Chris Heathwood


Course context

In Spring 2011, I taught PHIL 3100 (Ethical Theory) and PHIL 1200 (Philosophy and Society), honors. 3100 is required for all philosophy majors. It had 35 students – just about all juniors and seniors. 1200 is a lower level course in applied ethics, requiring no background in philosophy. This honors section of it had only 14 students, mostly freshmen and sophomores.

Targets of improvement/evidence

In PHIL 3100, there are three substantial in-class exams, which make-up 60% of the final grade. They consist of short-answer questions. But I realized that I’ve never really directly worked on students’ ability to answer such questions effectively. Many student have trouble being clear, addressing just what the question is asking, not including superfluous information, and making their answers and explanations go deep enough.

In PHIL 1200, I wanted to learn the students beliefs going into the course about the topics we would cover. I wanted them to have a teacher who better understood their initial views on the material for our course.

What did you do?

PHIL 3100: EXAM PREPARATION: For each of the three units of the course, I did an in-class exercise designed to help the students learn how to answer short-answer exam questions effectively.

In one kind of exercise, I wrote a sample exam question on the board – of the sort that would require about a paragraph-long answer – and asked students to answer it on a sheet of paper as they would if it were an exam. Students then swapped answers with a partner, and each student was to critique his or her partners answer, saying both what was right about it and what could be improved. Once that was done, I asked for volunteers to share answers and/or critiques. In the ensuing discussion, I tried to get others in the class either to agree or disagree with the critiques, and to add any additional evaluations to it. I always made sure to make it clear what my own assessment was, and how I would have graded the answer were it on a real exam.

In the other kind of exercise, I distributed a handout containing a sample exam question followed by three different sample answers, one excellent, one mediocre, and one poor. I had students get into groups of two or three to figure out together which answer was which. I asked them to be prepared to justify their rankings by appealing to specific elements from the sample answers. I reminded them to look out for omissions and for parts of answers containing irrelevant information. Then we went through the three answers as a class, with students sharing why they ranked the questions as they did.

What I did here I would describe as both a new classroom assessment and evidence gathering technique and a new teaching strategy. I did these throughout the semester (once per each 5-or-so-week unit of the course).

PHIL 1200: BEGINNING-OF-SEMESTER QUESTIONNAIRE: In this class, we were going to discuss a handful of stand-alone topics in applied ethics (e.g., abortion, vegetarianism, world poverty, human cloning, parent licensing). To help me learn students’ initial thoughts on these issues, I distributed a paper-based questionnaire on the first day of class (due the next class meeting). For each of our topics, I asked (i) a multiple-choice moral question (e.g., “I am inclined to think that eating meat probably IS / IS NOT [circle one] morally wrong”), and (ii) why they believe whatever they answered to (i). So this second question was asking essentially for an argument from the student for the conclusion that the act in question either is or is not wrong.

The questionnaires were anonymous, did not count towards their grade, and I did not return them (though I did talk about them regularly throughout the semester.)

This was new classroom assessment and evidence gathering rather than a new teaching strategy. I did it early in the semester.

What difference did it make?

PHIL 3100: EXAM PREPARATION: I thought the discussions we had in connection with these exercises were good. I felt that relevant and helpful guidance was given during them. But the nature of the exercises made it hard to know just what difference it was making for their grades. I can’t say that there was a marked different in exam quality, but I would not be surprised if some students, especially those around the middle of the curve, were helped by the exercises.

I plan to look out for any student feedback on these exercises on my FCQ’s (when they come in). In retrospect, I should have, on FCQ day, reminded students of this and said that I’d especially welcome any feedback on it.

PHIL 1200: BEGINNING-OF-SEMESTER QUESTIONNAIRE: This experiment definitely made a difference. I changed what I talked about in response to these results. For example, in the vegetarianism unit, I addressed some of the reasons students gave for thinking it ok to eat meat that I otherwise wouldn’t have addressed (e.g., several student suggested that it is ok to eat meat because evolution has inclined us towards meat-eating; we consequently spent a whole day discussing this argument). The same sort of thing happened in the abortion unit (quite a few students said that abortion is ok because in cases in which a woman would want to abort, she would not be ready to raise the child, and thus the child would have gotten a bad life anyway; we spent some time on this argument, which I would not have addressed otherwise). For the human cloning unit, I learned that some students had mistaken factual beliefs about cloning (e.g., that a clone is the same person as the person from whom he/she was cloned, that a clone would have the same beliefs, desires, etc. as the person from whom he/she was cloned; I would never have thought that my students would have had these confusions about cloning, and so it was very useful to learn about them and address them).

How did assessment and feedback gathering help you make adjustments mid-semester?

I didn’t make any adjustments in PHIL 3100 (nor did I expect to, given the nature of the assessment), but the feedback I received in PHIL 1200 prompted some significant course changes. We spent a number of days discussing issues I would not have discussed at all were it not for the questionnaires.

What did you learn? What’s next?

I learned the value of surveys. Take-home surveys: (i) allow the students to reflect on their answers (as compared to in-class questioning), (ii) allow the student to be anonymous (to each other and even to me), (iii) allow the student to answer honestly without fear of “looking dumb,” and (iv) allow participation of everyone (not just those who are courageous enough to speak in class). I plan to incorporate these much more in future classes, even graduate courses.

I learned that for the exam preparation exercises, I should probably actually collect these and give feedback on them. Although this is a lot more work, it will give me a much better sense how well the students are understanding the material and it will give students a much better sense of what is expected of them on exams (by making my own critiques of each of their answers, and giving these to them).

Sharing with colleagues

I plan to send an email to my colleagues reporting on how useful I found the survey. I also plan to see if the others in the philosophy cohort from this seminar want to put together a document to share with our department, or perhaps do a short presentation about it at a meeting.


I include two attachments: (1) one handout I made for the PHIL 3100 exam preparation exercises, and (2) the survey I used for PHIL 1200.


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