Teaching students how to explain philosophical arguments

While it’s a hallmark of upper-level philosophy essays that students are asked to formulate and justify a position in response to some evaluative question, it’s worth remembering that getting there often involves asking students to explain some argument or other from the philosophical literature.

This is a skill in itself, and one students can need support developing.  Without it, students philosophy essays can resemble unfortunate attempts to run before they can walk, since deploying a good evaluation of an argument generally depends on having previously deployed a decent explanation of it.

While there’s much to discuss here, for now, here’s a worksheet I recently put together in response to classes I know going on right now.

It’s designed to support students learning the specific skill of explaining a philosophical argument, especially in response to some question. Feel free to use it in whatever activities or classroom contexts you like.

The idea is you give them some argument or other from a textual source – a class text, a printout from the internet’s vast archive of philosophical literature – and they can use this worksheet to focus attention on explaining it, and then thinking about what sorts of steps were involved in what they chose to explain and how they chose to explain it.  Easy peasy.


Teachers, or students who want to use this to practice:

  1. Insert a question of your choice in the top box.
  2. Complete (or ask your students to complete, a caveat that applies to the rest of this worksheet) the second box, a stem question designed to get students to focus on writing a succinct, salient introductory sentence stating what they will do to answer the question (hint: we’re expecting them to say something involving words like “explain” or “describe”).
  3. Explain the argument either in bullet-points or in full sentences. Remember to focus on doing so in a way that clearly and precisely answers the question.
  4. Perhaps after some class discussion reflecting on the process of explanation and effective versus less effective ways of explaining, identify 2-3 things about your own explanation that were good, and 2-3 things that could be done differently next time to produce a better explanation.



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