Study Methods that Work

From the contributors at In Socrates’ Wake




A Note to Students:  These study methods are intended to help you master the material you are covering in class. In philosophy, this means that you are seeking to understand philosophical positions and the arguments on offer both for and against these positions. It also means that you are learning various skills involved in the process of critical thinking. The methods below can help you become more intellectually virtuous, which will help you not only in your academic career and chosen profession, but will improve the rest of your life as well. Some of these methods may work for you, and some may not. Try the ones which seem to you to be the most helpful. Keep using those that work for you, and lay aside those that do not. Some of what follows has empirical support, and some is supported by our own experience as students and instructors.


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1. Generate (and try to answer) your own questions about the material. For example, look at one of the case studies from a book like Morality Play,  (or from recent current events:, then ask yourself what Aristotle would say about the case, and why. Or consider other questions, such as this: “What would Plato say about the connection between morality and happiness?”; “How are the views of Thomas Aquinas different from Aristotle? How are they the same?” Even if the questions you come up with and answer don’t appear on the test, asking and answering them will deepen your understanding of the ideas we’ve covered, which will then enable you to do better on the questions that do appear on the test.



2. Create visuals representing what you read. This could be a picture, a diagram, or something else that will communicate and help you to understand the ideas present in what you read. For example, in our class you might draw a picture representing Plato’s understanding of the soul and how the three parts should relate to one another, according to him.

For examples of this from students:



3. Summarize the information you want to learn. Take the ideas and try to communicate them in your own words, as much as possible. To understand and be able to work with ideas using the elements of critical thinking, this is important. Imagine someone asks you to summarize Plato’s views about morality based on the readings and discussion in class, and write down your answer.



4. Annotate the assigned readings. Work with the assigned readings and annotate them using argumentative verbs and terminology. Write 'thesis' in the margins next to the text's thesis; '1st arg' next to the author's first argument for her thesis; use other terms like 'reply to 1st arg,' '2nd arg', etc.

5. Reconstruct arguments, differentiating conclusions from premises. This should be easy if you've done the annotating described above.

6. Chart the contrasts amongst positions by cataloging differences among arguments' premises and conclusions. Sounds complicated, but here's the idea: Philosophers sometimes argue for the same conclusion using premises different from those used by other philosophers. You can argue for a conclusion P by appealing to premises Q and R, or by appealing to S and T, etc. Remarkably, they sometimes argue for different conclusions even though they appeal to the same premises. For example, take four prominent articles on the ethics of abortion: English, Thomson, Marquis, Noonan. Which authors reach similar conclusions about abortion? Do they do it with the same set of premises or with different premises? Do any of the others appeal to the same premises but reach different conclusions from those premises?

7. Put positions in conversation with each other. If you've read philosopher A and philosopher B on some topic, imagine them debating each other. How would A respond to B's positions or arguments? How would B respond to A's positions or arguments?



8. When studying a particular argument, summarize the argument, come up with an objection that might be raised against the argument, and suggest a way that the argument's author might respond to that objection. When summarizing the argument, be sure to include all of the premises, not just the conclusion. Do the same when raising an objection: State the problem you see with the argument and explain why you think it's a problem. Do your best to explain everything in a way that your friends could understand it, even if they haven't taken any philosophy classes.