Change-of-pace exercises

These are more specialized exercises, which are a great way to break up the routine.  Click on the links for detailed descriptions of the exercises.  Send us your own examples.


  • Classroom Assessment Techniques.  A good way to change up the routine (and to break up a lecture) is to use what the ed. school folks call a "classroom assessment technique. These are short, ungraded exercises that help the teacher know if the students are getting the idea, and also help focus student attention on the most important issues.  Some of these are quite clever, so check out TΦ101's page with a number of suggestions.

  • All Wikipedia entries lead to "Philosophy."  This is a fun way to demonstrate the essential character of our discipline.  Look up any term in Wikipedia and then keep following the first link in the entry (not in parentheses) and eventually you come to the entry for "Philosophy."  Click on the highlight above for details.  

  • What If?.  Peg Tittle has collected dozens and dozens of thought experiments from every field of philosophy from Plato's "Ring of Gyges" to Gettier's paradoxes about knowledge. Many of these would make excellent discussion projects for a day when the students need a change of pace.  See Peg Tittle, What If: Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy (New York: Pearson, 2005).

  • Spirituality Inventory.  Raymond S. Pfeiffer, Delta College, argues that spirituality is an excellent topic for philosophy classes, and he recommends using his "spirituality inventory" to stimulate discussion. This is a short survey that allows students to assess their level of spirituality.  Teaching Philosophy. (31.4):375-396.

  • Using Emoticons to Teach Plato's Euthyphro.  Aaron Simmons (Hendrix College) and Scott Aikin (Western Kentucky University and Vanderbilt University) assign students to insert emoticons to help students engage with Plato's text.  They document this in an article in the Fall 2009 of the APA Teaching Philosophy Newsletter (fall 2009). This might not sound too appealing, but take a look at the examples in the article itself, TΦ101 is now a believer :).

  • Using Blade Runner, Turing's "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," and the Loebner prize to illustrate issues in artificial intelligence and human cognition.  Submitted by Paul Livingston, Villanova University.

  • Distributive Justice. Michael Kowalski of Snow College has a simple exercise to talk about distributive justice. A few students are given some goods and then given the task of distributing the goods among themselves; the class then discusses how the goods were distributed. Typically, the students are so preoccupied by how those who receive goods divide them among themselves that they never even think to comment on the fact that most of the class has received nothing at all.  The instructor uses this observation to begin a discussion about the difference  between Marxist and capitalist systems for distributing wealth.

  • The Gadfly Experiment for teaching Plato's Apology.  Noel Dolan teaches Apology  by telling students to work in small groups to come to consensus on some questions.  If they don't reach consensus, they don't get an "A" for the exercise. Each group contains a "mole" who refuses to agree to the group's decisions.  After the exercise is over and the "mole" revealed, students process how they felt about a person who doesn't agree with the group; this helps motivated a discussion of Socrates' unpopularity.  

  • Jeopardy Exam Review.  As a way to review for a test, we developed some practice questions and let students answer them in the quiz show format.   Submitted by Elizabeth A. Irvine, Villanova University.

  • Find an Article.  To help students understand Philosophy as a field, students were sent to the library to select and skim a professional article.  Submitted by John Immerwahr, Villanova University.

  • A Hobbes Game.  As everyone has noticed, Hobbes' state of nature is an example of the tragedy of the commons and also of the Prisoner's Dilemma.  We teach this text by using the "Swedish bay simulation." The students are assigned to groups where each group is a family living around a bay in Sweden.  A paper bag with (yes) Swedish fish candies is passed around, and the families take the fish they want to catch for the year.  If everyone takes enough fish to be well-fed, the bay is overfished and everyone will die the next year.  To survive, most families must only take out a subsistence level of fish. But a few can take out more than that. We have detailed instructions and references to several more complex Hobbes games.

  • Intra class peer tutors.  Many studies show the benefits of students working together outside of class.  This approach formalizes that activity.  Submitted by Katherine Eltringham, Villanova University.

  • Interviewing older people.  Corey Beals (George Fox University) takes seriously this line from the Nichomachean Ethics: "We ought to attend to the undemonstrated sayings and opinions of experienced and older people or of people of practical wisdom [phronesis] not less than to demonstrations; for because experience has given them their eye, they see aright" (Book 6, 1143bll–14).  This led to an assignment where students were asked to find a wise person and do a two hour interview as a way of understanding the nature of wisdom. Teaching Philosophy. 27.1 (2004): 21-32.

  • Finishing Strong.  What should we do on the last day of class?  James Lang has collected a number of interesting ideas:  have students write down the three most important things they learned and then share them; have students write a letter to students who will take the class next year, giving them advice on how to do well.  Chronicle of Higher Education.  Monday, November 27, 2006.

  • Draw a Map of the Course. Some faculty members now do a course map as part of their syllabus.  Another approach is to use the same idea as an exercise at the end of the semester, by asking students to break into groups and draw a schematic of the course.  One clever group in an intro course taught by TΦ101 drew a picture of a human being. Descartes was in the head, Augustine in the heart, Plato in a thought bubble outside of the body, and Marx in the hands.


Update: August 1, 2012