Our books

Become a Fan

« Are philosophers serious? Should they be? | Main | An Inquiry about Writing One's Own Letters of Recommendation »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


This sounds pedagogically so wonderful! But it also sounds like a truly massive amount of grading work. How many students do you end up doing this with at once? Can you give us a sense of how your grading time for this stacks up against grading time otherwise? Thanks!


In general, I appreciate your framework. But I worry about "incentivizing effort". There is a little too much of that in the American education system. At the end of the day it is not effort that will be evaluated to determine if (i) a students gets into grad school, or (ii) a paper is accepted for publication. Rather, it is the results. The reason to encourage effort is that it may (and we hope does) produce results. But it does not always. So students should be rewarded for results. Effort, if well spent, will pay off in the long run. One will cultivate good work habits, etc. But we should not over-value effort either.

Marcus Arvan

grader: fair points--but to be clear, by incentivizing effort I do not mean *grading* on effort (which I agree, does seem to be a real problem in US pre-collegiate education). The point I was trying to make in the OP is that I've found the workshops I run lead to *better student work* because it leads students to work harder than they otherwise would to actually produce better work. I grade papers with very high standards, and getting high grades in my courses is very difficult.

True story

My two cents on teaching graduate students to write philosophy papers.
I was VAP in a R1 university, teaching for a good-leiter program. I had to teach an intro class to philosophy of science to PhD students. Even if students in this program are usually quite good, I thought to have a class specifically tailored to write philosophy of science papers. I have prepared a class on how to write a paper for the PSA, with specific information on what to put in each section - the goal of the course was indeed to write a paper that could be accepted for that conference. I thought that what I was teaching was straightforward, and probably covered by other philosophers of science or analytic philosophers in the department - I even apologized if that was perceived as a waste of time.
To my complete surprise, most of the students said it was the first time they attended a class on how to write papers. Seriously??

Marcus Arvan

Hi Rosa: Thanks! It is a lot of grading, and to be honest, I think that I do more grading than a lot of people are willing to do--in large part because, as much as I hate doing it, I think grading/feedback is one of the most important parts of my job (it's the *one* place where students receive clear feedback on their performance, after all).

What I've tried to do, to alleviate some of the strain as an instructor, is to reserve the practice for some of my courses but not others. Specifically, I've tended to do it only in my writing-intensive courses. Since all of our upper-level (300-level) courses are writing intensive, and I only teach one upper-level course per term, this means that I'm almost always doing it in just one course (this fall, in a course of 20 students). That's still a lot, but actually I found it more manageable than grading entire papers! I'd also schedule the Workshops in a way that would give me sufficient time to grade everything. For example, I would have students submit their 1/2 page introductions at a Monday workshop, grade them on Tuesday, hand them back on Wednesday, hold a Wednesday workshop where they submit 3-page exposition sections, grade them on Thursday and Friday, hand them back on Monday, and so on.

It is a lot, but I'm only doing it in one class once a semester--and I normally leave the workshops until a point late in the semester when my other lower-level courses for non-majors have final in-class presentations. In other words, I try to get very creative with scheduling things across my courses so that it's not too overwhelming.

Also, in some ways, it's actually *less* time consuming that grading term-papers 'the normal way' (without workshops). The reason for this is pretty simple: as I noted in the OP, because my students see my high standards very early (prior to writing the major sections of their papers), they tend to do a better *job* on their paper drafts! And, as I think we all know, better paper drafts are much, much easier to grade than worse ones (where you have to, for example, note every dumb grammatical error, every editing error, every organizational error, every absent citation, etc.). The workshops, in my experience, lead students to make far fewer of these errors the first time, making grading each little section of their papers less bad than they otherwise would be! Finally, the whole process sort of spreads grading out over a longer period of time. Rather than grading 20 8-10 page papers, I'm only grading between 1-3 pages per workshop--which is actually quite a bit less dispiriting that slogging through full 8-10 page papers.

Of course, I do have to read the final 8-10 page drafts at the end of the term--but here again, I ran into the same pleasant surprise as before: because the papers were so much better than papers in past courses, grading the final papers went far more quickly and more painlessly than normal!

Trevor Hedberg

This process would be too time consuming to be useable in courses with my current number of students, but it is definitely worth at least having them submit an outline for a grade before they write their full papers no matter the class size. This provides an opportunity to steer students away from poor topics and dubious arguments before using these as centerpieces of their papers. Doing so can massively improve the average quality of the papers that are submitted and often makes the process of term paper grading less disheartening as a result.

Daniel Immerman

Another tactic I tried with a lot of success was to do a series of short assignments (which I called mini-papers). Typically one each week for the first half of the semester. These taught students the skills they needed to write papers piece by piece. The assignments would be quite brief (typically a page max).

E.g the first would have them briefly summarize some key part of some text they read. The next might have them reconstruct an argument in premise-conclusion form. The next might have them create an objection to a such an argument. And so on.

Before each I would have a class devoted partially to the mini-paper in question. I would explicitly discuss how to do write that sort of paper and then have them work, individually, in pairs, and then as a group to practice relevant skills.

Each of these mini-papers assignments would explicitly have two or three things I was looking for. The grade would mostly be on the basis of whether those were present. In addition, a little bit of the grade was devoted to whether the things I had been looking for in past papers were manifested.

I found this strategy worked well; it helped them concentrate on a few things at once and gradually scaffold.


I teach composition in all of my courses. In my experience, the most valuable thing for students is not necessarily laying out a detailed procedure like this. (Though, of course, that really helps a lot of students.) In my experience, the most valuable thing for students is giving them the conceptual resources to understand the writing they are already doing. Writing frequently involves a number of discrete and distinct tasks. Labeling and describing those tasks can help them understand how to write--even the writing they already do.

Russ Abbott

I teach computer science and have become convinced that students should not only write code but explain what they are doing. They should do this for all assignments, not just final papers.

This would be wonderful if I had a dozen students and could talk with each one about what they wrote. But I have far more than a dozen students and can't possibly talk to each one about their work every two weeks.

So I strongly agree with you on principle but have no idea how to make it a feasible approach to teaching.

Derek Bowman

This is great, Marcus. Like many commentators I think this is too time intensive given the number of students I have, and given that I'm primarily teaching introductory level gen-ed courses.

I do a less intensive version of some of this by (1) having students submit a rough draft, and (2) having a draft workshop day in which I give students a checklist-style draft-worksheet for evaluating and revising their own drafts. (I agree with Marcus about the ineffectiveness of peer review, especially in gen ed classes).

I don't grade the rough drafts except to check that they are submitted (as part of 'participation'), but I do give students the opportunity to ask me questions and to discuss their drafts together.

In addition to being less time intensive for the instructor (and thus scalable to much larger classes), this method also serves to promote some of the philosophical practices I try to teach: self-evaluation, knowing what you don't know, and asking questions. It provides opportunities and incentives for students to take responsibility for their own learning.

If anyone is interested, I'd be happy to share a sample prompt and draft worksheet. But basically I try to ask questions that anticipate/simulate the kind of things I used to do in 1-hour individual conferences when I worked at the campus writing center as a grad student.


Why not hire philosophy tutors? Most universities should have tutors from each subject help students. At a very large university, there should be one available. I like to ask, “How many of you have written a philosophy paper before?” This question helps to identify students who are already competent so they can be a resource to other students via tutoring. Encourage your more advanced and experienced students to be helpful to their peers. This may also be good for letters of recommendation. A helpful person is valuable in many workplaces.

The first time I was ever taught to write an essay was back in third grade. I still remember. One of the best essays I wrote back then was a biography on Martin Luther King Jr. My teacher was preparing us for the MCAS that year (The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) test. She gave us examples of essays that scored a 1-5 and 5 being the highest. She read them all to us and went paragraph by paragraph on why it was a strong or weak essay. My AP US History teacher did the same thing with an anonymous student sample. It wasn’t some superficial gloss at it. It was an actual in depth reading if it. We highlighted transitional words, underlined the thesis statement, made notes on the side of the paragraph on what the author was saying or trying to show, etc. We were dissecting the essay like an biology student would dissect an animal noticing its complex systems and parts.

With an excellent example, I can do this in a breeze because the paper would be organized, not pretentious, straightforward, impartial, and offers compelling arguments and evidences. If I am ever tutoring argumentative writing, I give people the best example of one that I think is compelling both in content, organization, and style. I’ll encourage them to copy the tone, organization, and style of said author until they are comfortable competent enough to write in their own voice. You start off by learning or imitating your teachers or other writers until you grow to find your own voice.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Job ads crowdsourcing thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory