Explore how enlisting the help of students can promote greater engagement and understanding in class

by Sokthan Yeng

Students sometimes complain that philosophy is dense, difficult, and—even the dreaded—boring. Yet, philosophical texts are often full of colorful examples and vivid images. To bring out the richness of the work and make it easier to digest, I use a mix of lecture, discussion, games, artwork, and references to popular culture. I found that part of the reason students have trouble understanding the ideas is because they have no connection to the important issues of that time. While I do give short lectures to help students understand what motivated the particular philosophical writing, I have also used “information scavenger hunts” to fill in background information and encourage active learning. Creating an information scavenger hunt is not unlike preparing a lecture about the historical time of the writing. I provide context about the philosopher’s life, the socio-political climate, and philosophical trends and post this information around the room. Students are divided into groups and given a question sheet. Some of the answers can be found on one poster; others require synthesizing information found on multiple posters. In order to obtain answers to all the questions, students must walk around the room and, ideally, discuss what they have learned with each other. My hope is that the background information will make clearer which positions the philosopher criticizes and which s/he supports. This exercise, of course, does not always provide entrance into the text. In order to promote engagement with the work itself, I integrate artwork and relate philosophical concepts to themes in popular culture. I will often assign students a small passage from the work to read with the goal of creating a picture or a skit that relays the main idea behind that particular section. I have found that students better understand the work, once they see the images or scenes that others have crafted. Because students can conjure up examples that I cannot, I frequently turn to them to provide illustrations from television shows, movies, and YouTube videos that relay the meaning behind philosophical concepts. Enlisting the help of students in this way not only promotes greater engagement with the work, but it also shows them that these ideas are still relevant today.


Sokthan Yeng
Assistant Professor
Department of Philosophy

This piece is from the Fall 2010 Issue No. 14 of the FCPE Newsletter.

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