Thursday, March 24, 2022

Evening the Playing Field in Philosophy Classes

As I discussed last week, overconfident students have systematic advantages in philosophy classes, at least as philosophy is typically taught in the United States. By confidently asserting their ideas in classroom -- even from day one, when they have no real expertise on the issues -- they get practice articulating philosophical views in an argumentative context and they receive the professor's customized feedback on their views. Presenting their views before professor and peers engages their emotions and enhances their memory. Typically, professors encourage and support such students, bringing out the best in them. Thus, over the long run, overconfident students tend to perform well, better than their otherwise similar peers with more realistic self-assessments. What seems to be an epistemic vice -- overconfidence -- ultimately helps them flourish and learn more than they otherwise would have.

I like these overconfident students (as long as they're not arrogant or domineering). It's good we encourage them. But I also want to level the playing field so that less-overconfident students can gain some of the same advantages. Here's my advice for doing so.

First, advice for professors. Second, advice for students.

Evening the Playing Field: Advice for Professors

(1.) Small-group discussions. This might sound like tired advice, but there's a reason the advice is so common. Small-group discussions work amazing magic if you do them right. Here's my approach:

* Divide the class into groups of 3 or 4. Insist on exactly 3 or 4. Two is to few, because friends will pair up and have too little diversity of opinion. Five is too many, because the quietest student will be left out of the conversation.

* Give the students a short, co-operative written task which will be graded pass / no credit (be lenient). For example, "write down two considerations in favor of the view that human nature is good and two considerations against the view". Have them designate one student as "secretary", who will write down their collaborative answer on a sheet of paper containing all their names. This should start them talking with each other, aimed at producing something concrete and sensible.

* Allow them five minutes (maybe seven), during which you wander the room, encouraging any quiet groups to start talking and writing.

* Reconvene the class, and then ask a group of usually quiet students what their group came up with.

* Explore the merits of their answers in an encouraging way, then repeat with other groups.

This exercise will get many more students talking in class than the usual six. (Almost no matter the size of the class, there will be six students who do almost all the talking, right?) The increased talkativeness often continues after the exercise is over. Not only do normally quiet students open their mouths more, but they gain some of the more specific benefits of the overconfident student: They practice expressing their views aloud in class, they receive customized feedback from the professor, by having their views put on the spot they feel an emotional engagement that enhances interest and memory, and they get the feeling of support from the professor.

Why it works: It's of course easier to talk with a few peers than in front of the whole class, especially when necessary to complete a (low-stress) assignment. Speaking to a few peers in the classroom and finding them to be nice about it (as they almost always are) facilitates later speaking in front of the whole class. Furthermore, when the professor calls on a small group, instead of on one student in particular, that student isn't being confronted as directly. They have cover: "This is just what our group came up with." And if the student isn't comfortable extemporizing, they can just read the words written on the page. All of this makes it easier for the quieter students to gain practice expressing their philosophical views in front of others. If it goes well, they become more comfortable doing it again.

(2.) Story time. Back in 2016, I dedicated a post to the value of telling stories in philosophy class. My former T.A. Chris McVey was a master of philosophical storytelling. He would start discussion sections of my huge lower-division class, Evil, with personal stories from his childhood, or from his time working on a nuclear submarine, or from other parts of his life, that related to the themes of the class. He kept it personal and real, and students loved it.

A very different type of student tends to engage after storytime than the usual overconfident philosophy guy -- for example, someone who has a similar story in their own lives. The whole discussion has a different, more personal tone, and it can then be steered back into the main ideas of the course. Peter [name randomly chosen from lists of former students], who might normally say nothing in class, finds he has something to say about parental divorce. He has been brought into the discussion, has expressed an opinion and has been shown how his opinion is relevant to the course.

(3.) Diversify topics and cultures. Relatedly, whenever you can diversify topics (add a dimension on religion, or family, or the military) or culture (beyond the usual European / North American focus), you shift around what I think of as the "academic capital" of the students in the class. A student who hasn't had confidence to speak might suddenly feel expert and confident. Maybe they are the one student who has had active duty in the military, or maybe their pre-college teachers regularly quoted from Confucius and Mencius. Respecting their expertise can help them recognize that they bring something important, and they will be readier to commit and engage on the issues at hand.

(4.) Finger-counting questions. Consider adding this custom: The first time a student raises their hand to speak in class, they raise one finger. The second time, two fingers. The third time, three fingers, and so on. When multiple students want to contribute, prioritize those with fewer fingers. When a student raises four fingers, hesitate, looking to see whether some lower-fingered students might also have something to say. This practice doesn't silence the most talkative students, but it will make them more aware of the extent to which they might be crowding other students out, and it constantly communicates to the quieter students that you're especially interested in hearing from them, instead of always from the same six.

This advice aims partly at enhancing oral participation in class, which is a big step toward evening the playing field. But to really level the playing field requires more. It's not just that the overconfident student is more orally active. The overconfident student has opinions, stakes claims, feels invested in the truth or falsity of particular positions, and takes the risk of exposing their ideas to criticism. This creates more emotional and intellectual engagement than do neutral, clarificatory oral contributions. My first three suggestions not only broaden oral participation in general but non-coercively nudge students toward staking claims, with all the good that follows from that.

Evening the Playing Field: Advice for Students

Your professor might not do any of the above. You might see the same six students dominating discussion, and you might not feel able to contribute at their level. You might be uninterested in competing with them for air time, and you might dislike the spotlight on yourself. Do yourself a favor and overcome these reservations!

First, the confident students might not actually know the material better than you do. Most professors in U.S. classrooms interpret students' questions as charitably as possible, finding what's best in them, rather than shooting students down in a discouraging way. If a confident student says something you think doesn't make sense or that you're inclined to disagree with, and if the professor seems to like the comment, it might not be that you're misunderstanding but rather that the professor is doing what they can to turn a weak contribution into something good.

Second, try viewing classroom philosophy discussions like a game. Almost every substantive philosophical claim (apart from simple historical facts and straightforward textual interpretations) is disputable, even the principle of non-contradiction. Take a stand for fun. See if you can defend it. A good professor will both help you see ways in which it might be defensible and ways in which others have argued against it. Think of it as being assigned to defend a view in a debate -- a view with which you might or might not agree.

Third, you owe it to yourself to win the same educational benefits that ordinarily accrue disproportionately to the overconfident students. You might not feel comfortable taking a stand in class. But so much of life is about reaching beyond your comfort zone, doing new things. Right? If you care about your education, care about getting the most out of it by putting your ideas forward in class.

Fourth, try it with other students. Even if your professor doesn't use small discussion groups, you can do this yourself. Most people find that it's much easier to take a stand about the material in front of a peer than in front of the whole class. Outside of class, tell a classmate about your objection to Kant. Bat it around with them a bit. This will give you already a certain amount of practice and feedback, laying the groundwork for later expressing that view, or some other one, in a class context. You could even say to the professor, "My friend and I were wondering whether Kant..." A good professor will love to hear a question like this. Thus students have been arguing about Kant outside of class! Yay!



"How to Diversity Philosophy: Two Thoughts and a Plea for More Suggestions" (Aug 24, 2016)

"Storytelling in Philosophy Class" (Oct 21, 2016)

"The Parable of the Overconfident Student -- and Why Academic Philosophy Still Favors the Socially Privileged" (Mar 14, 2022)

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Matti Meikäläinen said...

Your advice for professors is excellent. I respectfully suggest the addition of professor-student Socratic dialogs instead of lectures as is the common custom in many law schools and as nicely demonstrated in an old film called “The Paper Chase.” The professor poses an issue, she selects a student and engages in an intensive dialog to resolve the issue. If it stalls out, she can select another student or two to continue. Our professor controls who her partner is each time and works her way through the class roster—random is best to keep everyone prepared and in anticipation. I admit this requires a very well prepared professor—no mindless lecture note reading here! Save the lecture for a 10 minute wrap-up summary.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It’s an interesting technique. I find it works better the better prepared the students are, the more confident, and the more facile at debate. Perfect for Harvard Law School! At UCR, I’ve had mixed success with this. Often students need the support of engaging with their peers first in discussion groups before we get into the back and forth, and lecture is needed beforehand to draw out the core ideas in the texts.

Matti Meikäläinen said...

I cannot dispute your points. I’ve had classes with the Socratic method used almost exclusively and, IMO, it made for a rich learning experience for all—teacher and students. So, perhaps I would over prescribe it. I also abhor lectures and tend to seek out exchanges. However, remember that students, in large part, will rise to the level of quality the class demands.