Monday, August 27, 2007

What should philosophy majors know?

We have an outcomes assessment requirement in our department for those graduating with a philosophy degree. It hasn't been used much in the past because people had sort of forgotten about it and the assessment was the now defunct philosophy subject area GRE. So I was wondering what our cohort here thinks would be a good summative assessment for undergrad philosophy majors. I'm actually mostly curious about the most general questions. As our students tend to take a wide variety of courses, questions relative to particular courses are not really allowable (other than introductions to ethics, logic, or philosophy). If possible, I'd like to put an emphasis not on knowledge-based questions (Plato's theory of the forms says?) but on skill-based questions--questions or puzzles that philosophy majors should be better equipped to answer than the average college graduate who hasn't taken much philosophy. (Something like, "Write the following abstract argument in a much clearer form.")

Also, what do people think about these kinds of outcomes assessments? It strikes me as "yet another exam", but also one that helps plan and focus a philosophy major. That is, I think that when done correctly, it can give people a definite sense of what they're supposed to learn and what they have learned as a philosophy major.


  1. Assessment has been a major focus on our campus in the past few years. Our department requires philosophy majors to complete a senior thesis. Assessment consists of having faculty read a few of these and assess them using a numerical rubric related to the following criteria:
    1. The paper contains a clearly stated thesis on a particular philosophical issue.
    2. The paper cites important figures from the history of philosophy in order to provide a clear and accurate account of some of the principal positions that have been advocated in regard to the issue.
    3. The paper cites important contemporary philosophers in order to provide a clear and accurate account of some of the principal positions that have been advocated in regard to the issue.
    4. The paper defends a thesis with a plausible line of reasoning, using complex argument forms and avoiding fallacies.
    5. The paper clearly and charitably states philosophically respectable objections that have been, or could be, made against the thesis.
    6. The paper develops adequate replies to these objections or, in light of them, modifies the thesis.
    7. The paper includes proper citations and a bibliography and exhibits a familiarity with the tools of philosophical research.
    8. The paper sustains a six to eight thousand word lengthy, argumentative prose style with a clear and logical organization and without resorting to padding.

  2. Adam, I think it's tough to develop a summative assessment instrument to measure philosophical skills or (what you also seem interested in) breadth of exposure to philosophical ideas. I think Mike's right that having a thesis requirement (or simply looking at samples of student writing from their advanced courses) can be illuminating with respect to the former. Our department uses a rubric to compare a paper from an advanced course to a paper from earlier in students' careers to measure value-added improvement in student skills. We also administer a short (<20 questions) critical thinking test that none of us are entirely happy with. I saw a presentation recently about the Collegiate Learning Asssessment and was favorably impressed by how it assesses an integrated set of skills, including not only critical thinking, but also analytical writing, reasoning, etc.

    The old GRE subject test did nicely with respect to breadth of philosophical content. We simply look to student transcripts to measure breadth. But I know of no better method.

  3. I notice a few people have mentioned the GRE subject test for philosophy, that is now extinct. Do you know of any place on the internet where one could see this test. I would like to take a look at it to understand what it is really trying to assess.

  4. Anon, I've scoured the internet and not been able to come up with anything. A couple of options:
    1. Write to ETS and ask them if they have any materials left over from the old philosophy subject test.
    2. Ask around at undergraduate philosophy departments. Maybe some of them have kept old subject test info around?


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