Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com.
Question: Upper-level philosophy classes are populated by a mixture of veteran philosophy majors, relatively new philosophy students, and some who have never taken a philosophy class before. It’s challenging to hit the sweet spot in terms of maximizing everyone’s engagement/interest without leaving the new folks in the dust or boring the pants off the old ones. I often feel like I’m failing one of these groups. Current strategies: I try to center some of the topics/in-class discussion around the more sophisticated stuff that the hardcore majors like, and others around topics that are more approachable for the other students. I tend to grade in a way that favors the philosophical novices. I need better ways to challenge the majors. I try to push them by challenging them to continue to work on their papers after they receive a grade (submit to a conference? journal?), by encouraging them to come by my office to continue discussions outside the context of the class, by engaging (and praising) excellence in class comments via email, etc. This works some, but there have got to be other things to do here. Tell me!
Don’t try to hit the sweet spot: differentiate. Novices learn best by following sequential instructions to solve well-defined problems. More advanced learners learn best by concurrently pursuing tasks to solve ill-defined problems. Some things to do: Increase the range of topics and formats students may choose in their writing assignments. Permit the replacement of an assignment with an in-class presentation, which likely will result in a small number of advanced students’ teaching (part of) a class. Offer office meetings to review students’ papers, and allow only those who come to a meeting to rewrite the paper for an improved grade. In short, while making all options open to all students, create differentiation in how students can complete the course. This allows individual students to reveal their needs to you, which allows you to tailor your assignments and interactions to be maximally effective.
However, striving to maximize the learning of each individual student through differentiation often conflicts with fairness. Fairness requires that (i) each assignment be graded with the same standards and (ii) each student has an equal chance to excel. No individual teacher can fully realize (ii), but we are obligated to strive for that ideal. (i) permits a faculty member to offer, say, four types of work students may submit at, say, week five of the semester for 10% of the course grade. Each student who submits the first type of assignment will be graded in the same way as every other student who submits the first type of assignment, etc. Of course, differentiation means that fully anonymous grading is likely impossible. If one does not grade anonymously, another way to mitigate implicit bias must be found. But these caveats do not mean that all differentiation is incompatible with fairness.
The challenge you are confronting is known in the pedagogical literature as a mixed-ability or mixed-level class. The solution is, as David says, to differentiate in your teaching. You might do this by designing your course so that a student can tailor it to his or her particular skill level, or by engaging in project-based learning that allows students to participate in different capacities depending on their skill level. How might these two approaches be implemented in a philosophy classroom?
Make sure to have a mix of assignments that engage students at different levels of philosophical sophistication. It sounds like you are already doing a lot of this in the classroom. You can also use grading to provide differential feedback. In my feedback on reading responses, which, due to time constraints, is often minimal, I will write a single comment to a student encouraging them to focus on “organizing sentences within a paragraph” or “thinking more deeply about a possible response on behalf of the author.” This points the student to the one thing they should be prioritizing in their next assignment.
Another strategy is to use group work to allow students to learn from each other. For example, in my upper-level courses, I ask students to write their final paper on a recent article in the topic area. All my students find this to be the most challenging assignment of the course. At the beginning of the term, they choose from 4–5 moderately difficult journal articles I pre-select. To help them make an informed choice, I tell them what issues are tackled by each article and, crucially, which articles are most challenging. However, I only allow 4–5 students to work on the same article, so that they, in effect, become a working group. Though everybody has to turn in their own individual paper by the end, they have to work together to present the article as a group to the rest of the class. This means they have to work with each other to understand the article and critique it. The resulting papers are much better than any final papers I received before I implemented this group-based assignment.
- UC Berkeley Resource on Teaching a Mixed Levels Class
- Grading in Academia and Martial Arts
- Group Work: Should Your Top Students Work Together?
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