Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Intro Ethics versus Regular Intro

In my current job, I teach a lot of sections of Introduction to Ethics, and a lot of sections of Intro to Philosophy. I've noticed a general trend in my teaching whereby my Intro Ethics students generally do almost a full letter grade better on average than my regular Intro students (e.g. a B+ to the Intro's B-). I don't think it's because my Ethics class is easier, because the pattern extends to individual test questions concerning material that I include in both classes, such as the meaning of the word 'valid.'

One possible explanation is that students who take Ethics rather than Regular Intro tend to have a prior interest in the subject matter, and are not taking it only to satisfy a requirement. Since interested students do better, ethics students do better. This suggests that I need to do a better job getting my intro students interested in philosophy.

I'm doubtful of this explanation for a couple of reasons. For one, my ethics class is pretty theoretical, and I'm not sure where an 18-year-old public-school-type person would pick up a prior interest in theoretical ethics. If my students are interested in ethics, they're interested in applied ethics. Second, I spend a bunch of time in intro on the theism/atheism debate, which I know many of my students have a prior interest in. But it's not obvious that this isn't it.

Another possible explanation is that I am more interested in my ethics class, and this is affecting my students. This is definitely possible. But I'm pretty interested in e.g. the theism/atheism debate and other topics I cover (although I do not publish in these areas, and it is easy for my students to discover my publication record. However, I doubt that many of my students take the initiative to discover the details of my publication record.). And I've talked to a few other people, LEMmings, who report the same phenomenon as me.

So I'm not sure what's going on. What say you, Smokers?

--Mr. Zero


Matthew Pianalto said...

One possibility is that the ethics course has greater thematic unity throughout, so there is a more obvious way for students to "get the hang of" the subject matter and apply earlier content and methods to later topics in the course. By contrast, my intro to phil course has three distinct units, and while there are various overlaps, there's less of a connection to make between the topics of personal identity and social and political philosophy than there is between, say, utilitarianism and capital punishment. So, if you want to "raise" the performance in your intro classes, finding ways to weave threads of continuity into your intro class might help. Students like to see and make connections (at least I did).

Asstro said...

I wouldn't put my money on the self-selection argument either, but I think it is reasonable to assume that, given the nature of the content of ethics courses, it is easier to make connections with discussions that are likely circulating in the undergraduate experience. Ethics questions, even the extremely metaethical, are relevant to the lives of undergraduates in a way that metaphysics questions just aren't.

So that's at least one consideration.

But consider that M&E questions tend also to have some of the more empirical disciplines investigating them too, albeit with considerably narrower methodologies. So where you may find that some of the mind stuff is relevant and interesting to the undergrads, it can be difficult for them to dissect this stuff out from cognitive science and psychology that they may have studied elsewhere. The methods are wildly entangled. There isn't as clearly a counterpart discipline to ethics, so it can be easier to see and get the methods of philosophy in ethics classes.

Justin said...

I'm pretty sure that "valid" means having legal force; as in, "My jackass cousin get pulled over doing 80 in 35 zone and didn't have a valid driver's license."

Do I get an A?

Anonymous said...

I'm teaching intro ethics this fall, so I'll be interested to see if I experience the same phenomena. I know I'm spending more time on the ethics class than I spent prepping the intro class, because the intro was basically just a puu-puu platter of topics, and with only a few days allocated to each one, there wasn't any need to get really heavily prepped for any particular issue. On the other hand, I fully expect to be revisiting the stuff from the first week all throughout the ethics class, and I feel a greater pressure to ensure dialectical unity in the presentation of the material (whereas in intro phil, I was just moving from one topic to another, giving them a sense of how one would do philosophy on that subject).

I wonder if this is a factor?

robot zapper: eukoles

Michael Cholbi said...

Hmmm... I've taught both courses many times and am not sure I've noticed the same patterns in grades.

But supposing that the pattern holds true, my hypothesis would be motivational: My own casual observation is that fewer ethics students 'check out' of the course in comparison to students in Intro to Phil. My sense is that a lot students see some of the issues addressed in the typical Intro to Phil class as either esoteric or opportunities for intellectual game playing rather than issues on which something serious turns. Descartes' evil demon, God's existence, personal identity, etc. may be fun to play with, but you won't have to make an important life decision based on them. In ethics on the other hand, I do try to instill in students a sense of ethical responsibility, and they seem to recognize that even though they'll probably never find themselves in the middle of the trolley problem, they may end up with an unexpected pregnancy and be thinking about an abortion; or in a position where their employer is breaking the law; or be asked to serve in their nation's military as a result of a wartime draft; etc. So this is less 'prior interest' than the fact that you probably can make it through life not too worried about metaphysics or epistemology, but ethical questions seem like questions which a person needs to be prepared to answer and think about. The students thus seem to feel a greater sense of intellectual responsibility vis-a-vis ethics than they do other areas of philosophy. But that's only a guess on my part.

Anonymous said...

Michael C.'s explanation is interesting. I have taught both courses many times too and I do have to work a bit harder in the classroom to show the importance of the questions addressed in the typical intro M&E classes to their lives. For example, it helps to motivate something like Descartes's evil demon skeptical scenario by emphasizing his interest in securing true beliefs and eliminating false ones. I've found students really get into the issue of why we ought to strive for true beliefs or why we should eliminate false beliefs. In personal identity, I emphasize that it matters for issues of
pride or guilt, reward or punishment for past actions; rights based on previous actions or possession and anticipation of future experiences and that I find gets the students more reflective on this topic etc etc. In fact, the last few times I have taught an M&E Intro, I start each topic explaining why this particular topic matters and why it should matter to them right now.

Anonymous said...

The answer is simple. Ethics is easy; M & E is hard.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't discount (some form of) self-selection so easily. At one school that I taught at, the Intro course was recommended to freshman who had no idea what the wanted to major in while the Ethics course was recommended to people of specific majors (it was required for some). At another school, all students had to take either Intro or Ethics yet they drew slightly different types of students. While, at third school, the previous instructors of Ethics had, it seems, seriously soured the student body on the course (all my students later admitted that they had heard that the ethics course sucked).

I haven't, myself, experienced a dramatic difference in student performance.

Michael Scott said...

"M & E is hard."
That's what she said.

Anonymous said...

1) Usually my intro class has no one who has taken a philosophy class before and my ethics class does have students who have taken a philosophy class; that could account for better grades, of course.

2) A larger percentage of students in my intro classes are freshman than in my ethics classes; that could also account for the discrepancy.

Are either of these going on in your classes?

Dan said...

Students are more likely to discuss ethics issues outside class, and this substantially aids their understanding of, and ability to argue about, the topic.

Anonymous said...

I have found that "Intro to [Broad Field of Study]" is often viewed by students as a watered down version of study in that field, while "Intro to [Specific Area of Inquiry]" is often seen as a more serious subject. It's not that the former is easier than the latter; it just seems that way to students, so they don't put as much effort in.