Friday, May 9, 2008

Commenting on essays

I found particularly helpful the idea of using comments on drafts of a paper as a way of improving the process of writing. In particular, the idea of using rubrics to guide peer-review of drafts of papers seems an excellent one -- particularly when the student who comments on a given paper also reflects on her learning process and on how she could improve her own paper by commenting on a paper by a classmate.

The idea of focusing on two central issues when commenting on a student's paper -- what is working on the paper, and what is not working -- was also very helpful.

It also became clear to me that although there is no replacement for giving direct feedback on students' papers -- and probably there shouldn't be -- there are excellent strategies for improving the students' papers (through peer reviews and workshops) before the instructor gets to comment on the latter.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Thinking about assignments

In our discussion about assignments, we examined the importance of breaking down a large assignment (e.g. to ask a student to write a 20 page paper) into smaller parts. For example, we could ask the student to write first an abstract of the paper (and we'll give comments on that), then ask the student to turn in a first draft of the paper, covering one central issue. After receiving our comments, the student will then turn in a second and a third draft, which will also be commented on -- each draft addressing an additional issue in the paper. In this way, the process of writing such a long paper won't become dauting for the student, and we can follow the student along throughout the writing process.

Using New Media in a philosophy of art seminar

Here is one way of using New Media in a philosophy of art seminar focusing on the notions of pictorial representation and the ontology of music. (I'm actually going to be teaching such a seminar this fall.)

(a) The students should spend some time exploring the resources of a music visualization software (see

(b) After familiarizing themselves with the software, the students should identify the assumptions about picturial representation that were implicitly made in the software, and provide a critique of these assumptions.

(c) The students would then write a blog answering questions such as:

(i) Does it make sense to try to visualize music? Is music the sort of thing that can be visualized at all?

(ii) What are the benefits of music visualization? Does it help us understand and appreciate a particular musical work better? Give examples.

(iii) In which ways could the music visualization software be improved? For example, which differences could emerge if we changed the assumptions about pictorial representation that were built into the software?

Note: When I first created the course, I didn't provide connections between the two topics of the seminar (pictorial representation and the ontology of music). The assignment above offers an intriguing opportunity to explore one important connection between them -- using New Media as the missing link!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Two assignments for the Theory of Knowledge course

Here are two assignment for the course:

(A) First assignment:

(a) The students will be asked to create a blog in which they will respond to issues discussed in class. For example, if a concept introduced in class was particularly confusing, they could spell out what was unclear about the concept, and then try to clarify the issue. Or if the students disagree with a point I made in class, they should write an entry examining the nature of that disagreement, and give their reasons as to why the point I made doesn't go through. Or the students could address one of the philosophical problems discussed in class, and try to provide a solution -- even if only a very tentative one -- to that problem. Or the students could apply some of the concepts and theories discussed in class to an area of knowledge of their choice.

(b) I'd then provide comments for each of the students' entries, asking questions, and making suggestions about how the students could proceed further in their thinking.

(c) Students could then write additional entries on their blogs, responding to my comments. We would then enter into a dialogue, exploring the issues together.

(B) Second assignment:

(a) The students will be divided into groups of 4, and each group will be asked to create a wiki, characterizing a certain philosophical concept in the theory of knowledge; for example, the concept of knowledge (or justification, or truth). In their characterization, the students should try to specify (as much as possible) necessary and sufficient conditions for the concept in question.

(b) We will then compare how the different groups characterized the concept under consideration. A blog will be created in which the different groups comment on each other's work, offering criticism, constructive suggestions, and reflecting on the similarities and differences among the various characterizations that were offered.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Learning outcomes

There are 7 learning outcomes explicitly listed on the syllabus for the Theory of Knowledge course. They are listed under "course objectives", highlighting the skills that the students will be developing during the course, as they come to grips with the theory of knowledge.

The syllabus doesn't explicitly indicate how each individual learning outcome will be measured. The course requirements (short papers, answers to selected reading questions, and final papers) were supposed to measure them as a whole.

I realize, however, that it would be much better to devise specific assignments to measure each of these outcomes more directly. For example, the two writing assingments that I just created below -- one focusing on the concept of knowlege, the other on the refutation of skepticism -- could be used to measure directly the learning outcomes that deal, respectively, with the characterization of knowledge and the refutation of skepticism.

Incorporating low-stakes writing into the Theory of Knowledge course

Here are two low-stakes writing assignments for the Theory of Knowledge course:

(A) First assignment:

(a) Ask the students to characterize the notion of knowledge, identifying, in particular, conditions that are necessary for something to be taken to be knowledge, and conditions that are sufficient for that. [8 minutes]

(b) The students will then exchange their writings with a classmate, and each will be asked to think of a situation in which the conditions offered by their classmate to characterize knowledge may not hold. The students will then write down a description of that situation. [8 minutes]

(c) The students will get together and discuss their examples, and will be asked to write together a third account of knowledge that incorporates what was right about the accounts of knowledge they offered. [8 minutes]

The same format can be taken to examine additional concepts in epistemology, such as, justification, truth, evidence, etc.

(B) Second assignment:

(a) Ask the students to write about how they would refute skepticism (the claim that we don't have any knowledge of the world). [8 minutes]

(b) Get the students into groups of four, and ask them to identify the similarities and differences between their responses. [12 minutes]

(c) Each student will then write his or her response to these similarities and differences. [8 minutes]

Monday, May 5, 2008

Course sylllabi

I've looked at the syllabus for a course on scientific representation by Bas van Fraassen (from Princeton University). In terms of content, it's a terrific course! However, there is no mention of learning outcomes or how they could be measured at all...

I've also looked at the syllabus for a course on research ethics and science studies at the University of Copenhagen. Here is how the syllabus describes the aims of the course:

"The course aims at updating the participants' understanding of concepts, theories, and perspectives from philosophy (including ethics), history and social studies of science, on a more advanced level than basic introductions given in bachelor programs (like the Danish course "Fagets Videnskabsteori", i.e., basic philosophy of science)."

Again, no learning outcomes are clearly specified nor is there anything about how to measure them.

Even though this is an extremely small and obviously unrepresentative sample, I found this very puzzling indeed!