that sometimes learning on one’s own works well, and sometimes it’s also valuable to learn with peers
        • learning with and from peers is not a waste of time compared to getting info from the prof as expert
        • recognize that even when they feel they know more than others, “teaching” others is a very useful way to better understand something; we learn by helping others to learn, not just by getting information from them
      • learn how to take notes on the main points of complex, philosophical texts
      • learn what to do if something isn’t making sense; what options do they have for getting help? How can they avoid just being confused and not doing much to solve the problem?
      • recognize the importance of writing and rewriting, that a first draft of a piece of writing is usually not the best, and revising to create new drafts is important
      • understand that philosophical texts may require more than one read to understand them well


  • Draft learning objectives developed from the above #LOs
    These don’t address all of the goals above; some of those goals are addressed in what we’ll be doing in the class, but don’t show up specifically as objectives

    • For reference, LO’s from PHIL 102, Summer 2015 syllabus (this version of the course was on a different topic)
      • 1. Give an answer to the question (one of many possible answers!): how would you describe what (Western) philosophy is, what philosophers do, and how such activities might help to make people’s lives better, based on your experiences in this course? (“philosophy in the world” assignment)
      • 2. Explain at least one way in which they engage in philosophical activity in their lives outside this class (“philosophy in the world” assignment).
      • 3. Explain the basic structure of an argument–premises and conclusion—and outline an argument in a philosophical text (argument outlines, final exam)
      • 4. Assess the strength of arguments in assigned texts, in oral or written work by other students, and in their own writing (argument outlines, essays, peer review of other students’ essays, group discussions)
      • 5. Participate in a respectful discussion with others on a philosophical question: clarify positions and arguments from themselves or others, criticize flawed arguments, present their own arguments, and do all this in manner that respects the other people in the discussion (small group discussions)
      • 6. Write an argumentative essay that outlines and evaluates the views of other philosophers (essay assignments).
      • 7. Explain how at least two Western philosophers might answer the question: what is philosophy/what do philosophers do, and how might it help make people’s lives better? (essay assignments)


  • Draft Learning Obj’s for this course: Students who successfully complete this course should be able to:
    • 1. Define and explain at least two philosophical approaches to how we should live (such as Epicureanism and Stoicism) and give the name of at least one philosopher who espouses each. Explain the similarities and differences between those approache sand evaluate each.
    • 2. Explain the utilitarian approach as well as the capabilities approach to how we should help others to live well, and give the name of at least one philosopher associated with each. Explain similarities and differences between these approaches and evaluate each.
    • 3. Explain the basic structure of a philosophical argument–premises and conclusion—and outline an argument in a philosophical text
    • 4. Assess the strength of arguments in assigned texts, in oral or written work by other students, and their own arguments (oral or written)
    • 5. Participate in a respectful discussion with others on a philosophical question: clarify positions and arguments from themselves or others, criticize flawed arguments, present their own arguments, and do all this in manner that respects the other people in the discussion
    • 6. Produce a polished piece of philosophical writing, with a sound argument, strong evidence, and clear organization
    • 7. Read a complex philosophical text and take notes that distinguish the main points of the arguments therein.
    • 8. Based on what we’ve studied in the class, give one (of many!) possible answers to the question: What is philosophical activity and why might it be useful? How do you engage in philosophical activity outside this course?
  • Assessments to fit these objectives (TBA)
  • teaching and learning activities to fit these objectives (TBA)
  • consider whether the parts of the course are integrated (TBA)



Authentic assessments in two PHIL classes

For the blended learning course I’m taking on teaching a blended learning course, we were asked to design an “authentic assessment” for one of our courses. An authentic assessment, from what I understand, is one in which students are either simulating or doing the very sorts of activities you hope they will be able to do outside of class, after they take the course. In addition, according to some of the text of the course I’m taking,

According to Eisner (1993), authentic assessment projects should reveal how students go about solving the problems (process) and should have more than one correct solution. They should:

  • Promote ‘how’ knowledge as opposed to the ‘what’ knowledge measured in ‘traditional’ assignments;
  • Provide a way for students to develop an understanding of complex course material that will serve them beyond the classroom;
  • Encourage higher-order cognitive skills;
  • Involve students more extensively in the development of the assessment and the grading criteria.

PHIL 102: Introduction to Philosophy

Here is an idea for an authentic assessment activity for my Introduction to Philosophy course.


In PHIL 102, Introduction to Philosophy, the main theme of the course is investigating what philosophy is, what philosophers do, and the value of these things, both by reading about what philosophers themselves have said about these questions, and by considering what the philosophers whose texts we are reading are doing with their lives and their writing.

One of the things I’d like students to be able to do by the end of the course is to recognize ways in which they themselves engage in philosophical activity, in their everyday lives.


Students will write a reflective blog post towards the end of the term in which they discuss two things they do in their lives that could show philosophical thinking or addressing of philosophical questions. They will also add a short summary of their post for a class wiki page on this question.

Learning objective addressed: “Explain at least two ways in which you yourself use philosophical thinking or address philosophical questions in your everyday life.”


Now that the course is nearly over, you should have a pretty good idea of what philosophy is and what philosophers do. It’s  time to consider the ways in which you yourself engage in philosophy. This assignment consists of two parts:

1. Write a blog post on the class blog in which you do the following:

  • Discuss at least two ways in which you yourself use philosophical thinking or consider philosophical questions in your own life, your own day-to-day activities, your major life decisions, etc.
  • Explain why these could be considered “philosophical,” referring to at least one of the philosophers or texts or ideas we’ve discussed in class.
  • This blog post should be at least 300 words long, but no longer than 800 words

2. After you’ve completed your blog post, contribute your two ways to the class wiki page for this assignment [give URL for this here].

  • Write a one or two-sentence summary of each of the ways you engage in philosophical thinking or activity and put them as bullet points on the wiki page.
  • Christina will then organize these under general categories after they are posted, to make them easier to read through, and we’ll discuss the results in class

Marking criteria

This assignment will be marked using a three-level system:

1. Plus:

  • Your blog post discusses at least two ways in which you engage in philosophical thinking or address philosophical questions in your life
  • Your blog post adequately explains how these things are philosophical, referring to at least one of the philosophers/texts/ideas we’ve discussed in class.
  • Your blog post is between 300 and 800 words long.
  • You wrote a one- or two-sentence summary of each of the two things you discussed in your post, on the class wiki page.
  • Both the post and the wiki entry were completed by the due date and time.

2. Minus:

  • Your blog post discusses only one way in which you engage in philosophical thinking or address philosophical questions in your life, or
  • Your blog post does not adequately explain how this/these activities are philosophical, and/or doesn’t refer to at least one of the philosophers/texts/ideas we’ve discussed in class, or
  • Your blog post is less than 300 words or more than 800 words, or
  • Your blog post was fine, but you didn’t submit your one- or two-sentence summary of each point discussed in the post on the wiki page, or
  • Your blog post and/or wiki entry were submitted after the due date and time, but no later than six days afterwards.

3. Zero:

  • Your post and/or wiki page entry was not completed, or
  • Your blog post and/or wiki entry were completed seven or more days after the due date.



I wanted this assignment to not only be useful for the students writing the posts themselves, to get them to think about how philosophy plays a role in their own lives, but also to others. That’s why I thought of having them post to a wiki page–there are often over 100 students in this course, and reading that many different blog posts will be too much for anyone else visiting the course (my courses are on open sites, on UBC Blogs, so anyone can visit them; students always have the option of posting under a pseudonym, or with a password so only the rest of the class can read, or private to me if they choose).

But just having a list of one- or two-sentence summaries on a wiki page is too messy too. So I thought I’d try to categorize them myself after they’re posted, and say something like: 15 people said x, 8 people said y, etc.

Of course, this is more work for me. Any ideas on how to make it so that we have a kind of summary document that might be useful for students in the class as well as others, without me having to go through and categorize all the entries? It’s okay if I have to do so (it’s just busy work, and easy), but if there are other ways I’d love to hear them!



Here is an idea for an authentic assessment for this course. Students will be writing in a “moral issue” journal throughout the course, starting with what they think about a particular moral issue, then comparing this with what they think each of the philosophers we study would say about it, and then concluding with their thoughts on the value of trying to come up with moral theories such as the ones we’ve studied. For this assignment, I’d like students to be able to take what they’re reflecting on in their moral issue journals and refine part of it into a formal essay.

This way, they’ll be using what they have learned in the course in thinking about moral issues they may face around them in their everyday lives.

Moral issue paper

For this paper, you’ll be using what you’ve reflected on in your moral issue journal and writing a formal paper. The idea here, as with the moral issue journal, is to apply the moral theories we’ve been studying to a moral issue that you might face in your life, or one that involves a larger group of people such as a community or nation. In this way, you’ll be making connections between what we’re studying in class and your life beyond.


Using the moral issue you’ve been focusing on in your moral issue journal, write an argumentative paper that argues for how a consequentialist and a Kantian would approach the issue. Include also your own view on whether one approach is better than the other for this particular issue, and why (or why not; it may just be that they are very different and there’s no clear reason to choose one over the other).

Parts of the essay

Note from the Guidelines for essays handout that your essay should have an introduction with your thesis statement, a conclusion that wraps up the essay in some way, and body paragraphs that provide adequate arguments for the conclusion.

Your thesis should include (note that a thesis can be more than one sentence):

  • A summary statement of what a consequentialist and a Kantian would say about the issue
  • A summary of your view on whether or not one approach is better

Be sure to explain the moral issue you’re addressing, early on in the essay.


The essay should be between 5 and 8 pages, typed, double-spaced, with margins between 0.75 and 1 inches, and font size between 11 and 12 points. [Or 2000-3000 words?]

Quotes, paraphrases, and citing sources

Quotes vs paraphrases: It’s usually best to have a mixture of both. You should use quotes where it’s important to give the author’s exact words, where the words themselves help you to make a point. This is often the case when a passage can be interpreted in more than one way, and you want to justify your interpretation with the words of the author. You can also use quotes where you need an extended passage to make your point (be sure to indent quotes over 4 lines long, 5 spaces on the left).

Citing sources in the paragraphs: Whether you give a quote or paraphrase a specific point from the text, you should give a page number or section/paragraph number to show where the information can be found in the text. You choose your favourite citation style, or you can just give the author’s last name plus the page or section number, in parentheses: (Kant 55). (This is the MLA style.) If you are citing more than one text by an author, give a shortened version of the title of the text in the parentheses as well: (Kant, Religion 99).

Citing sources at the end of the essay: Be sure to give a works cited page that includes all the texts you cited in parentheses in the essay. Again, you can use any citation style you wish, but be sure to include all the information that that citation style requires. For example, you can see how to create a Works Cited list in MLA style here [give URL].

Avoid plagiarism: It is the policy of the Instructor to prosecute plagiarism to the fullest extent allowed by UBC. Any use of another’s words, including just a sentence or part of a sentence, without citation, constitutes plagiarism. Use of another’s ideas without citation does as well. To avoid plagiarism, always give a citation whenever you have taken ideas or direct words from another source. Please see this page on the course website for information on how to avoid plagiarism, especially when you’re paraphrasing ideas or quoting from another source—quite a lot of plagiarism is not on purpose, just because students don’t understand the rules! https://blogs.ubc.ca/phil102/resources/

Depth of explanation and narrowness vs. breadth and superficiality: It’s usually best to focus your paper on a small number of claims and argue for them in some depth rather than trying to range widely over a very large number of claims that you then only have space to justify very quickly. Pick the strongest points for each, consequentialism and Kantianism, and focus on those.

Audience you should write for: Write this essay as if you were writing for someone who is in the class, has not read the texts, and has not attended the class meetings (say, a friend or family member). Explain your view, and the arguments of the philosophers you discuss, in as much depth as would be needed to make them clear to such an audience.

Marking: See the marking rubric posted here on the course website [give URL].

Late penalty: 5 points off per weekday late, unless otherwise agreed to by the Instructor (may require documentation). I do not generally give extensions due to students’ workloads, only for things that are unexpected and unavoidable such as medical issues; so plan ahead if you have multiple assignments due around the time that this essay is due!

“Students as Producers” Assignments in Intro to PHIL

For the blended learning course I’m doing on teaching a blended learning course, we were asked to think about possible assignments that could fit the “students as producers” model, where that involves projects that “encompass open-ended problems or questions, a authentic audience and a degree of autonomy” (according to the text in the course). Here’s a nice overview by Derek Bruff of the idea of “students as producers.”


Here are two ideas for “student as producer” assignments for my Introduction to Philosophy course (PHIL 102).

1. Shared notes on the reading

One person in each small group (of 4-5 students) is responsible for taking notes on the reading and posting them before any lecture on that section. Students will sign up for specific dates to finish their notes by.

Notes must include:

  • A statement of what you think the main point/main conclusion in this section of the reading is. If there is more than one, pick just one of the main conclusions in the reading. Refer to a page number where this conclusion can be found (or section and paragraph number, if the reading has no page numbers).
  • How the author argues for this point: give the reasons/premises the author gives to support the conclusion. Refer to page numbers where these premises can be found (or section and paragraph numbers, if the reading has no page numbers).
  • Give one or more comments about what you’ve discussed above: is there anything you disagree with? If so, why? Or, is there something in it that you find particularly interesting? How? Or, do you have any questions about it?

These notes must be typed and shared with the class, on the class blog [insert URL for where to share them]. Be sure to tag the post you’ve written with the last name of the author (e.g., Plato, Epicurus).

Anyone in the class can review the sets of notes for each author, which is a great resource for reviewing the text! Any student can respond to a question posed in one of the posts, or make a comment in response to what a student has said about the reading; you don’t have to just do it for the person from your small group.


Since the above is only partly open-ended (sections (a) and (b) are not very open-ended), I thought of another assignment as well.


2. What would it be like to live like an Epicurean or a Stoic?

For this activity, you will need to imagine what it would be like to live as either an Epicurean or a Stoic (choose one). You’ll need to describe some aspects of your current life and then how they would change if you lived as either an Epicurean or a Stoic. For example, you could consider how the following might be different (or anything else you deem relevant):

a. What you choose to study/what your career might be

b. What you spend your money on

c. What your day to day routine is like, the main choices you make each day and how they might change

Write a blog post on the class blog describing how your life would be different if you were an Epicurean or a Stoic. Discuss at least two ways that your life would be different. Include in your post a reflection on whether you think this would be a good way to live or not, and why.

  • Be sure to tag it either “Epicureanism” or “Stoicism,” and put it under the category “Live like a…”
  • Your blog post should be at least 400 words long, but no more than 900
  • Refer to the text with page numbers or section/paragraph numbers to show where the author says something that justifies why your life would be the way you say it would

This activity will be marked on a three-level scale:

  • Plus:
  • You have described at least two aspects of your life that would be different and why, with specific page or paragraph references to at least one of the texts we’ve read
  • You have included a reflection on whether you think this would be a good way to live or not, and why
  • the blog post is between 400 and 900 words long
  • Minus:
  • You have described only one aspect of your life that would be different, and/or
  • You have not adequately explained why your life would be different, and/or
  • You have not given specific references to the text(s) where needed to support your claims, and/or
  • You have not included a reflection on whether you think this would be a good way to live or not, and why
  • The post is less than 400 words or more than 900 words long, and/or
  • The post is late, without an acceptable excuse for being so (one to six days late)
  • Zero:
  • The post was not completed, or
  • It was completed seven or more days late


How are these related to the “student as producer” idea?

I was thinking of “student as producer” as having to do with students making things to share with a wider audience, producing content that would be useful to others. The first assignment does that for other students in the course; the second, if the blog posts are on a public site rather than a closed site (which my class blogs usually are), may provide information that could be interesting and useful to a wider audience trying to understand what Epicureanism and Stoicism are all about.

I was also thinking that the second assignment could be considered a kind of “authentic assignment,” in that many of the ancient philosophers thought that the purpose of philosophy was to change your life, to cause you to live in a better way, to be happier. I considered making them actually live like Epicureans or Stoics for a day, but I’m not sure one would get much out of just one day of doing so. Maybe a week would give you a taste, but that may be too much to ask! So I decided to do a simulation instead.

I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on how I might make either one of these assignments more useful to students or a wider audience, or more “authentic.” I considered adding a collaborative element to the second one, having them do it in groups, but I got stuck on whose life they would start with to consider how that life would change if lived as an Epicurean or Stoic, and then I got stuck on how they’d share the duties for writing the blog post about it. Any suggestions here would be great!

Student-generated questions and collaborative answers (T-BLE)

I’m taking a three-week blended course in teaching a blended course, and for our last task in week 2, we were asked to come up with a collaborative activity for our blended learning module. We were to include:

  • introduction and instructions for students, including the rationale for the activity
  • grading criteria, if it’s to be graded
  • thoughts about possible problems that might arise and how we might address them

Basics about the activity

In one of the sections for this week there was an example of an instructor who asks students to come up with questions about the course material and submit them to the instructor, who then chooses questions based on the learning objectives and adds more if necessary to make sure all the learning objectives of a particular section of the course are covered. She then asks students to work together to answer these questions in groups. I think this is a great idea, to allow students to both seek help on things that they are having difficulty with, and also come up with questions that test others’ knowledge. So I’m going to do a version of that.

Introduction: student-generated questions and collaborative answers [text for the students]

As part of our exploration of Stoicism, and as a way to help you study for an upcoming exam, we’re going to engage in an activity where students generate questions about the material and work together to answer those created by others. There are several purposes for and benefits of this activity:

  • This gives a chance for you to ask questions of each other clarify things that you don’t quite understand (which is helpful for studying for the exam!)
  • It allows you to raise issues for discussion that are meaingful to you
  • It gives you a chance to teach something to other students (a great way to learn material)

Instructions [text for the students]

This activity will take place both face-to-face and online, through the following steps.

1. First, you will need to generate some questions on your own that you would like to ask other students in the class. Write down at least two questions and bring them to class with you on [date].

  • These questions could either be things you don’t understand well yourself and that you’d like help with, or things that you think you do understand but that might be challenging for others. Ideally they should be fairly complex questions, not ones you can answer with a simple “yes” or “no,” or that are merely a matter of memorizing facts from the texts or lecture. For example, you might ask questions that have to do with one or more of the following:
    • aspects of the material that are either complicated enough to possibly cause confusion or that could be interpreted in more than one way
    • applications of the material to a particular ethical issue or action
    • comparisons/contrasts of a view with another view we have studied

2. On [date], you will meet in your small groups in class, face-to-face, and share your questions with each other. If there are questions that involve things that some students aren’t sure about, discuss together what you think the answer might be. Then, together, the group will choose two questions that they want another group to answer. Again, these could be questions about things the group isn’t sure about themselves, or about things the group thinks they know, but also believes are likely to be challenging for others.

  • Write these two questions down and submit to Christina at the end of the activity (or submit on the course website if someone has a computer with them).
  • Also submit the questions that you wrote down yourself and brought to class (can also be submitted electronically on the course website).

3. Christina will choose among the questions enough for each group to have one to discuss that they themselves have not written. She will distribute these to each group online, in the group’s discussion area. From [date] to [date], each member of the group should contribute to a discussion of a possible answer. You’ll need to come to an agreement on an answer by [date]. Your group should post your answer on the course wiki, under your assigned question [give URL for where to type in the answer, here].

4. After you’ve answered the question assigned to your group, go the question on the wiki that your group originally asked and see what the other group said. Each group member should also comment on that group’s answer to your group’s question: do you agree/disagree? Anything to add?

To make your comment, just write your name under the other group’s answer and make your comment after your name.

  • If you disagree, explain why.
  • If you agree, it’s best if you can do more than just say so; say if there’s something in that group’s answer that is particularly helpful, such as the way they explained something, or an example they gave.
  • If you have anything to add, of course, add it!

Grading for the activity

This activity will be marked on a scale of 0 to 2, or 0, minus, plus:

  • plus (2 marks):
    • you submitted at least two individual questions in step 1 that conform to the criteria in step 1
    • you contributed substantively to the discussion of your group’s answer to the assigned question in step 2 (more than just “yes, I agree,” for example)
    • you added an individual comment to the other group’s answer to your group’s question on the course wiki page
  • minus (1 mark): you are missing one or two of the above
  • zero (0 marks): you did none of the things required for a plus

Discussion/possible concerns

I decided to try to create a collaborative activity that combined both F2F and online aspects, as I’m trying to connect these two aspects of the course as much as possible. I thought about adding another F2F element after part 2, above, where they discuss their group’s answer together before posting it, and I still think that pedagogically that might be best; but I decided that this activity was starting to take up too much time of the class already!

Possible concerns:

  • I worry that the questions won’t be the right kind to allow for substantive group discussion. The instructor who did this activity originally asked students to pick questions that address the top levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, and I could do that, but I’m not sure how much time I want to spend in class explaining the taxonomy. Maybe that wouldn’t be too difficult and would help to solve this potentia problem.
  • There is also the perennial worry about group work that some students do very little and others do a lot. I tried to address this by having the mark not be given to the group as a whole but to individual members based on their individual contributions. That’s largely due to the nature of this activity–it doesn’t involve a major group project that one might want to give a significant mark to, and it lends itself pretty well to judging individual contributions.
  • Students may not want to publicly disagree with another group’s answer to their question. I’ll have to think about how to handle that situation. It’s not easy to be anonymous on the UBC wiki, as each edit is attached to your name and anyone can see who made the edits. One option is to move this to a discussion board on which one can be anonymous, rather than typing in answers on a wiki. It’s just that with the wiki it’s so much easier to see all the questions and responses at once, in one place, on one page.

Making argument outlines in groups

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

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

Activity Instructions:

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

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

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

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


An activity I’d like to change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How this fits with course materials and objectives

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


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

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

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

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

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

Grading information

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

Potential problems and how to handle them

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

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

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