Questions about study habits and practices are very personal questions. They’re not personal in the impolite sense that to raise them evinces a bit of social ineptitude on the part of the enquirer. Rather, they’re personal in the sense that what ‘works’ for each of us will be determined by largely subjective or person-relative factors: What are our goals? What resources do we have access to? What sort of preparation have we undergone? What learning-strategies have we found to be most effective? What extra-academic obligations do we have? And so on.
Given that studying is so deeply personal in that latter sense, this post will only be about how I approach studying. Specifically, it will be about how I approach the study of philosophy as a University of London (UoL) student. My aim in sharing my approach to studying philosophy is threefold: first, I hope that it will provide those who may be interested in studying philosophy both with an idea of what it’s like to study it at the university level, and what it’s like to study it as a UoL student; second, I hope that others who are studying philosophy, or other essay-based humanities subjects, will glean some ideas from my approach that might help them with their studies; and third, I hope that others will share their ideas on studying with me (perhaps in the comments section of this post!) so that I might learn from them.
Since I am a UoL student, the first step I take when I begin to work on a new module (e.g. logic, epistemology, ethics) is to read that module’s UoL Subject Guide. Each guide provides you with both an introduction to the topics you’re expected to learn about and an extensive reading list from which to draw on. From there I’ll select both a textbook (or two!) and some essential reading for each main topic the module covers to get a decent overview of the subject. While doing the essential reading (and taking notes, of course) I’ll try to discern which topics really grab me. If all goes well, this initial period will provide me with four or five topics (out of, say, ten or so) to focus on for the rest of the year.
After selecting which topics to focus on, I look at all the past exam papers that are available on the UoL VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) , and begin to group the questions related to my topics into categories. I’ll also look for relevant questions here, which is an additional source of past UoL exam questions. The list of exam questions I ultimately end up with is what finally determines the course of study I’ll pursue for the rest of the academic year (though of course I’m free to change things around as the year progresses).
Once I’ve narrowed my focus sufficiently for a particular module, I’ll check that module’s Subject Guide once more to find additional resources on my chosen topics. But then I’ll begin to look beyond the Subject Guides. One of the best resources for philosophy students is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Each article is peer reviewed, written by an expert in the field covered, and contains up-to-date information on scholarly treatments of the topic. Most importantly for me, they also contain extensive bibliographies that provide me with additional resources for studying that topic in depth.
Getting a list of resources is one thing; getting access to them is something entirely different. Much of the material you need can be found on the UoL Online Library. But if you have any decent university libraries in your area, be sure to check them out. If you explain your situation as a UoL student to the librarians, you’re very likely to get access to them, and perhaps borrowing privileges as well. And though in some cases you may have to pay an annual fee for both, chances are it’s much cheaper than purchasing the texts you need outright.
Once that preparatory work is complete (ideally it will take no more than a month), I begin to research and write essays in response to the examination questions I’ve selected. I can’t stress enough how important it is for philosophy students to write essays with specific questions in mind. This is one of the first lessons my former tutor Dr. Geoffrey Klempner taught me, and it is easily one of the most important I’ve ever learned. By approaching a topic with a specific question in mind, you’re forced to engage with the course material critically. That is, you’re forced to do philosophy.
My aim is to write an essay a week (though I rarely achieve it!) once I’ve entered this phase of my studies. How many essays per module should you look to complete? Since Birkbeck College is the UoL philosophy programme’s Lead College, I looked at the Birkbeck Philosophy Handbook (for brick-and-mortar students) and learned that the most enthusiastic undergraduate can expect to complete between 60 (full time students) and 80 (part time students) essays throughout the course of his or her undergraduate career. If we take the larger number, and divide it by eleven (which is the number of modules UoL students complete, minus the dissertation), we arrive at a figure of roughly eight essays per module. And when you consider that the essays range from between 1,000 and 1,500 words for first-year module, to 2,500 to 3,000 words for third year modules, that’s not too tough a number to shoot for (especially if you resume your studies within, say, a month from exams, which gives you 11 months to complete the essays!)
Once I complete an essay, I send it off to my tutor for critical evaluation. I should stress that UoL resources are designed to be used without any tutorial assistance. However, since my aim is to attend graduate school after completing my studies with UoL, I’ve concluded that for my purposes, receiving expert feedback on my essays throughout the year is crucial. And when you work out the costs involved with e.g. Birkbeck’s tutors, you find that they’re remarkably reasonable as well. For example, if we assume you’re writing eight essays per module, and (say) six drafts of your dissertation, we get a total of 94 essays completed throughout the course of your UoL career. If you choose to have each one marked by a tutor, at an average cost of 28 GBP per essay (Birkbeck tutors charge 24 GBP for essays of 1,500 words or fewer, and 32 GBP for essays of 3,000 words or fewer), we’d get a total of 2,632 GBP, or approximately 4,000 U.S. dollars. That means that the total cost of tuition for your UoL degree, should you choose to take advantage of it, roughly equals what you’d pay for a single one-semester course at a private college in the US! (Another way to think about it is this: for that one-semester course, you might receive three or four marked essays, most likely with very brief critical comments; however, with the UoL tutors, you’ll receive for the very same cost 94 marked essays, with very detailed comments!)
But if getting a tutor isn’t an option for you, there are additional ways to receive feedback on your ideas and essays. For example, there’s a fairly active UoL Philosophy Programme Facebook page with more than 100 members. And very recently, a few of us have begun experimenting with weekly Skype sessions, which seem to be going remarkably well. So in addition to access to feedback from qualified tutors, you have plenty of opportunities to get feedback from your peers as well. And some of the students who are working with tutors are active on the Facebook page, and so can pass along to you some of the excellent, expert advice they’re receiving.
Although the UoL philosophy program doesn’t provide students with access to recorded lectures, there are plenty of sources on the web to fill this gap. ITunes University has a number of lecture series available from leading universities with content that’s relevant to UoL coursework, and there are a plethora of high quality philosophy podcasts out there. Also, many professors and graduate students write philosophy blogs, and will often interact with comments you make on their posts. And I’ve found that many philosophy professors have made their course lecture notes available online. So when I’m working on a particular topic, I’ll also search these various web resources to supplement the study methods I sketched above.
At this point you might want to say, ‘OK, you’ve said quite a bit about how you approach studying as a UoL student, but not much about studying philosophy itself with UoL.’ And that’s true. But I think it would be best to introduce some philosophy first, for then I can show in detail what it’s like to tackle a specific topic as a UoL philosophy student (or, rather, what it’s like for me to do so!). So that’s what I’ll be doing in my next post, beginning with a selection from the ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ module on the fascinating topic of personal identity.
Eric is studying for the BA Philosophy by distance learning in Rhode Island, USA.