Sunday, July 17, 2011

Grading philosophy

Some people have the impression that philosophy is just a matter of one’s own personal opinions, and so there really are no “right” or “wrong” answers. I do not share that view. I treat philosophical issues more like math problems, where there really are “right” and “wrong” answers.

That being said, philosophical problems are rarely as simple as “what is 2+2?” Philosophical problems are more like those complicated word problems we all did in school (“Frank travels north west at 40mph, Sally travels north east at 65mph, . . .”). Like complicated math problems, philosophical problems require that we work carefully and systematically through a number of interwoven steps.

Math teachers can grade word problems in (at least) two different ways. One way is simply to check if the student gets the right answer. After all, one might think, if the student gets the right answer, then surely they took all the right steps.

But that seems insufficient because it seems entirely possible for a student to take all the wrong steps, but yet by sheer accident end up with the right answer. For instance, a word problem might require that the student subtract 5 from 10 to get the right answer, but an erring student might add 2 and 3, giving her the "right" answer anyway.

Another, and probably better way to grade word problems is to look at the student’s reasoning process, i.e., to check whether the student tried to work carefully through the various steps that are required to get to the final answer. This makes it easier to detect students who simply misunderstand the whole thing altogether (or perhaps are just too lazy to put in the requisite time and effort), and it makes it easier to award points for those who may not end up with the right answer, but certainly were on the right track.

Surely we can grade philosophy like this, no? The problem is, I don't think my math teachers ever taught me how to solve word problems, and I don't think my philosophy teachers ever taught me how to work through problems either. Instead, I was given a bunch of incomprehensible pages to read and then write an essay or two (which were evaluated according to some criteria that I still don't think I understand).