One of the hardest things I find my students struggling with is not grappling with deep philosophical thoughts, or technical jargon (to be fair, they do struggle with these as well), but it’s in the application of course material. Most often, when my students submit work for me to evaluate, they submit work that is either:
- straight opinion (read: a submission that is not structured as an argument with evidence and connecting ideas through logic); or
- an attempt to solve or provide a definitive response for all the problems of this philosophical issue in about a page.
The thing my students don’t realize is that I don’t care whether they “solve” the philosophical problem. Granted, I don’t expect them to be able to solve the problem in a page, but that’s not the point.
The purpose of the exercise is for me to check the thought-process of whether they are able to understand the material and work with it.
I was recently chatting with a Program Chair about her time teaching engineering courses. She noted that often she’d give problem sets that lacked defined measurements, and her students would pause to ask what the length or value of the unknowns are. She was very frank that she didn’t care what number their calculator displayed because it was more important for her to see whether the students could think through the problem, manipulate the equations, and understand how to go about solving a problem. For her, the solution was extraneous for the purposes of the class – it was a quick and convenient way to mark an answer right or wrong, but not entirely indicative of whether the student was understanding the concepts.
Now, you may say that this is all well and good for engineering, but how does that apply to philosophy (“But, philosophy has no right answers!!!) or any of the other soft sciences or humanities disciplines.
The truth is that the faster you try to apply the concepts, the easier it is to learn and make the concepts stick, and it’s not all that different across disciplines. If you are trying to learn a concept, the best thing you can do is to try to take what you think you are learning, and apply it to a novel situation. By focusing less on the details and working with the core concepts, you get a chance to see what makes sense to you and where your gaps in knowledge are.
For the course I teach, the students work their way through the online module materials, which includes extra readings, embedded videos, probing questions, links to additional sources, etc. Then, after a round of discussion board posts, the students have a weekly essay prompt related to the week’s topic.
Early in the course, my students will often reply strictly to the essay question with what they think the right answer is. Through my weekly rubric feedback and general emails to the class, I encourage them to go back to the module content and apply the concepts they are learning to the essay prompt. What would so and so say about this concept? How does this school of thought define this concept? Do you agree with how this concept gets framed?
The point of undergraduate philosophy courses is not for students to generate original philosophical thought. That is an aim, but it shouldn’t be the outcome. Instead, the instructor should be guiding the students to think better and understand the concepts being covered so that they can then apply it in novel situations.
When studying, a good way to learn the concepts it to try and extract the ideas from how the author framed them and see how you can apply those ideas in new ways. It reinforces the learning and helps to spot gaps in understanding in a way that straight memorization doesn’t provide.