I received the following query today by email:
I'm a grad student in philosophy...and love reading the philosophers cocoon- I think it's a great service to the profession and I really appreciate what you've done. I was wondering if you might like to pose the following question to readers: What bottlenecks to learning have you come across when teaching philosophy courses- that is, what are areas where many students "consistently fail to master crucial material"? I think it would be most helpful to get answers to this question with respect to specific courses- that is, bottlenecks specific to ethics, intro, etc- I'm teaching critical thinking in the fall so I am particularly interested in bottlenecks specific to critical thinking.
I think this is a great question, and would be curious to see what answers everyone has to offer. For my part, I can't think offhand of area-specific bottlenecks (e.g. for ethics, etc), but I can think of at least two general bottlenecks that I think I've found good solutions to.
The first bottleneck -- which I'm sure most of us are all too familiar with -- is students in introductory classes failing to understand the difference between giving arguments versus merely giving opinions. For relatively obvious reasons, students seem to come into philosophy classes thinking philosophy is just a matter of giving opinions. The problem then, of course, is that they have a very hard time giving this up. No matter how often you say philosophy is not just a matter of giving opinions, and try to demonstrate how arguments are given, students still end up writing crappy papers where they essentially state their opinion. To which I've developed the following answer: I tell my students, "Any time you assert something in a paper, your next sentence should automatically begin, "A skeptical reader might object as follows. If, after a great deal of thought, you cannot then answer the skeptic without just asserting your opinion again, you have to go back and erase the opinion you assserted in the first place. You cannot assert things that you cannot provide a skeptic a good answer to." I then explain that, if they want to well in the course, this is probably the single most important thing to learn, and that it is what makes philosophy so hard. They still struggle with it, of course, but I find that it helps a great deal.
A second bottleneck I've found -- which I also expect a lot of people have experience with -- is the tendency of students to try to defend their paper's thesis "at all costs." Basically, they have their mind made up what they want to defend heading into their paper, and they try to defend that thesis no matter how bad their arguments look. I've found the best way to deal with this problem is to reframe how to write papers. I tell them, "Look, your job in a philosophy paper is not to defend a thesis at all costs. Think of a philosophy paper as like solving a math problem. You don't know the answer to a complex math problem until you've worked out the math. Here, then, is the way you should go about writing a philosophy paper. Don't begin by stating a thesis and then try to defend it throuhout the rest of the paper. Instead, begin your paper by stating the problem under consideration. Next, try to work out the problem on paper for your reader, raising every objection you can to every point you want to make. The end result of this process -- the process of writing the paper -- is that you will find out what thesis you can effectively defend. In other words, I tell them: don't write your paper to defend your thesis; write the paper to figure out what your thesis is. I've found this one really works wonders...
Anyway, what teaching bottlenecks (and possible solutions to them) do you all have to offer?