Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Please. Do go on!

One mark of whether a person has learned much about a set of philosophical questions is their ability to continue their inquiry into those questions. Those of us who teach general education courses are likely to be especially concerned with instilling this ability and to make this an important objective of our teaching. After all, most students will only study philosophy once in their lives. But (we hope) they will continue to have chances to tackle philosophical questions later in life, and we'd like to think that they'll be able to do this with at least some success well after their formal encounters with philosophy are over.

I have lots of thoughts about how instill the ability to continue philosophical inquiry in students. But here I'll describe an idea I have for a final exam in a practical ethics course, intended to evaluate if students are ready to 'go on' with further inquiry.

Most academic exams are largely retrospective with respect to content, testing whether you've learned enough about what you studied. I'm trying to fashion a final exam that's at least to some degree prospective. Here's what I've settled on for now:

I'm teaching a practical ethics course (the usual suspects: abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, etc.). Prior to the final exam, I announce that students will only have to answer questions about one of the topics we've studied in the class and that students will choose the topic they address on the final exam. I then administer a final exam along the following lines: The final will take place on a Wednesday, but one day prior, I will distribute via our CMS one article on each of the course topics. I intend for the articles to be a little more challenging than the syllabus readings, perhaps a little harder to categorize than the syllabus readings. Students are allowed to print out one of these articles and bring it to the exam, at which time they will receive one or more essay questions on that topic, with specific requirements concerning how they are to integrate the new article, etc. into their responses.

There are several things I like about this idea: First, it gives students a choice as to which topics they are evaluated on. On the whole, I tend to think that comprehensiveness is overrated, at least at the introductory level in philosophy. I'd rather see them think carefully about a problem they do care about instead of thinking superficially about several problems they don't care about. Second, it lets students engage in a bit of intentional learning: They'll have to determine which topic(s) to study most carefully and which article-topic combination based on their interests and understanding. This should motivate some thought on their part about what they have mastered and what they haven't. But lastly, it'll tell me whether students can actually tackle new philosophical ideas and arguments. They won't be entirely new, obviously, since they are linked to the course topics, and it would be unfair, I think, for it to be otherwise.

In any event, I'd appreciate any feedback on this exam format, whether you've tried such a format, what the likely student reaction will be, and so on.


  1. I like the motivation behind producing an exam like this. I've a couple of worries about such an exam, and then some more positive comments.

    Here's the first worry: this approach might encourage students to only study the topic that they'll deal with in the final exam.

    Here's how this worry might arise. If (a) it is known long before the final exam that only one topic need be studied for it, (b) the final exam is worth a significant proportion of the total mark, and (c) there are no other encouragements to study the other topics, then I think we can see why someone might decide to only (or almost only) study the final exam topic.

    Michael says that 'I'd rather see them think carefully about a problem they do care about instead of thinking superficially about several problems they don't care about.' Given the kind of class described, this sounds right to me. And, with this aim in mind, we might think that the worry loses its bite: it doesn't matter so much if a student doesn't think well (or even at all) about, say, euthanasia, as long as they think well (or at least try to) about, say, abortion.

    But here's why I think that at least some bite remains. First, many of the issues that need to be considered when looking at the ethical status of euthanasia are also relevant to the ethical status of abortion. Studying both issues allows a certain degree of going over the same ground from different directions. Studying both might also highlight for someone that what seem to them good reasons for, say, opposing abortion, don't seem to be good reasons to them for opposing euthanasia, and yet they're not clear how the two cases are different. Being faced with this might provoke a deeper engagement with the philosophical issues surrounding these topics.

    Secondly (really, I think, this is just the first point writ large) doing topic X in philosophy is, other things being equal, usually going to make you (at least slightly) better at doing topic Y in philosophy. The same general skills are involved, and there are often parallels that can be drawn even when X and Y appear to have much less in common than the ethical statuses of abortion and euthanasia.

    The problem is that these facts may not be obvious to students. They may think that not paying much attention to the bits of the course on euthanasia will do them no harm when it comes to the bit on abortion. (Worse, they might think it helps: 'I can devote all the time/effort/concentration to abortion that otherwise would have been spread over both abortion and euthanasia!')

    The degree to which this worry is worth paying attention to will depend at least in part on whether (a), (b), and (c) (above) are the case. It may well be that if they're not then this worry doesn't arise.

    The second worry concerns giving the extra reading only one day in advance. This may disadvantage some students by not giving them much time to engage with it: some students might be more tortoise than hare in getting to grips with the readings. Whether this is a problem or not might depend on how substantial the extra readings are.
    A similar problem might arise if some students have exams for other courses they are taking on the day before the practical ethics exam. Presumably this could be avoided (or any negative effects mitigated) by giving the reading a little earlier, say three days beforehand? (Is there a specific reason for giving the readings just a day before the exam?)

    Okay, enough moaning, now for some positive remarks! This kind of exam would, I imagine, make the final exam less stressful than it otherwise might be. It might also encourage students to discuss their chosen topic with others so as to help each other get a grip on the extra reading (I take this to be a good approach when faced with philosophical problems whether inside or outside the classroom).

    What strikes me as the best feature of an exam like this, though, is that it serves to make clear(er) to students that the usefulness of what they've learnt in the course goes beyond the role it plays in earning them a grade on their academic record. In a sense, the extra readings are not part of the course (they're not taught or, I assume, referred to) and in that way they are like articles or information that students will come across in the future, outside of the philosophy classroom. Asking students to deal with such 'extra' material in the exam should help make clear that the distinction between doing stuff in class and doing stuff in life is not as robust as they might have thought.

  2. Thanks, Jonathan, for your very careful thoughts about my proposed exam. I concur with you about its advantages (no surprise!), so let me say a little about your worries.

    I agree with you that timing when the readings are made available is an important issue. I figure a day is about right: Enough to read and digest them but not so much that a lack of urgency and/or temptation to procrastinate sets in. But the timing is something I'm willing to experiment with, maybe even work with students a little on determining what's a reasonable time window between the exam and the extra readings being made available.

    A second concern you mention is that students might not be encouraged to draw connections among topics, etc. Let me add here that I don't plan to announce the single topic focus of the final exam until near the end of term, so my hope is that will forestall your worry somewhat. Also, I certainly plan to use other evaluative instruments earlier in the course that will help ensure topical breadth (quizzes and short papers, etc.) And I tend to think that, again, the probability that really thinking carefully about problem A will lead to careful thinking about problem B later on or in another context is greater than the probability that thinking less deeply about A, B, C, etc., will lead to careful thinking about any of A, B, C, etc. later on or in another context. I've observed, for instance, that Ethics Bowl, where students work very diligently on a handful of case studies, encourages careful investigation of ethical questions much more effectively than does a survey of topics in a practical ethics course.

    Lastly, vis-a-vis your observations about abortion and euthanasia: I believe that being able to make substantive interconnections among philosophical topics is very hard. I find that my more advanced undergraduates struggle with this. (In fact I think some professional philosophers struggle with this!) I'm not claiming it's not a great thing to be able to do — only that it's a very high-level cognitive skill that takes a long time to develop. Given that, I tend not to think it should be a top-shelf objective of philosophical pedagogy at the introductory level. When it happens, it's more like a happy byproduct of pursuing other teaching objectives rather than one I'd put front and center.


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