Doing philosophy in teams

Using AGORA for problem-based learning

Collaborative argument mapping with AGORA is an excellent way to engage students in problem-based learning (PBL). PBL is learning in teams. Traditionally, PBL has one goal and two basic strategies. The goal is to stimulate and guide self-directed student learning. The first strategy is to let small groups of students collaborate autonomously, but guided by a “facilitator” or “tutor,” and the second is to confront student teams with a problem that poses a real challenge. As Allyn Walsh (2005) highlights in her tutorial, the goal “is NOT to solve the problem which has been presented. Rather, the problem is used to help students identify their own learning needs as they attempt to understand the problem, to pull together, synthesize and apply information to the problem, and to begin to work effectively to learn from group members as well as tutors.” In PBL students are supposed to acquire on their own the knowledge they need to approach the problem. Students should learn to learn.

We have shown in a research project that AGORA-net can be used—in connection with a few other strategies—to provide a substantial and satisfying PBL experience for students that is successful with regard to intended learning goals without requiring facilitators (Hoffmann and Lingle 2015). So far, we tested this AGORA-based PBL approach in introductory classes on ethics, engineering ethics, and epistemology (Hoffmann and Borenstein 2014; Hoffmann 2013). In the ethics classes we used mainly “wicked problems” (Rittel and Webber 1973) that focused on emerging technologies such as neuro-imagining, lethal autonomous robots, and geo-engineering (

AGORA-net is freely usable at  It provides step-by-step guidance to construct arguments and networks of arguments and counter-arguments. The software is collaborative in the sense that students can work simultaneously on the same argument map via an internet connection, be it in face-to-face communication or online. They can add arguments and objections to statements, as well as references, links to resources, comments, definitions, and friendly amendments. The instructor can use the same means to provide feedback.

PBL was first designed for education in the medical sciences in the 1950s (Hung et al. 2008) and a first PBL curriculum implemented at McMaster University in 1969 (Neville 2009), also in health-related education. Today, PBL is additionally used in science and engineering education, but there is hardly any literature about using PBL in philosophy (exceptions are Berry et al. 2013; Jonassen and Cho 2011; Sunderland 2014; Jones et al. 2010; and Kim and Lee 2011).

PBL has been described as “perhaps the most innovative pedagogical method ever implemented in education” (Hung et al. 2008). Empirical research studying the effectiveness of PBL, as summarized in several meta-analyses, confirmed the expectation that PBL is superior to more traditional instruction when it comes to the development of skills—especially problem solving and team skills (Dochy et al. 2003; Galand et al. 2012; Gijbels et al. 2005; Neville 2009). Results are mixed, though, with regard to the acquisition of content knowledge as it is intended in the areas in which the effectiveness of PBL has been studied so far: medical education, science, and engineering. In a detailed “meta-synthesis of meta-analyses,” Strobel and van Barneveld (2009) concluded that “PBL was superior when it comes to long-term retention, skill development and satisfaction of students and teachers, while traditional approaches were more effective for short-term retention as measured by standardized board exams” (p. 44). 

We are convinced that doing philosophy in teams can enrich the learning experience and will make philosophical analysis and training more relevant for people studying philosophy. Philosophy education always focused, among other things, on the ability to understand, construct, evaluate, and criticize arguments and more complex argumentations. These skills are required across disciplines. Factual, normative, and evaluative claims, and decisions or recommendations, have to be justified. Science and decision making needs to be based on justifications, not on beliefs or opinions. Moreover, there is the expectation that attempts to justify a position by an argument can stimulate reflection and lead to conceptual change and improved understanding, especially when it comes to ill-structured or “wicked” problems and conflicts (Jonassen and Kim 2010; Hoffmann 2015).

We think that the implementation of PBL environments in which collaboration among students is guided and structured by argument mapping software can be a great way to train the construction, evaluation, and critique of arguments. Students have to figure out on their own how to do this, and doing this in teams can stimulate engagement, interest, learning, and a sense of shared responsibility.

If you are interested to develop a course that implements an AGORA-PBL approach in form of a module and to test it at least once, please feel free to contact us.


Michael, at m.hoffmann [at]



Berry, Roberta M., Jason Borenstein, and Robert Butera. 2013. Contentious Problems in Bioscience and Biotechnology: A Pilot Study of an Approach to Ethics Education. Science and Engineering Ethics:653-668. doi:10.1007/s11948-012-9359-6.

Dochy, F., M. Segers, P. Van den Bossche, and D. Gijbels. 2003. Effects of problem-based learning: a meta-analysis. Learning and Instruction 13 (5):533-568. doi:10.1016/s0959-4752(02)00025-7.

Galand, B., M. Frenay, and B. Raucent. 2012. Effectiveness of Problem-Based Learning In Engineering Education: A Comparative Study on Three Levels of Knowledge Structure. International Journal of Engineering Education 28 (4):939-947.

Gijbels, D., F. Dochy, P. Van den Bossche, and M. Segers. 2005. Effects of problem-based learning: A meta-analysis from the angle of assessment. Review of Educational Research 75 (1):27-61. doi:10.3102/00346543075001027.

Hoffmann, Michael H.G. 2013. Changing Philosophy through Technology: Complexity and Computer-Supported Collaborative Argument Mapping. Philosophy & Technology (pre-print version available at doi:10.1007/s13347-013-0143-6. Retrieved from

Hoffmann, M. H. G. (2015). Reflective Argumentation: A Cognitive Function of Arguing. Argumentation, 1-33. doi: 10.1007/s10503-015-9388-9

Hoffmann, Michael H.G., and Jason Borenstein. 2014. Understanding Ill-Structured Engineering Ethics Problems Through a Collaborative Learning and Argument Visualization Approach. Science and Engineering Ethics 20 (1):261-276. doi:10.1007/s11948-013-9430-y.

Hoffmann, M. H. G., & Lingle, J. (2015). Facilitating Problem-Based Learning by Means of Collaborative Argument Visualization Software. Teaching Philosophy, 38(4), 371-398. doi: 10.5840/teachphil2015112039

Hung, Woei, David H. Jonassen, and Rude Liu. 2008. Problem-based learning. In Handbook of research on educational communications and technology, eds. J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. V. Merriënboer, and M. P. Driscoll, 485–506. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Jonassen, David H., and Young Hoan Cho. 2011. Fostering Argumentation While Solving Engineering Ethics Problems. Journal of Engineering Education 100 (4):680-702.

Jonassen, David H., and B. Kim. 2010. Arguing to learn and learning to argue: design justifications and guidelines. Etr&D-Educational Technology Research and Development 58 (4):439-457. doi:10.1007/s11423-009-9143-8.

Jones, Nancy L., Ann M. Peiffer, Ann Lambros, Martin Guthold, A. Daniel Johnson, Michael Tytell, April E. Ronca, and J. Charles Eldridge. 2010. Developing a problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum for professionalism and scientific integrity training for biomedical graduate students. Journal of Medical Ethics 36 (10):614-619. doi:10.1136/jme.2009.035220.

Kim, YongHwan, and Jongha Lee. 2011. The present situation of philosophical education and learner-centered education for general philosophy. Studies in Philosophy East-West 60:347-368.

Neville, A. J. 2009. Problem-Based Learning and Medical Education Forty Years On. Medical Principles and Practice 18 (1):1-9. doi:10.1159/000163038.

Rittel, Horst W. J., and Melvin M. Webber. 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4:155-169.

Strobel, J., and A. van Barneveld. 2009. When is PBL more effective? A meta-synthesis of meta-analyses comparing PBL to conventional classrooms. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning 3 (1):44–58.

Sunderland, M. E. 2014. Taking Emotion Seriously: Meeting Students Where They Are. Science and Engineering Ethics 20 (1):183-195. doi:10.1007/s11948-012-9427-y.

Walsh, Allyn. 2005. The Tutor in Problem-Based Learning:  A Novice’s Guide. Hamilton, ON, Canada: McMaster University. Retrieved from