I tried my experiments in two classes. 1200 is an introduction to applied ethics and taken mainly by freshmen. I had 35 students in this class. 3260 is an upper level class in the ethics of foreign affairs. I had 40 students in that class.
My main goal was to improve the quality of paper writing in my classes. A good philosophy paper provides a direct answer to the question posed and a set of justifications for that answer. Unfortunately, students (perhaps influenced by high-school teaching) often write papers in which they try to put down everything they know about a topic without focusing on answering the specific question at hand. Learning how to write papers is a serious “bottleneck” for student trying to make progress in philosophy.
In the past I have spent a lot of time explaining to students why it is important for them to answer the question and organize their papers around answering it. I have tried to give them examples of good philosophical writing and some steps they need to take to emulate it. But while this works for some students it has not worked for all. I hoped this semester to help all students learn paper-writing skills more quickly than they usually do and, especially, to help those who would otherwise go through class never having acquired those skills.
I also had a secondary goal of helping them to be more reflective by thinking about how their views of morality and philosophy had changed through the course.
I did two main experiments:
1. I had extensive paper writing sessions. I usually spend a brief session on paper writing mainly going over some basic points about how to structure a paper, write clearly etc. This time I also spent time going over sample papers and asking the students to evaluate them in light of the criteria we had discussed. I used papers that I found on internet sites that provide papers for students who wish to cheat, partly because I didn’t have a stock of papers and also because I wanted to show my students how poor those sites are and thus give them another reason not to use them. I had the students look at the papers in small groups of 2-3 and then we discussed them as a class. I used a projector so that we could all look at the papers together up on the board and go through them line by line. We considered both general structural features of the papers (such as whether the same thesis was being consistently defended) and specific sentences, so that they could see what makes a sentence unclear or hard to read.
I also presented the students with some sample questions, asked them to write brief paper plans and spent time going over step-by-step how I would approach those questions myself.
2. I gave the 1200 students a brief online survey to fill out. The survey mostly included questions about the specific topics we were covering (e.g. “Is it morally wrong to have an abortion?”) but also had a couple about philosophy in general (e.g. “Is it ever possible for us to resolve our moral disagreements? If so, how?”).
1. I think the paper writing exercises were successful. It is hard to gauge without a larger sample and better control group, but compared to previous classes I thought the standard of paper writing was significantly higher. Notably there were almost no papers which showed a total lack of understanding of how to write philosophy.
I had thought the students would find it difficult to see the value of these sessions but, especially in my intro class, they seemed fairly appreciative of them and were quite engaged by the exercises where we evaluated papers together.
2. The survey was filled out by only about half the class and I did not use it for much else.
1. I think it is clearly useful for students for us to spend more time on paper writing, especially at the intro level, and I plan to incorporate this into most of my classes. It affects a substantial portion of their grade and is an important preparation for any higher level classes in philosophy. It is also a useful skill for the rest of their lives. In philosophy we rarely actually show students how we would write something ourselves and I think this was quite useful for the students to see.
I also think that having them evaluate papers themselves is much more engaging than simply telling them a list of rules that they have to follow and also gives them some opportunity to apply, and thus learn, the rules before they try to apply them to their own writing, which is very difficult for many of them. I plan to start collecting papers from my various classes so I can use them for future exercises where we evaluate them together (I felt it would be too embarrassing to use samples from current students, even if anonymous).
2. I might try a survey again but I would do it quite differently. I would:
a. Have them do it on paper in class. More time consuming, but it would make everyone fill it out.
b. I would ask more questions about what arguments they endorse rather than just their views on the issues. This would be more useful information I think (on this, see my colleague Chris Heathwood’s report).