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Effective Paper Assignments

Papers are an ideal method of learning and assessment in intro philosophy courses, because they require comprehension of the material, clear writing, and high level thinking. TΦ101 breaks the process down into these steps:


1. Pre-writing. The first problem is that your students have never read a philosophy paper, let alone written one. In your course, perhaps they are reading Plato and Descartes, but you certainly don’t want them to write as those authors do. The students may also be mystified by the idea that their philosophy paper should actually argue for some point. As one honors students said after attempting her first philosophy paper,  “In high school, I was taught to choose a thesis and then pick some evidence that was vaguely related to the point; I am getting the idea that you want me to use the evidence to prove the point.” 


One useful exercise, then, is to have your students read a set of sample philosophy papers (on a slightly different topic from the one they will do), and learn to discriminate what makes a good paper. Interestingly, less skilled writers often initially prefer the less satisfactory paper (because it is easier to read). Indeed, psychologists are finding increasing evidence that people over-estimate their own abilities, making it all the more important to help students understand the difference between a good paper and a not-so good paper. 

It can also be useful to have students work on developing a thesis before they go to the effort of writing.  The idea is to intervene before they spend a lot of time writing a bad paper. Barbara Gross Davis advises asking students to think through a three step process: 1) The topic that they will write about;

2) The question they will try to answer; and finally

3)The answer to that question, which is the actual thesis (Davis 307). 

Alison Mostrom (University of the Sciences in Philadelphia) has students do a  "metacognition pyramid" before they write anything; TΦ101 has tried to adapt this for philosophy papers.


2. Assigning a topic and rubrics  Generally speaking, the more structured your paper assignment is, the better the experience. Good paper assignments are often longer than the paper itself.  They usually include a question or problem for the student to address (rather than asking students to pick their own topic), and some detailed rubrics describing what the instructor will be looking for.  The best topics are ones that can only be done by a close reading of the texts, and where secondary sources won’t be helpful. Creating rubrics helps the students understand how you will evaluate their work. There are several reasons for detailed paper assignments:


  • Left to their own devices, intro students have a tendency either to summarize something (the lectures, or the book) or to give their own undefended opinion. By presenting them with a problem to solve (which has not been directly addressed in the course) they are more likely to learn to do a thoughtful paper.

  • Students who are given a general topic or no topic at all are much more likely to go to Wikipedia or SparkNotes and end up with a summary or, at worst, a plagiarism

  • It is much easier to show the students where they need improvement if the assignment has detailed criteria for what is expected.   In commenting on the paper, the instructor can refer back to the instructions; this saves time and also encourages the intro student to fully understand the assignment before attempting it.  See Maralee Harrell's article for an extremely detailed and helpful matrix for paper grades.


3. Giving feedback. Look around your department for a pile of graded papers left out (in violation of FERPA) for students to pick up. Pick one yourself, and look at the feedback. Often you will see a number of corrected grammatical mistakes, some illegible or confusing comments in the margin (“awkward,” “not really what Descartes says here”) and then at the end of the paper a grade and a few sentences justifying the grade.  Now watch a student pick up a paper. The student will turn immediately to the last page, read the grade, and then walk away.  Often the student will never examine the comments.  TΦ101 believes that most students learn fairly little from this kind of feedback, and recommends a different procedure:


  • Don’t waste time correcting grammar with a red pen. Students don’t really learn grammar from seeing those corrections.   Some professors recommend doing corrections in the first page, then drawing a line, and indicating that mistakes past this point haven’t been corrected, but that student must improve grammar and spelling in the future.

  • Read the paper first and then focus on one or two major things for the student to work on.  In other words, rather than reacting to specific sentences, focus on the whole paper and, preferably, type your comments (which might be keyed to handwritten numbers in the margin of the paper).  Students are often confused by faculty who make too many comments that may give conflicting information (Reder).  Focus on the big picture.

  • Don’t put a grade on the paper. Post the grades, at a later point, on your course management program. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand, students are much more likely to read your comments if there is no grade (since they will be trying to figure out how they did).  On the other hand, you’ll write better comments if you don’t have a grade to carry the weight for you.  

  • Balance positive and negative comments.  Write positive comments in left margin, negative in right, this will help you keep track (Johnson).

  • Time savers.  Use a rubric and general comments to the class after the paper, so you don't need to say the same thing for each paper. Consider using a timer with a specified number of minutes per paper, to keep you on track.  Sometimes it saves time to explain something verbally -- tell the student "see me after class" rather than writing it out (Johnson).  

  • Consider video feedback: Tanya Hall, Dean Tracy, and Andy Lamey (UC, San Diego) experimented with giving students feedback on their papers for an entire semester using 5-minute videos recorded via the Photo Booth application on Macs, and found that students perceived this feedback as clearer, and more constructive/useful than written feedback, and also that they perceived the professor or TA giving the feedback as more empathetic.  As a result, students were more motivated to use this feedback to productively inform their future work in the course.  Video feedback also seems to carry the added benefit of reducing the time it takes to offer detailed comments on student papers.


4. Rewrites and revisions. Since the students have never written a philosophy paper before, their first attempt will be problematic. They will learn most if part of the process is rewriting the paper after you have commented on in (and, hopefully, after a paper conference).   Several observations about rewrites.


  • Avoiding “lazy rewrites.” Students will often attempt to rewrite their paper in a very mechanistic way. For example, if you have written comments in the margins, they will try to edit the paper to respond to those comments without really rethinking the paper.  This is one advantage to giving holistic comments rather than piecemeal reactions.  Some instructors also grade the quality of the rewrite separately from the overall quality of the paper.   So for example, a B+ paper that is only slightly rewritten, might get a C- for the quality of the rewrite.

  • There is also a question about how much direction an instructor should give to a student for a rewrite. Should the instructor say, “Your thesis isn’t very clear, see if you can sharpen it” or “your thesis isn’t very clear, I think what you are trying to say is this. .  .” The latter approach, while it seems counterintuitive, can also help students improve their writing and thinking and it mimics what the students will do in the workplace. In a law firm, for example, the associates draft a brief for the partner, who gives extremely specific feedback, rather than cryptic suggestions for improvement.   




Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching, 2nd. ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 2009).


Hall, Tanya, Tracy, D., and Lamey, A. "Exploring Video Feedback in Philosophy: Benefits for Instructors and Students," Teaching Philosophy  39:2 (2016).

Harrell, Maralee. Grading According to a Rubric.  Teaching Philosophy.  28.1 (2005): 3-14. Harrell provides both theoretical discussion and an extremely detailed example to work from. 


Johnson, Frances S.  Death by Paper: Ten Secrets for Survival. Teaching Professor,  26.6 (2006): 1.  


Reder, Michale.  Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Student Writing (But were Afraid to Ask).  Teaching Excellence.  18-7 (2006-7).


Pryor, Jim. Many philosophy instructors really like the web site "Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper" by Jim Pryor at New York University.  Pryor has a lot of other good materials on his website.


Roberts,  Rodney C.  Teaching Writing-Intensive Undergraduate Philosophy Courses.  Teaching Philosophy.  25.3 (2002): 195-210.  Roberts gives a detailed plan for various stages of writing instruction including: "classroom discussion, in-class writing assignments, paper assignments, in-class peer review, and tutorials" (199).


Amazon lists two books on writing philosophy papers.  Doing Philosophy: A Guide to the Writing of Philosophy Papers by Joel Feinberg, and Writing Philosophy Papers by Zachary P. Seech, and there are countless general books about writing papers.  Let us know if you have had success assigning a specific book about paper writing.    


Author: John Immerwahr

Update: 27 June, 2016 (E. Tarver)

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