Friday, September 14, 2007

Diagramming Aristotle

In an upper-level ethics course I teach, I implemented an assignment discussed in Teaching Philosophy by Jonathan Powers entitled ““Diagramming Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics” Issue Number 23, pp. 343-351. Powers describes an assignment in which he has students do a one-page diagram which helps them connect the ideas in the Nicomachean Ethics together into a coherent whole, so that they do not lose the big picture of Aristotle’s theory. This was a very valuable assignment, giving students the opportunity to do something different from writing a paper, while still having to develop and communicate a solid understanding of Aristotle’s moral theory. At the end of the term, I asked students for feedback on this assignment, to get a sense of their thoughts about it. I asked them what they liked about it, and what they didn’t like:

Sample of Student Feedback on Aristotle’s Ethics Diagram Assignment

I liked it because:

- “It was a good learning tool that forced me to really think about the interplay of concepts. I actually put more thought and effort into it than I would have into a paper.”

- “The diagram...encourages an understanding of the relationship of ideas.”

-“It helped me more completely understand Aristotle’s theory.”

I didn’t like it because:

- “So many concepts are so vague and interconnected with one another that it was extremely difficult to show all of the relationships without it looking like a jumbled, incomprehensible mess.”

- “It was hard to fit all of the information onto one 8.5 x 11 piece of paper.”

- “It was a little confusing.”

- “It was a vague assignment.”

Here are the details of the assignment:

Component #1

Your diagram, picture, collage, or whatever it is that you decide to do to represent Aristotle’s views, must fit on one side of an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper. You must include the following components of Aristotle’s theory (you may also include components that are not listed here):



Practical wisdom


The Good











The mean relative to us



Component #2

You must also write a brief explanation of your diagram. This must be typed, double-spaced, and no longer than one full page. Do not try to summarize Aristotle’s whole theory in this portion of the assignment, just use this summary to clear up any confusing parts of your diagram. Staple this summary on top of your diagram.

Have others used similar assignments in place of a traditional precis or term paper? I would be interested to know what your experiences are, both positive and negative, with these different approaches.

1 comment:

  1. Mike,

    I've never used this kind of exercise as an evaluative tool, but I have used concept maps (which are very similar) as exercises to help students synthesize what they know about a theory or position. I did an assignment similar to yours with Kant's ethics, and I used it to diagnose which concepts (or relations among concepts) were causing the students the most trouble. As it turns out, a lot of confusion surrounded the distinction between a categorical imperative and the categorical imperative. That proved useful to me because it helped me know where we needed to backtrack. So these kinds of exercises are good diagnostics in addition to helping reinforce key ideas.


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