Colin Mathers: The Practice and Products of Philosophy

Background: Students taking the General Education course PHIL 102 Introduction to Moral Issues complete a workbook in which they solve more than 100 problems, engaging them in the practice and the products of philosophy. Students respond to problems from lessons and readings, focusing on a variety of topics such as physician-assisted suicide, famine relief, and capital punishment. Students practice identifying contemporary ethical questions and relevant positions throughout the workbook.   

Why I like this assignment: The workbook assignment reminds me of how one approaches a math course: having students work through increasingly challenging and complex problems, improving their skills while receiving feedback from instructors and peers. Such formative assessment helps students see the gap between where they are and where they need to be to succeed in the course and helps the instructor tailor class time to bridge that gap.

Lessons learned: Over the years, I’ve refined the workbook problems along with my teaching practices. Some changes include asking students to apply their knowledge to topics not covered in class and prompting students to provide rich detail in their answers. These requirements are incorporated into my scoring. One of the most impactful changes I have made involves goal setting. I provide students with clearly stated goals in the assignment instructions, so they know why I am asking them to do this work. I also include an early semester exercise in which students set their own goals related to the course and assignment, as I’ve found that they are motivated to fulfill personal goals.

I ask students, “What do you expect to achieve by the combination of engaging in the practice of philosophy and developing a thorough understanding of the products of philosophy?”  The responses I receive are often insightful, such as:  

  • “I hope, by studying the practices and products of philosophy, I am able to develop tools and critical thinking mechanisms that I will be able to use in many aspects of life.  I would like the ability to form strong arguments, but also spot those with bad reasoning.  I would like to be able to find the answers to my own ethical dilemmas and also comprehend alternate views.”
  • “If all you do is [examine] the products of philosophy, you may spend your time only hearing the theories of others, instead of developing your own beliefs.  However, you must also engage [in the practice of philosophy] to avoid privately thinking “in a bubble.”  This can help you avoid rehashing the same arguments others had and help you see weaknesses in your belief system.  I expect to personally gain a better understanding of why I believe what I believe and to cut off portions of my beliefs I cannot justify.”

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