Thursday, August 2, 2012

Dead blogging the AAPT, part I

I returned a few days ago from the biennial conference of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT). If you've never attended one of their conferences, I recommend it. The energy and commitment to education you encounter among the AAPT members is remarkable — I have little doubt that our profession would benefit if the typical philosopher had even a fraction of the same energy and commitment to effective teaching.

Unfortunately, I was only able to stay for two of the three main days of the conference. Furthermore, there were usually at least five concurrent sessions in any particular time block, so I obviously saw only a small sample of all the work on teaching that was presented at the conference. 

Nonetheless, I thought I'd post some quick overviews and comments about the sessions I attended, just to provoke thought and encourage you to attend the conference in future years.

Today, I'll describe what I saw on day 1, and I'll post next week about day 2.

Day 1
  • Steven Todd, Henderson State University, "Rigorous re-education and retention"
Steven was interested in how to reconcile two objectives in introductory courses: maintaining rigor while not 'losing' unprepared students and setting them on a path to academic adversity. Drawing significantly on psychological work by, inter alia, the Bjorks at UCLA, Steven catalogued some specific ways in which first philosophy courses are cognitively challenging for students with respect to metacognition. These include our old friend the Dunning-Kruger effect, student tendencies to overestimate future performance, and their overreliance on specific features of material studied that are not present in material tested or evaluated. Steven described a variety of strategies he uses to put students in what the Bjorks call "desirable difficulties" that, if surmounted, lead to deeper and more lasting learning. These include spacing and "interleaving" material, frequent ungraded assessments, and moving through the term from high instructor feedback to low instructor feedback. Steven's general approach is (to my mind) an excellent application of mastery-based approaches to learning. I suspect that what people would find most readily applicable in Steven's approach is his placing greater emphasis on later assignments while providing more feedback on earlier ones. The thought behind this seems to be to create a high set of expectations (a la the Pygmalion effect) that students assimilate and struggle with, but they are given the opportunity to 'recover' later in the term. Steven offered some preliminary data to suggest that students respond positively to this approach.

  • Mark Jensen, "The benefit and challenges of a 100% paperless classroom"
Mark reported on his bold experiment to create a paperless classroom. He used online texts as well as e-books (Kindle edition) in one section of a course and traditional materials in another, and found that students in the first scored higher on reading assignments and had higher grades overall. Wisely, Mark recognizes that it's hard to say to what extent 'paperlessness' explains this result. I conjectured in discussion that students' having to master a reading technology that may be unfamiliar to them may result in them reading more. That is, you can't not read if what you're trying to do is figure out how to use an unfamiliar technology. Mark also pointed to a number of benefits and challenges of a paperless class. The latter category included the lack of keyboards on the readings devices; that the searchability of e-texts undermines certain kinds of exam questions and formats; and the presence of easily accessible diversions for students in the classroom. Mark's most interesting finding is that although e-readers have sophisticated annotation, copying, highlighting, and citation functions, many students report that they did not use these functions anyway. As I see it, students who aren't active or strategic readers aren't going to become such because they're given a sophisticated reading technology. This underscores an important point: Technologies may change learners, but we don't get to choose how they change learners and can't assume they necessarily change them for the better.

  • Freund, Anderson, and Riley, "Measuring for insight: Three assessment models of philosophy"
This trio, from Clarke College, reported on how their small department undertook program assessment at three different levels: assessment of some General Education outcomes addressed in philosophy courses, assessment of philosophy majors, and assessment in the philosophy capstone. They had some very well-designed assessment instruments, including an essay assignment in which students are given a list of values (health, financial success, service to others, etc.) and asked to write an essay addressing how one of these values is essential to a good life. The amount of data they have collected is very impressive, and in general, suggests a strong curriculum and solid teaching. That said, their ambitious approach is possible, I would say, only because of quite specific features of their institution. Clarke has 1,200 students and a three person philosophy department with 15 majors. They also have a required yearlong philosophy sequence in general education that makes it possible to get solid longitudinal information for General Ed assessment. It would be exceedingly hard to translate their approach into my own institutional setting: 18,000+ students, seven department faculty, 90 majors, and a requirement that students take one quarter of introductory philosophy. This is in no way a criticism of the Clarke folks. But it does remind us that assessment efforts have to be realistic and tailored to the institutional setting of those charged with assessment.

  • David Concepcion, "Why that learning objective?"
The incomparable Dave Concepcion got his audience thinking about how we select learning outcomes for students at different levels of intellectual development. Placed into small groups, we were asked to come up with learning outcomes for "one-off" introductory courses, an early major course, and a late major course. We then gathered responses and classified according to whether the outcome address content, skills, or dispositions or affect. Not surprisingly, the different groups generated notably different outcomes for the three different courses. The intriguing thing was the patterns that emerged once we classified the various proposed outcomes into content, skills, or disposition/affect. Outcomes for the "one-off" introductory courses focused fairly heavily on dispositions (appreciation for philosophy as a form of reasoned inquiry), less so on skills (differentiating between deductive and inductive arguments) and content (what's S's argument for P, etc.). Dave pointed out (and I agree) that this is probably exactly the opposite of what 'conventional wisdom' suggests. We tend to think that students need some exposure to content in order to develop skills and a lot of practice at various skills in order to develop the intellectual dispositions of a philosopher. That's almost certainly right. Nevertheless, the question Dave invited us to consider is whether we might sometimes confuse the vehicle by which students learn an outcome with the outcome itself, e.g., do we confuse the content mastery needed to develop a skill or disposition, which might be our ultimate outcomes, with those ultimate or final outcomes? My suspicion is that this is sometimes the case, and to the extent that awareness of outcomes informs our teaching, we will end up wrongly emphasizing the means to our pedagogical ends instead of the ends themselves.

In any event, I'd encourage discussion here of all of these topics and expect that any AAPT presenter would be pleased to be contacted to talk about their presentations.


  1. I was there as well and found it to be a valuable, enjoyable event.

    Very quickly, I will add that Dave Concepcion suggested these three books to learn more about educational psychology to apply to teaching philosophy:

    1. "How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series)"
    Ambrose, Susan A.

    2. "Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses", Fink, L. Dee

    3. "How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School" by John D. Bransford

  2. I *LOVE* Dee Fink's work (and have, but haven't yet read the Ambrose--it's well researched, fwiw). He has a self-directed guide to course design that I highly recommend.


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