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Okay, so the big worry is that the instructor will open things up to discussion and the students will say nothing, or very little. There are at least two ways to get students engaged: (1) be charismatic in such a way as to wake everyone up and inspire excitement and (2) get all the students to do all of the reading. I don't know how exactly to achieve (1) if it doesn't come naturally, but luckily any un-charismatic schmo can easily achieve (2). If you can get them to do all of the reading, then many of them will want to speak because they have invested their time and energy into reading and attempting to understand the reading, and they won't fear being exposed as frauds who haven't done the reading, because they won't be frauds! This won't magically turn the chronically shy students into big-time talkers, but in my experience it is, pound for pound, the most efficient and effective way to generate active, fun, and productive class discussion.
How do you get them to do the reading? Here are some of the things I do.
A) Pick short, manageable readings. This can't be overemphasized. Most philosophers choose readings that their adviser used to assign and they do so without re-reading them (i.e., they may re-read them before class, but not before putting them on the syllabus). I can't condemn this strongly enough. Read through what you were planning on assigning and ask yourself as you go through every sentence how this will be perceived by undergraduates with various levels of experience and philosophical competence. Do they really need to read that two page digression into hard-core game theory that doesn't add much to the argument? Make the readings as short and accessible as possible.
B) For every bit of reading that you assign, you must make sure that the class discusses it. This point is most relevant for the most dedicated students. Here is what so-often happens. A dedicated student reads through those two pages on game theory and struggles--really struggles--to understand it. Their friends are going to a party, but they stay in because they read through the reading once and they couldn't wrap their head around those damn two pages, and they need to forego some fun to read them several more times. Then they get to class and that game theory stuff is never mentioned. The other students obviously didn't read it, and the instructor seems to think that it isn't so important anyway. The student will ask herself, 'Why the hell did I kill myself trying to understand it then?' You can be sure she will not make the same mistake again. So go through the reading before putting it on the syllabus and excise all of the bits that you wouldn't be willing to interrupt an otherwise productive discussion to make sure to touch on.
C) [Insert Marcus's suggestion about reading responses].
D) Give them quizzes. Not as good as reading responses, but easier and faster to grade.
E) Cold-call students in class. This will put some moderate fear in them, which can be very useful for getting them to do the reading, and it can encourage otherwise shy students to speak more (i.e., once a shy student hears her voice out loud she often realizes that speaking is not a disaster as does so voluntarily; this has happened to me several times.) Warning: cold-calling can instill a combative relationship between instructor and student; it should only be used if the instructor is socially competent enough to cold-call in a kind-hearted way that avoids combativeness.


Two things I do, and they've worked pretty well for me to get productive student discussion:

With any reading assignment, I give them a set of reading questions (4-6 usually) and they're basically questions about the reading (and mostly about the argument) that students can use to check their comprehension as they're reading. (I find that a lot of students, even at the 4th year level, still need some assistance identifying what portions of a text are more important for understanding the argument and what portions aren't. These questions help them identify which passages and sections to spend more time with than others.) One way this helps discussion is that the students come in already having thought about the same few issues and questions--ones that I've told them they should think about--and so there's more coherence to the discussion than there otherwise would be.

I have students submit discussion questions to me prior to class (200 or so words) where they develop a question or objection or whatever it is they'd like the class to talk about. I get the questions, read them over, and compile them into a handout (with some editing) that then forms the agenda for class discussion. So the students read the handout at the beginning of class and we go from there. This has worked really well for me: the agenda is generated by the students and so they're invested in it, but I get to do some quality control (which students seem to appreciate, even for their own submissions), and it's almost always the case that the agenda ends up covering everything I'd plan for us to talk about (this probably the effect of the reading questions).

Malcolm Keating

Students typically don't know how to discuss philosophy, so I think it's important to teach them how to do this. At the beginning of the semester, we play a "game" which involves each student being assigned a role. We start with a question that I give the class, and each student must play their role once before contributing in another manner.

We talk about what the possible roles are in advance, and then after the game, we talk about what they learned. Usually they come to see that their job in class is not necessarily to give a brilliant devastating objection, but to move conversation forward, through referring to past questions, citing the text, connecting two conversational threads, etc. This relieves the pressure they feel about contributing and gives them a structure for the rest of the term. It also teaches them to talk with one another rather than to me.

It is also helpful for teaching them writing and reading, since similar patterns are present there.

Finally, after hearing Jyl Gentzler talk about discussion questions, I have started using a rubric which evaluates them, so students learn what count as good questions. This includes their ability to motivate the question's importance and to identify its origin (e.g. location in the text). The point value is low, and the evaluation involves three discrete options (poor, good, excellent) so grading takes little time.


I very much agree with short, manageable readings. The vast majority of seminars I have taken were random discussions not based on the readings, because almost no one did the readings. And this includes grad seminars. Manageable reading assignments makes students far more likely to complete them. I know that if I felt the reading was manageable, I would read carefully. But if it was too much I wouldn't bother at all. I knew in those cases that if I did just part of the readings, knowing my luck it wouldn't be anything we discussed.

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