Self Explanation Exercise in Philosophy


Student scrolling a paper on their Ipad.


Contributed by Federica Bocchi, Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy of Science

(4-minute read)

Thank you, Maria, for introducing the notion and the practice of self-explanation as a useful pedagogical technique that can help our students. In the post, you write: “Self-explanation should promote the student to put into words why they are moving from point A to point B instead of just doing it, which will allow the student to contextualize the processes behind the learning and apply those processes to other scenarios.” I’d like to follow up on your key point by discussing how to use self-explanation in my discipline: philosophy.

Instructors often assume that students will develop strategies to retain information and independently transfer their skills from one subject to the other. Nonetheless, instructors might find it beneficial to explicitly address how this skill is developed by introducing a self-explanation activity.

I implemented a self-explanation exercise in my philosophy classes during the 2022 Summer term. For this idea, I am indebted to Prof. Lydia Patton, who uses a similar exercise on the first day of her philosophy of physics classes.

A core skill in philosophy is the ability to analyze and reconstruct written arguments, which often come in the form of long essays.  I have devised an exercise to encourage students to reflect on the structure and the various components in a philosophy article and to match a numbered table containing philosophy jargon to pieces of the text. In other words, they have to read the text and assign the right number to various paragraphs and phrases.

The table can be something like this:


# Structural element Description
1 Main thesis of the paper This is usually, but not always, found in the introductory paragraph
2 Secondary thesis of the paper This can be a logical consequence of the main thesis or a request for changes in policies, legal system etc.
3 Empirical evidence for the main thesis Philosophy article should include observations of data collected in empirical studies. Always cite the empirical literature!
4 First possible objection Every professional philosophy paper considers at least one objection to the main thesis. The objection can target the premises endorsed by the paper’s author or show dubious consequences of the paper’s main thesis (in the form, for example, of a mental experiment)
5 Response to first possible objection Every professional philosophy paper is able to address at least the main objections to the main thesis. Sometimes an author must “bite the bullet” and adopt a consequence they had not envisioned before for the argument to stand 
6 Second possible object Yes, there might be more than one objection
7 Mental experiment An argumentative form in which an hypothetical situation is presented to elicit philosophical intuitions. It is not merely a philosophical toolhink about Einstein’s two twins mental experiment!
8 Deductive argument An argumentative form in which, if you accept the premises, then you must accept the conclusion
9 Inductive argument (e.g. inference from sample) An argument in which the premises might be right but the conclusion might be false (even if it is strong)
10 Definition of “…” In philosophy we care about definitions! A lot hinges on which definition you adopt of, for example, “sustainability” or “value”…


Each of you can adapt this table to fit the technical vocabulary proper to each subfield of philosophy, and it might be useful as scaffolding to analyze many philosophy articles. In addition, you can ask students to personalize the description associated with each term to match the paper they are working on. Alternatively (thanks, Maria, for suggesting this!), students might be asked to provide their own examples, a perfect strategy to prompt knowledge transfer.

Students who are new to philosophy and our rigorous writing style might find it extremely hard to identify these components in a paper. For this reason, my strategy is to provide them with a paper where I myself did the same exercise. Feel free to email me at to let me know what you think about this exercise!