Brian Talbot


Class: Philosophy and Law (Philosophy 2220). 35 students, mostly not philosophy majors, freshmen to juniors.

Target of improvement: Student note taking. In the past I’ve noticed that students seem to write down either just what I write on the board, or some sentences that I utter. This is not very helpful for them, because most of the sentences uttered in class or written on the board are either false or highly controversial. Students need to recognize and put in their notes which sentences are clearly true, or probably true and can be asserted without argument, of are highly controversial (so if they are to be asserted, they should be argued for).

What did I do: I took a survey on the first day of class of students’ understanding of what philosophy is and how it is practiced (see appendix A). My sense was that students have problems note taking because they use note taking techniques that are appropriate for other disciplines, but not philosophy, so I wanted to see the extent to which they understood how philosophy differed from other disciplines.

I was pretty surprised by their answers to the survey. A majority of the students agreed with the following two claims: “In a philosophy class, there are no, or very few, true claims to be learned,” and “In philosophy, everything must always be argued for – everything is controversial.” I had always planned on spending some of the second class discussing the results of the survey, but their answers to these two questions (and to some others) reflected enough of a misunderstanding of philosophy that I spent a whole class session talking about methodology: e.g. what sorts of things are uncontroversially true in philosophy, and why its important that there are some things that can be asserted without argument. I explained how this related to the sorts of note taking they needed to do in the class.

During the rest of the semester, I regularly referred back to our discussion of note-taking, truth, assertability, and controversy from the first week. I would regularly point out that a certain idea, or thing I had said or written on the board, should be put in their notes in a certain way (e.g. flagged as controversial), or that if they were to assert that idea in a paper, that they would have to argue for it (or not) and why. I would also ask students sometimes whether they perceived something as assertable without argument or not, and discuss their responses. When I would ask students for arguments or counter-examples, and they would give one that was unlikely to convince others, I would often ask the rest of the class if they intuitively agreed with what was said; I would then talk about how the results of the quick poll reflected on the argument or counter-example just given in light of our understanding of truth, assertability, and controversy (i.e. if the point/example given was widely seen as implausible, it would need additional evidence, or should be abandoned for an easier to use example).

About ¼ of the way through the semester, I gave students a homework assignment (see Appendix B) that required them to turn in their notes for a specific week of class, marked up in a certain way. Specifically, they needed to indicate which of the things they had written down was definitely true, which was probably true and was uncontroversial, what was controversial, what was likely false, and what was definitely false. I wanted to assess if they were able to make these distinctions accurately and if these distinctions were reflected in their notes. The students did generally fairly well on this, but to some extent I assigned it at a bad time – the week ended up being one in which we mostly talked about fairly uncontroversial stuff (lots of definitions and elaboration of concepts and methods).

What difference did this make: I had hoped these changes would improve student papers, but to be honest, I’m not entirely sure they did. I’ve changed my grading standards from previous semesters, so I can’t compare grades to see if these changes improved grades. I have not had the time to sit down and compare my comments on previous semesters’ papers to my comments on this semester’s papers to see if students made fewer of certain kinds of errors. My sense is that the papers did improve in some ways; they tended to give more arguments for points that, in the past, they did not see a need to argue for. And no papers made blatant errors that reflected bad note taking (for example, in the past, students have sometimes cited as facts things said in class that were later pointed out to be false).

I feel that these changes improved discussion in class. I felt that students were able to understand more readily why we argue the way we do in philosophy, and what was expected of them when making an argument. But I don’t have much evidence for this other than the quality of class discussions, and admittedly it’s tough to compare that to classes in past semesters.

What worked, and what did I learn: Subjectively, I felt good about all the things I did this semester. And they didn’t seem to hurt the class. So I will definitely incorporate them into future classes.

I think I should time the note-taking homework better next time (assign it for a week that there is a wide range of types of material covered), so that the results I get are more useful for me. Also, I might assign a follow-up homework for the few students who didn’t do well on it the first time.

I forgot to implement one thing from my initial plan: asking students at the end of the semester about philosophical methods and note taking, and what they wished they had known sooner. I will try to implement that next time.

I think I might also try to spend some time before each paper to review some views that are commonly given in papers, and discuss to what extent they can be assumed to be true, and to what extent they require argument. It occurs to me that, even if students take decent notes, they may not review them before a paper in the same way that they would review them before a test, and so even if their notes tell them that some point is not assertable without argument, they may not recall this when writing the paper.

Looking back at my plans at the beginning of the semester from this institute, I also realized that I was a bit over-ambitious in terms of what I hoped to implement in this class. I had hoped to do a number of short reflection papers that I didn’t do. I didn’t do these this semester due to time limitations (short reflection papers don’t take long to do in class, but discussing later what I saw in those papers takes time). Evidence suggests to me that I’m a bit on the slow side as a teacher – I tend to cover less content than many, perhaps most, other philosophy teachers. That’s mostly intentional, but it means that I can’t really cut content out of my class. I also can’t cut out depth of discussion without giving up on my teaching goals. This is making it challenging for me to add components to my classes that take time. I think I need to reflect more on this.

Sharing with colleagues: Some of the philosophy graduate students are starting a wiki to compile summaries of different readings, arguments, and theories to make it easier for new teachers to get up to speed on them. I’ve been talking to them about including lesson plans and handouts that people have used to teach about these. If they want to include that sort of thing on the wiki, I’d definitely contribute some of what I’ve discussed here.

Appendix A (beginning of semester survey):
Philosophy 2220
First day survey

1. How many philosophy classes have you taken before this (don’t count any you are taking this semester)?


2. How confident do you feel in your ability to take notes well in a philosophy class?
a) very confident

b) somewhat confident

c) not that confident

d) no confidence at all

3. Circle all of the following that you believe:

a) In a philosophy class, there are no, or very few, true claims to be learned

b) To do philosophy, all I have to do is to give my opinion

c) In a philosophy class, I will not have to learn anything that another student says

d) In philosophy, everything must always be argued for – everything is controversial

e) When taking notes, I should just write down everything the teacher puts on the board

f) Everything idea a teacher talks about is one that they think is true, and I should memorize it

g) In a philosophy class, all I need to learn are the main ideas and the evidence supporting them

h) When I do the assigned reading for class, I should treat everything an author says as true

i) It does not matter what I think about the issues we discuss in class

Appendix B (note taking homework)
Philosophy 2220 - Homework on Note Taking

As we discussed, student in philosophy classes sometimes have difficulty taking useful notes. This homework is to check that you are taking useful notes. If you are, it should be very easy. If you are not, it will help you improve, and also help me to give you any assistance you need.

Before I explain the homework, I'll repeat some ideas we covered in class.

In philosophy, some concepts are:
true and uncontroversially true (not only are they true, everyone who understands the subject agrees that they are true)
uncontroversially true but possibly false controversial (lots of disagreement about whether they are true or false)
uncontroversially false but possibly true
false and uncontroversially false (not only are they false, everyone who understands the subject agrees that they are false)

This is important because no one has time to argue for everything they believe. One sign that you can stop arguing is when no one is arguing with you. So, being able to recognize what is controversial or uncontroversial is important in order to know what needs to be argued for and what not. However, not everything that is widely believed to be true really is true, and there are some uncontroversial claims that you are welcome to disagree with, as long as you can support your view. It's important that you can tell this apart from those claims that no one should ever argue for (or against).

Because this is so important, your notes need to distinguish between these different categories.

Here is your assignment: On Monday, January 31st, turn in a copy of all of your notes for this week (from Monday, Jan 24 to Friday Jan 28). If you want to type your notes up, awesome. If you want to just xerox your handwritten notes, fine. But don't just hand in your notes; go through your notes and, using some sort of colored pens, pencils, or highlighters, indicate what category everything in your notes belongs to (put colored boxes around members of each category, or use colored highlighters, or underline them in various colors). Use the following colors:

LEAVE BLANK: true and uncontroversially true
YELLOW: uncontroversially true but possibly false
RED (PINK is fine too): controversial (lots of disagreement about whether they are true or false)
GREEN: uncontroversially false but possibly true
BLUE: false and uncontroversially false (not only are they false, everyone who understands the subject agrees that they are false)

You will be graded on whether you have the key concepts in your notes, and whether they are appropriately color coded (which shows that you understand our discussions).


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