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This might be true in cases where the class you are teaching is optional. If the students know that you/your department/this particular class is demanding and that "A" grades will not be handed out lightly, lazy and grade-grubbing students will self-select out of your classes. For the most part I have found this to be true (though not universally so) in upper-level classes or classes that are required only for majors. If, however, the class is required and the students have no option but to take the class I have seen some pretty abysmal behavior. For example, I had one student this semester who emailed me several times to tell me that the assignments were too hard in a way that suggested the fair thing for me to do was to excuse him from doing them or except something less. I regularly receive comments on evaluations that philosophy classes are "too hard" and "too much work" particularly if these courses are required for majors from the business school (at my university all students from the business school are required to take one introductory level philosophy class). I think you are right that in a situation where more is expected of them some students will rise to the occasion. Unless you are at a particularly elite institution, I doubt that this is true of all of them.

Alternatively, our felt differences in student reactions to demanding requirements could reflect a documented gender bias. Students are, in general, more likely to rate a female instructor harshly. Perhaps students are more likely to think that requirements from a male instructor are demanding but fair, while ones from a female instructor are unfair.

Marcus Arvan

AGS: Thanks for your comment. Most of the students who take my courses take them because they "have to" for their core requirements -- but my evaluations have been just as positive in those courses, so I don't think that's it.

Your point about gender is important, I agree. I've heard of students behaving in absolutely atrocious ways to women faculty, and I find it entirely plausible, given the things I've heard, that many students respond in a more positive way to demanding male instructors than to demanding female ones.

It might be nice to have a post here discussing women faculty's classroom experiences and teaching strategies...

Michael J. Augustin

I have had similar experiences (i.e., some, but not the majority of, students complained). Glad to hear that you've got a good group of students down there!


I have similar experiences at a small SRLAC, though I did not at large regional state u. previously. I've always chalked it up to the way in which the environment socializes students to know that expectations are high but that faculty will do whatever they can to help students meet those expectations. Not everyone gets the message, but those that do rise to the challenges and thrive. This then seems to contribute to stronger evaluations.

There is in fact evidence that suggests that expectation for grade is the only real predictor of student evaluation. That is, if students go into a class thinking it should be easy and do less well than they expect they should have done, they will be dissatisfied (whether they expected and A and got a B+ or expected a B and got a C). So if students go into a class thinking it will be hard and demanding and discover that they can do it, they may be more likely to have overall good feelings about the class.

But, I think you are on to something important here: Students need to learn what they can do and it's our job to facilitate that.

Great post!


I got "punished" from two male students on my course evals this term (just got them back yesterday) for daring to teach feminist epistemology in a 3rd year epistemology class.

I've noticed that students tend to find women less objective and fair than men. I get comments to these effects when generally all I do in class is push on people's ideas and arguments (just like other faculty!) and present alternative viewpoints. Sure, sometimes I let them know what I think about something (not often), but lots of faculty do that. It's as if our having our own opinions isn't allowed.

Rob Gressis

Hi Marcus,

I think I've asked this question before, but I'd like to ask it again, as I'm doing a wholly new prep for the coming fall semester: could I have some specifics?

So, for an intro to philosophy class, could you give an example of two assignments you gave in a class, as well as some of the reading assignment they were in reference to? I'm trying to gauge how hard you make these assignments. (I'm almost certain you assign significantly harder things than I assign.)


Hi Marcus,

You mentioned your students had to take your class as part of a core requirement. Are these phil majors and this is a major requirement? Or just a GE requirement? I have found that your method is much easier with majors than non-majors.

On the gender issue: I do think there are different expectations of female/male instructors. I have a male friend who is a very serious guy. His mannerisms are reserved, he doesn’t smile a lot, etc. He gets great teaching reviews. I have found that whenever I (I’m a female) do not take efforts to smile a lot, act cheery, change my tone of voice, and so on, students complain that I am ‘too serious’ or ‘do not have enough enthusiasm.” So I go ahead and do what does not come naturally. Life isn’t fair. Oh well.


Is regularly handing out C's and D's really "draconian"? Maybe I don't know what you mean by "regularly" but I would have thought this is normal. Am I mistaken about this-are C's and D's unusual?

Marcus Arvan

Sorry for taking so long to reply everyone; I'm on vacation! But anyway, thanks for all your comments. Here are some thoughts in reply...

Rachel: A suggestion--I've found from a great deal of past experience that students sometimes don't respond well to just "pushing on people's ideas and arguments" (since you say this is generally "all" you do in class). My experience has been that students sometimes (rightfully so) experience this as "chess-piece-moving." It can come off as a bit rote. I find that what students want (and again I would say rightly so) is a philosopher with a *point-of-view*. I try to make my courses a "story" where I don't just "go through the arguments and objections", but instead *push* particular arguments -- ones that, after 20 years of doing philosophy, I think are particularly strong. I think this gives students a feeling of passion: that here you have a philosopher attempting to do real research in the classroom. I am going to write a post on this momentarily.

B.M.: I don't know what everyone else's standards are, but here's what I do know. First, at both of the grad programs I was in, we TA's were taught to "aim for" a B- average for our students. Grades of C or lower were uncommon, with D's *very* uncommon. Second, grade inflation is rampant at the university I am at now (University of Tampa). I have heard of classes where literally *every* student finished with an 'A' grade. So, at least in terms of the standards I learned in two grad school programs and the standards at my university now, my grading standard now are definitely "draconian."

Anonymous: I meant core requirements for the university (so, non-majors). We only have about 25 philosophy majors. Over 95% of my students are non-majors. Also, fwiw, I find my students respond better to me when I'm cheerful rather than stern, and I definitely change my tone of voice a lot (I tend to be very animated in the classroom). In the past I was more "serious", and even though I'm male, my students didn't like it so much in my case either (note: I don't "go for entertainment" in the classroom. I try to be genuinely passionate about what I'm teaching).

Rob: here are a few examples of group assignments -- the first one for a course on Plato and Aristotle, the second for Philosophy of Law, the third from a course in Ethics:

*Aristotle Assignment*
1. What four different types of causes does Aristotle present in Physics? Explain each type of cause in detail. (see pp. 337 and 341)

2. What is his *general* form of argument for the existence of each type of cause? (see p. 341)

3. Motivate an objection to that form of argument.

*Philosophy of Law Assignment*
1. What does Owen Fiss think is wrong about understanding the “nondiscrimination principle” (and by extension the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment) in terms of nondiscrimination against *individuals*? (pp. 555-6)

2. How does Fiss think that laws/judicial rulings that specifically advance the political power of blacks as a group can be justified under the nondiscrimination (and Equal Protection Clause)? (pp. 557-560)

3. Are Fiss’ arguments persuasive? Explain and justify your answer.

*Ethics Assignment*
1. What does Kant take the “sensible” world to be? (pp. 343 last paragraph-344 first para)

2. What does Kant take the “intellectual” world to be? (all of p. 344)

3. Why does Kant think our experience of ourselves as members of the intellectual world commits us to obey the Categorical Imperative? (p. 345, section 3)

4. What would Kant say to the immoralist, who claims to see no reason to behave morally when they could benefit from behaving immorally?

Rob Gressis

Hi Marcus,

Thanks for your reply. So, you gave four questions in your ethics assignment.
Does that set of four questions count as only one such assignment?
If so, does that mean you would give *two* assignments, each consisting of three to four questions of the sort you gave?
And this is *per class*?
And you grade all of these with comments?
And return them back the next class?

If so, that blows my mind. Absolutely floors me. I have zero idea how on earth you can do all that and be so productive with your research as well.

Maybe this would bring my mind back a bit: about how long is a good answer to, say, question 3 of the Kant assignment? Because I can see a good answer to that easily being one to two pages. But if an acceptable answer is, say, a couple of sentences, that's more imaginable.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Rob: Every class meeting, my students (A) have to bring one 1/2 page individual reading response to class, and then (B) complete *two* group assignments in class.

I give detailed comments on individual reading responses (25 students x 3 classes = 75 reading responses both Tuesday and Thursday). This is a *ton* of grading, but it serves my students well.

The group assignments are a bit different. The first assignment comes at the beginning of class and is based on reading assigned for that day (the 4 Kant questions here are an example of one such assignment). The second assignment comes at the end of my lecture, and always consists of 1-3 questions on the content of my lecture.

Because groups are comprised of 3-5 students, I typically have 6-8 group assignments per class per day. I do *not* write many comments on them (only a few), as we discuss the answers in detail in class and in my lectures. So grading these goes pretty quickly. How long a given answer is depends on the group. Some groups give several-sentence answers. Others write maybe a half-page per answer.

To address your question about #3 of the Kant assignment, I would consider an acceptable answer to be a good-sized paragraph.

At the end of the day, I'll say this. I *do* work myself into the ground...but I sort of enjoy it the way that some people enjoy a good work-out. The sheer amount of grading I do *used* to feel absolutely crushing, but I've gotten so much more efficient at it over time, and the end results -- student improvement, student reviews, etc. -- make it all worth it. I've also become much more efficient in terms of research. As I've written posts on here before, I used to spend *months* writing papers. These days, I often finish full drafts of papers in just a week or two. A few years ago this would have been absolutely unimaginable to me (writing a good paper in a week? Seriously?). I mean it. It used to take me *forever* to get things done. However, the research and teaching strategies I've experimented with have increased my efficiency in seemingly exponential ways. This is in large part why I've been so outspoken on this blog advocating that people try them out. I know some of you (you?) are skeptical, but the strategies have completely changed my life.

Rob Gressis

Hi Marcus,

I'm not skeptical. I believe what you're saying. It's just depressing to me that I could probably do this too and don't.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I've tried, but something always seems to come up and make it hard to establish a habit. To me, these strategies seem like diets: there are some diets that have been proven to work, but many people don't seem to have the willpower to put them into practice, even if they know that going on the diets would give them more energy, make them enjoy food more, etc.

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