In Class Assignments
Just as important as being a means to transfer information to students, class time is an opportunity for students apply what they know and practice doing philosophy. Whenever possible I design in-class assignments and activities that do both. Experiential learning activities, argument analysis, and an in-class final are examples that highlight concretely how this integration works in my classrooms.
Cognitive science reveals the shifting, contextually based nature of attention spans. As a rule of thumb I try to set in class activities—whether that’s lecture, group work, assignments or the like—at no more than twenty minutes (shifting gears doesn’t harm those with longer attention spans and certainly benefits those with shorter). Consequently, a large portion of my prep work is constituted in designing activities and assignments that align with my daily and semester goals.
My anecdotal experience confirms what the literature says about experiential learning. As Linda Nilson notes in Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors,
“experiential learning methods, such as simulations, games, and role playing, ensure higher student motivation, more learning at higher cognitive levels, greater appreciation of the subject matter and its utility, and longer retention of the material than does the traditional lecture.”
Perhaps my favorite foray is a simulation designed to replicate an international policy convention in my interdisciplinary course on environmental ethics, politics, and policy. Students read about the nature of international conventions, the relevant players and obstacles, and these are all richly illustrated with concrete examples. It’s an entirely different experience, however, to break up the students into five teams representing various government and non-government interest groups and have them negotiate a treaty on coral restoration. Each time I’ve run the simulation it’s had the same effect. Rather than facile declarations of what such conventions and their diversely motivated stake holders ought to do, students received a real world taste of the massive difficulties involved as well as an upsetting recognition that the bargaining table is anything but fair. In addition to making the content vividly clear, it was outright fun. The room was abuzz in chatter, laughter, gasps, emotional pleas. The most important indicator for me of the success of the assignment, however, was the solid grasp on the material that the students maintained throughout the rest of the semester. The classroom now had a common vocabulary, conceptual framework, and a sense of the challenges involved in international negotiations. This impacted not only class discussion, but also significantly increased the nuance and sophistication of their written policy analyses and recommendations.
You can read the full instructions written for the students here: Environmental Policy Convention Simulation.
In my opinion, one of the most important things we train our students to do is recognize and grapple with arguments—it’s a “threshold concept” or practice in the liberal arts generally and the special province of philosophy. It’s also a “bottleneck” point in educating students, an area that doesn’t come to them easily and that can stunt their progress in other areas. One can’t merely notify and describe arguments to most students and then encourage them to find and write their own. If we want our students to read more than just the words—to also perceive and be capable of articulating the arguments that are the raison d’être of the course texts—then they have to be shown the arguments multiple times in multiple contexts and be given multiple opportunities to practice extricating arguments themselves in low-risk settings. Almost every day in my classroom we work at this together.
Commonly on the first day of class I show students the witch trial from Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail. I help the class as a whole to regiment the argument of the trial. We then discuss the features of an argument (including hidden premises) and how one might go about disagreeing with or strengthening an argument. Early in the semester Peter Singer is often used as a conspicuous, limit case—he doesn’t let you miss the main argument but lays it out explicitly: one, two, three, conclusion. I then send students to hunt out his supporting arguments, to see if they can make those supporting arguments just as clear and conspicuous as the main argument. This prepares them to pull arguments from less conspicuous but still clearly worded essays. More difficult, I like to put popular texts in front of them and see if they can prescind away from the noise and locate (and often, help support) the underlying arguments. An op-ed battle in the Huffington Post between Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Easterly is a fun example of this, especially since it ends with the surprise twist that despite all of their rhetoric these two have much the same argument. More difficult still, but also more fun and engaging for many of the students, I show popular movie clips and have the students write out what they think is the underlying argument of the scene. For example, when reading McIntyre’s “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” students watch the trailer for Valkyrie and construct an overarching argument for the narrative of the film based on MacIntyre’s insights.
The goal is not just for students to recognize others’ arguments, however, but to recognize and sharpen their own. Consequently, we do the same sort of in-class exercises with student’s short writing assignments. We of course look at all aspects of an essay, but our main focus is always on finding and making explicit the argument. Frequently, especially at the beginning of the semester, the argument will be significantly underdeveloped or even non-existent. It then becomes an exercise for the class to take the information that does exist in the essay and from this to construct the outline of an argument. Not only is this an effective exercise for the class as a whole, but the students whose papers we review are often excited and grateful—commonly these are lightbulb moments where students make it through the “argument bottleneck.”
As noted, I don’t often give finals, preferring to focus on writing. My philosophy of perception class, however, ended up more challenging for my students than I had anticipated. Toward the end of the semester it was clear that students were struggling with both the content and the overall narrative of the course. Consequently, I held special review sessions for the last two units of the class and created a comprehensive review guide. We spent time in class during the last two weeks going over this guide and answering student questions. I held one final review session and students then took this in class, 2.5 hr final, using their notes and texts to assist them.
As one can see, while certainly not an essay the final still demands that students do more than give simple answers. In addition to articulating a given theory or position, students had to connect a given theory or position to specific authors and also situate it within the greater context of philosophy of perception and philosophy overall. More importantly, students had to articulate and then attack or defend arguments.
In the end, offering this final was the right move. Students’ grasp of the material markedly increased, as did their ability to probe weakness in and defend different positions.
The full text of final is available here: In class final – Phil of Perception.