The challenge of teaching is fully engaging one’s students. This challenge is made more difficult by the ubiquitous presence of personal electronic devices within the classroom. Some teachers have sought to respond to technology in the classroom by ignoring it. Others have taken a more radical route of banning it entirely.
During the summer of 2015 when I was preparing to teach ‘Introduction to Philosophy’, I confronted this challenge from technology and prepared to meet it. My response: increase technology.
Of course, the oldest and best way to teach philosophy is through dialogue, but this course posed a challenge because over 70 students were enrolled. I could not effectively teach the class as a seminar. I decided to take advantage of technology to help meet this challenge.
In particular, I used technology to create a culture of participation. Students won’t turn to their phones or other distractions if they expect to participate. I found that using i>clickers to administer surveys and quizzes was very effective at building this expectation, especially in my Fall 2015 section of ‘Introduction to Philosophy,’ which had over 70 students. Using i>clickers enabled me to give quizzes that emphasized important points made during the class presentation, motivate students to do the required reading, and give students a reason to pay close attention during the class presentation. When I gave a quiz using i>clickers, I didn’t have to give it all at once. The questions were scattered throughout my presentation. As such, I posed quiz questions to draw the students’ attention to the most important parts of the ideas we were considering. These i>clicker quizzes also had the benefit of traditional quizzes in that they motivated students to come to class prepared. Finally, at least once a class, I made use of a quiz question that concerned something that we’d just covered. This gave students a reason to stay engaged with the presentation throughout.
I also engaged my students by incorporating media clips from movies and television into my presentations. For example, students have a much easier time understanding J.J.C. Smart’s ‘superstitious rule worship’ objection to Rule Utilitarianism if they’ve just watched a clip of Ben Stiller from Meet the Parents, where Ben’s character encounters a rule-worshiping airline attendant who won’t let him board because she hasn’t yet called his row, even though there’s no one else currently boarding. Students have a much easier time understanding conditional probability once they’ve watch Amy Poheler and Paul Rudd fail to properly update on any new evidence they receive and fail to realize they are headed to the same party. Homer Simpson loses his only two remaining head hairs, screams, “I’m bald!” and helps my students understand vague predicates.
I also give a small assignment for every course that I teach where I task the students with finding recent media clips that illustrate something we’ve discussed in class. Not only does this help students see that philosophy is part of the culture they care about, but it helps me keep an updated database of current media clips.
In both my ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ and my ‘Introduction to Ethics’ courses, I’ve set aside a section of the course for applied ethics. This section offers a unique opportunity to make the course more relevant to the students in that I can let the students determine, via an online survey, what topics we will cover. This process not only selects the applied ethics topic that the students are most interested in, it also gives them a sense of ownership in the class.
There are non-technological ways of engaging one’s students too. I make sure to incorporate many group discussion activities into each class. Discussion activities help to build friendships among the students, and this builds a comfortable classroom environment. They also serve as a confidence booster for the more timid students. For example, if a student lacks confidence in one of her thoughts, she may not be willing to share it with the whole class, but if she shares her thought with a friend in a group discussion activity and that friend finds her thought persuasive, then she will gain confidence and be more willing to participate with the larger group. I also use short writing exercises to produce similar effects.