In my last post, I talked about the different options you have for the kind of course you design: survey courses, deep dives, etc. The decisions you make here have important consequences for another big set of choices you have, about learning outcomes (sometimes called ‘learning goals’ or ‘learning objectives’). There are lots of great things already written about what learning outcomes are in general, and how to pick which ones to build your class around, so I won’t belabor the point. In an earlier post, I collected a bunch of teaching links that you can check out, supplemented by reader suggestions, here; the material here, here, here and here are, I think, particularly helpful, and you can also find a useful quiz to help you figure out what outcomes you gravitate towards here.
I’ll focus instead on some philosophy-specific considerations regarding learning outcomes, and talk a bit about how learning outcomes connect to other issues.
So, first question, what learning outcomes should a philosophy class have? Well, that depends on the class. If you’re teaching intro logic, then things like ‘Competency in translating English sentences into predicate logic’ are pretty obvious and important. This is a good example of a skill-based learning outcome. There are also content-based learning outcomes, like ‘Fluency with first-order normative theories’. You’ll almost assuredly have at least one skill-based learning outcome and one content-based learning outcome specific to the particular class you’re teaching, regardless of the kind of class it is. You want these outcomes to be precise and narrowly targeted, and to focus on a capacity rather than on a mere activity. So, for example, ‘Improve critical thinking’ is too nebulous, and ‘Understand Plato’s metaphysics’ is too ambitious, while ‘Defend your preferred view of innate ideas’ is too narrow and doesn’t say anything about the state your students will (hopefully) be in once they’ve completed the class.
Beyond these course-specific outcomes, any philosophy class can incorporate goals that demonstrate what makes philosophy valuable as a discipline. We don’t have a monopoly on any particular ability (at least not that I can think of), but there are a number of things for which studying philosophy provides especially good training. For example:
- Sensitivity to ambiguity, equivocation, etc.
- Clarity & Precision in communication
- Succinctness & Relevancy in communication
- Validity & Rigor in communication
- Literacy with difficult texts
I find that it can be quite valuable to explicitly incorporate these kinds of outcomes into your course, because this is where the value of studying philosophy can be made most obvious. There is, of course, a cottage industry of trying to justify philosophy to those who aren’t already on board (e.g., Daily Nous’s collection here). But I find that if you have to say to your students ‘Philosophy is valuable, because …’, it can look like you’re on the defensive, and that’s not a good way to start a class. This is especially true with big picture, ‘asking the important questions’ claims. A lot of students don’t (yet) care about the big questions in philosophy. But when you can say to you students “Ever get an 8 paragraph email at work, and it turns out only three sentences matter? Don’t you hate that? Well, one thing we’re going to practice in this class is how to communicate efficiently, so you won’t be that guy”, then you’ve got a better chance of getting them on board early. And that makes it a lot easier to show how cool Mencius is or why asking whether tables exist isn’t a stupid question.
So, you’ll have some skill-based learning outcomes, some content-based outcomes, and some more general ability-based outcomes. Big question is, how do you implement them? The short answer is, by using assignments, activities, and materials that are conducive to those outcomes. Easier said than done, of course. I’ll save discussion of specific ideas for a later post. For now, though, I do what to stress an issue I sometimes see. In the first post in this series, I complained about what I think of as ‘inertia’, the tendency to design the classes you teach on the model of the classes you took yourself, when many philosophy classes are not particularly well-designed. The relationship between learning outcomes and course content is one of the main places for inertia to cause a disconnect. To give just one example, just about every philosophy class has a learning outcome about critical thinking skills. But for many courses, the things we do in class, and the assignments we use, don’t actually practice this skill: instead, they focus more on reading comprehension and application (e.g. ‘what is the definition of X’ or ‘How do theories A and B differ about case C?’).
Once you’ve settled on your learning outcomes, you then have to think about how specifically to design your course around those outcomes. In some cases, this is pretty easy: the way to get good at truth tables is to do a bunch of them, so we’ll have assignments where you make or check truth tables. In other cases, it isn’t so obvious: is it even possible to teach communication skills in a 100-person class where you’re basically stuck with Scantron multiple choice exams? But regardless of the outcomes you choose and the kind of course you’re teaching, you should put a lot of thought into how exactly each assignment, each activity, each reading assignment, etc., will help your students develop the relevant outcomes.
The main take-away here is that learning outcomes don’t come naturally. If you want your students to develop certain skills, competencies, or abilities, you have to design your course to teach, model, and practice them. If you’ve got a learning outcome that your class doesn’t target, it would be better to replace it, or drop it entirely, rather than to leave it dangling. And in general, less is more here: better to pursue 3-4 outcomes with a single-minded focus than to dilute your (and your students’) efforts over 6-8.