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Teaching Smarter Not Harder

By Samuel Duncan

I was originally going to post this as a comment to Trevor’s post on teaching competently, but I decided that it merits its own post. Trevor makes some excellent points about teaching and what it’s reasonable to expect from yourself as a graduate student. The workaholism and perfectionism that academia drills into our heads is not a good way to approach teaching or indeed most tasks. In this post I’d like to discuss another way that the workaholism that inspires so many of our unreasonable expectations also gets in the way of not just competent teaching but good or even exceptional teaching. I am convinced that many philosophers wrongly assume that when it comes to teaching, more work always equals better teaching. This means that we see teaching strategies that would save us work as compromises between excellence and giving ourselves a reasonable workload. And so we often weirdly resist novel teaching strategies because the fact they save us work makes them seem like a cop out. I know I certainly did for a long time and for precisely this reason. However, this is a mistake on so many levels. One thing I’ve found in the last few years is that teaching strategies that save you time and effort can often be much better for students’ learning than more labor intensive options such as traditional lecturing. Let me give a couple of examples.

In my ethics classes I’ve replaced exams with an ethics bowl competition at the end of the semester. (I should admit here that I completely stole this idea from my friend Ryan Windeknecht, who’s one of the best philosophy teachers I’ve ever known).  If you don’t know what the ethics bowl is you can find more information here. Briefly, it’s a formal debate where two groups each consider an ethical dilemma, comment on the other group’s presentation and field questions from the audience (in this case their classmates). Now this saves me a lot of work. It takes up about six class meetings– five for the ethics bowls and one for an in class prep session for the groups– which means I don’t have to prep for those five meetings or put in the emotional labor of being “on” in front of a classroom. Like many of us in philosophy, I’m not naturally an extrovert and teaching is more than a bit of a performance for me. I generally enjoy it quite a bit, but it’s also emotional labor in the truest sense of that often misused term. I also don’t have to grade exams since I score the teams in class as do their classmates and come up with an average between my scores and the scores of their classmates. And we all know what a miserable chore exam grading is. Most grading isn’t fun but exam grading is really just the worst in my experience. In my book, if most grading is a chore like cleaning your bathroom at home, then exam grading is cleaning the bathroom at a truck stop or a stadium.

So the ethics bowl saves me quite a bit of work, but I’ve also found that students tend to like it. Pretty much every semester at least one student and often multiple students will say that it was their favorite thing about the class in the evaluations. It’s also very good for student learning. Applying the moral theories we’ve learned to real life cases and answering questions and challenges to their approach both helps the students to understand the moral theories on a deeper level and to better appreciate both their merits and faults as methods of moral reasoning. I’ve found that the ethics bowl is probably the single most effective strategy I know of for getting students– both those in the groups and the audience– to engage in real ethical discussion and debate.

Or take logic where I’ve almost entirely adopted the “flipped classroom” model. For most class sessions, I put fairly brief recorded lectures online where I go over the reading in more detail and discuss what I think are tricky points (the lectures are usually about 30 minutes). We then devote the entire class period to working through problems that cover the material from the readings and lectures. I put students in informal groups (usually just based on where they happen to be sitting) to work through the problems and periodically break to go over a set as a class. During the time they’re working on them I’ll make the rounds in class and see if they need help or want feedback on their proposed solutions. In the short term this approach did involve a fair amount of preparation for me since I had to record lectures and come up with exercises to supplement those in the book. However, in the long term it saves me quite a bit of work. Relying on recorded lectures is easier than having to prep for class each day and again it’s a class period where I don’t have to be on and in character in the way I would if I were lecturing. 

However, I’ve found that this is a really effective way to teach a subject like logic. Students get nearly instant feedback on their solutions. We can also work through many more problems than we could if I gave them problem sets primarily as homework (I do still give some fairly brief homework assignments reinforcing the material we cover that we go over at the beginning of the next class). This is a huge advantage since I’ve personally found that for logic or any other similarly “mathematical” subject doing problems is the most effective way to learn the material. In fact, to a great extent it just is what learning the material is.

Anyway, those are just two examples, but I think there are a lot more cases where approaches that make our lives as philosophy teachers easier would also be more effective as learning strategies. I’d love to hear your own. If they’re really good I might just engage in the sincerest form of flattery again.



















































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