Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Should altruism have an effect on your final exam score?

Posted 17 Aug 2015 / 0

The Chronicle of Higher EducationThis ‘Extra Credit’ Question Does No Credit to Fairness

This seems like kind of a dumb stunt on the part of the psychology professor who posed it. I never really respected my professors who did not take very seriously the idea that students are pretty amped up by the experience of taking a final exam. It’s a poor place to create a learning experience based on creating student discomfort.

That said, I have made the ability to be altruistic the basis for a classroom activity, including ones that can lead to extra credit. In my The Evolution of Cooperation course, the first day I ask students to complete an activity on which they could exploit their partner to earn more points, potentially leading to extra credit. In my Ecology course I used the Sustainable Use of Fisheries interface to challenge them to be be successful fishermen, both as individuals and as groups. Individuals who take advantage of their fellow group members can earn extra credit points.

So am I no different than this now-virally-famous psychology professor? Which side of the dividing line between cruel/unfair and valuable/educational do my activities fall on?

I want to say that my use of extra credit falls on the valuable/educational side, but I also have to admit that some characteristics of what I do are shared with this final exam stunt.

For all of the activities that I do, the incentive to cheat is a lot lower than the incentive to cooperate. In the Evolution of Cooperation exercise, I have never seen any evidence that students actually used deception to take advantage of their partner. This is in large part because the activity is not anonymous: both I as instructor and each student’s partner are likely to see that cheating is going on. In fact, one of the big values of the exercise is that students decompose the experience during the next class session, and they frequently point out that whatever meager extra credit they might earn by deception would be more than offset by the resulting hit to their reputation. It is always better to have students discover concepts themselves than to simply tell them what you want them to know, and this activity provides a great example of how experiential learning can be used to get students to think about the power of reputation.

My Ecology activity is a bit more devious, as I intentionally create a situation in which the greediest student will earn extra credit during the first round of play within the group. But subsequent rounds — in which far more extra credit is doled out — rely far more on students ability to cooperate than exploit. As with the activity in The Evolution of Cooperation course, students learn a lot from watching one of their fellow students out-exploit them: if the group cannot find an effective way to deal with the problem of over-exploitation, they will not earn the far greater collective extra credit reward.

So I think that my extra-credit exercises are aligned with my educational goals. But in his Chronicle commentary, Silver points out the real problem that extra credit can create if it skews the meaning of grades. This is an issue that I need to think about a bit more: are my extra-credit exercises inherently unfair because they give some students the chance — perhaps by being less altruistic — of padding their grade? Perhaps, but I think only minorly, as this is very low-stakes extra credit. Contrast getting a few extra points on your homework grade with getting a few extra points on a 100-point final exam: a big problem with this exam-question stunt was its relatively high stakes. Still, as a person who thinks a lot about how to make my classes fair, I worry about any extra credit that can be earned by either poor — or just fortuitous — behavior.

Why do these dilemmas exist? The answer is pretty straight-forward: we get ourselves into trouble when we mess with points from the grading system to teach a lesson in altruism, but doing so might be the only meaningful way to teach about altruism. This is because altruism is only meaningful if there is something at stake. Every experiment in altruism — sanctioned and reviewed by an IRB or not — must involve some proxy for resource acquisition. Otherwise, there is nothing at stake and there’s neither a clear incentive to cheat nor to cooperate. So we, as teachers, use the one resource that we can meaningfully dole out: extra credit points. But is what students learn about altruism from these exercises worth lowering the integrity of our grading systems? I think the answer to that question really depends on how valuable the learning experience is as compared to how much it reduces grading integrity. By creating meaningful learning experiences in which earning or not earning extra credit is low-stakes, I try to keep that benefit-cost ratio well above one.

A Minor Post, Altruism, Articles, Assessment Methods, Ethics, Game Theory, MSCI-270, Ecology, MSCI-463, The Evolution of Cooperation

Leave a Reply