Tier Lists as a Teaching Tool in Philosophy

A tierlist is a basic ranking of some set of entities X usually from S-tier (best) to F-tier.

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You can rank anything on the tier list (e.g. animals in terms of strength, athletes, soft drinks, etc.). I have recently been watching Hikaru Nakamura (and Gotham Chess) rank chess openings using Tier Maker (here they rank the greatest GMs in Chess). In watching tier-list videos (see also TierZoo), I decided that it would be fun to try to use a tierlist in my courses. I thought it would serve as an effective tool for (1) exposing students to the absolute basics about a wide-range of topics, theories, or arguments, and (2) encouraging some critical thinking / argument analysis.

Initially, there were two topics I thought might be conducive to using a tierlist: theories of freedom (and determinism) and arguments for and against the existence of God.

Creating the TierList

It appears the quickest and easiest way to create a tier list is to use Tiermaker. This approach, however, requires you to sign up for an account and this was not something I wanted to do. I opted instead to make my own. Below I outline the basic process.

First, I dragged a basic tier list image like the one above into Photoshop. I then recreated the tier list over the list above using the Rectangle tool. Since the basic tier list contained seven tiers, I replaced the S-F tiers with the following tiers: God, A, EHH, NAH, and F. In retrospect, I should have used different names for "EHH" and "NAH" since it was sometimes confusing what tier students were referring to when I ran the activity.

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One thing that is necessary is that you don't want your tier list to fill up the entire page. You need some blank space at the bottom so you can place whatever it is you want to rank.

Next, I needed to make icons that I could drag into the various tiers. Here I used images corresponding to various arguments for the existence of God, dragged them onto a new layer in Photoshop, placed text over these images, and then converted the image-layer and text-layer into a smart object. Transforming the two layers into a smart object is important as (1) it allows the image and text layers to be draggable and (2) it allows you to go back and edit the image-text later if needed. Finally, I resized the new smart object so it would fit on the tier list. Here is the result for Anselm's Ontological Argument:

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Here is the entire tier list after using it one day in a class run partially via ZOOM:

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Using the Tier List

How do you use a tier list in class? There are two different sides to the use of the tier-list. The student side and the instructor side.

From the student side, there is not a lot to do. You only need to explain the exercise itself. Here are the instructions I distributed before class and explained during class:

  1. You will be given a sketch of either an argument for or against the existence of God (a being that is said to be all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, necessary, and responsible for the creation of the world).
  2. You will then be given a poll (via Zoom) and asked to rank that argument by selecting its tier (God-level being the best, A-level being good, Ehh being OK, Nah being not good, and F-tier being a terrible argument). You may use whatever criteria for evaluating arguments you should, e.g. validity, soundness, style, persuasiveness, ingenuity, refutation-resistance, fallaciousness, etc.
  3. After everyone votes, I will display the poll, and then there will be 5 minutes of discussion. In the discussion period, you should (1) state how you voted and argue why others should vote the same way as you did, (2) add nuance or additional clarity to the argument itself, or (3) solicit other classmates to change your mind by stating what factors would sway your opinion.
  4. Finally, we will revote and I'll place the argument on the tier that wins (most selected). If ties, then I'll decide the tie-breaker.

The instructor side involves some additional complications. First, you need to be able to display the tierlist to the students and drag the icons to the appropriate tiers. There are a couple of solutions (I won't mention all of them). The simplest way to do this is to use a screen share of your screen in Photoshop. The downside of this approach is that it isn't pretty.

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A better approach (if you are using Zoom) is to click "Advanced" when using the Share Screen feature. Next, select share a Portion of Screen.. Now students will only see the tier list itself.

Second, if you are like me, you don't have every premise of every argument for / against the existence of God committed to memory. For this reason, I had a separate file open that gave a barebones presentation of the arguments.

Third, you'll need to use polls in class. One student could not access the poll when I used the tier list so they simply voted by stating their vote in the Zoom chat.

Reflections

The tier list activity is fun since it is a change of pace from the normal way I conduct course (e.g. lecture, small group discussion). Some students told me that they loved the format but I don't have data about whether this feeling was universal. While there is a lot of pre-class preparation (see above), conducting class itself was enjoyable from the instructor-side.

My biggest reservation about using tier lists are their limited educational value. The God tier list activity exposes students to many different arguments but the activity is lacking in depth. Premises are not evaluated rigorously, proper conceptual distinctions aren't made, objections to the arguments are sometimes inchoate, and there isn't the usual attempt to salvage the argument by revising it.

So when would I use it?

First, I would use if you are looking for a fun activity that exposes students to a wide-range of ideas, theories, or topics but do not plan on testing them on the material. I used the tierlist activity in a course in metaphysics at the end of the semester. Students were busy working on their final papers and (1) I didn't want to introduce new material that they would be evaluated on since their focus should be on reading secondary literature, writing their papers, proofreading, etc. but (2) I still wanted to expose students to some topics not covered in the course.

Second, I might consider using as a way of introducing a topic and then following up on the assignment with a more detailed analysis of a subset of the arguments.

Third, I would consider using it in a non-classroom setting. It might be used as an activity in Philosophy Club.

God Tier List - Video

Apparently, the God Tier list has been done before (although not in the classroom setting).

One interesting aspect of the video above is that arguments are evaluated using some basic criteria: fallacy-resistance, persuasiveness, etc. This would be an interesting feature to incorporate. In addition, some of image layers I use are similar to those found in the video (e.g. Pascal's argument, argument from personal experience).