Monday, February 17, 2014

Am I Unjust in Not Giving Extra Credit?

I don't give extra credit, mostly for practical reasons.  If students know that I regularly give extra credit, then they will have reason to slack off on other "credit" assignments. This creates more work for me and I have plenty of grading to do already.  Furthermore, I have put a lot of thought into the "credit" assignments and think that it is good for students to put forth a modicum of effort on these assignments.  Also, there is no principled end to extra credit giving, as far as I can see.  If students don't do the "credit" assignments nor the first "extra credit" assignment, should I give another?  And another?  Should I give them extra credit indefinitely?  The solution seems to me to cut the infinite regress off right at the stem.

But should I give extra credit?  Or should I not give extra credit?  If the "should" is a matter of whether it's pragmatic, I have already given my reasons why I think I should not.  But if the "should" is a matter of morality or justice, this is a different question.  Am I unjust in not giving extra credit?  Or is giving extra credit unjust?  Here I will only address the former question:
For starters, justice is not a matter of fairness or equal treatment. I could treat my students fairly (equally) but unjustly.  If I gave every student in the class an A I would be treating them fairly and equally, but not necessarily justly.  For instance, if I "dissed" them all as morons but gave them all A's so that I wouldn't have to grade their "lousy" work, I would be treating them equally but unjustly.  Similarly, I could treat my students justly without treating them on grounds of equality.  If some students, due to a lack of effort or native intelligence, earned an F, while some, due to native intelligence or effort, earned an A, it would be just to give them different grades.

Justice is a matter of rendering (or being rendered) what is due.  Justice is a matter of doing one's duty and having one's rights honored.  It seems obvious to me that I have no general duty to give extra credit because there is no general duty to give extra credit.  Extra credit is not a requirement of justice.  It is extra credit.

Students have a right to my requiring them only to do the assignments on the syllabus.  It would be unjust for me to give a 4th test if I only have 3 tests listed on the syllabus (unless of course it says on the syllabus that there might be a 4th test). I have a duty to give students some understanding of the basic requirements of the class.  Now, if I do have on the syllabus that such-and-such extra credit will be given, then I have a duty to make available the extra credit.  But I have no duty to say that extra credit will be given on the syllabus.  It is enough that students know all and only what will be required of them (and for me that includes only "credit" assignments).

Perhaps, though, extra credit should be thought of as an act of mercy and perhaps it's a duty of justice to be merciful.  But it is surely controversial at least and obviously false at best that it is a general duty of justice always to be merciful. For sometimes mercy is either unjust or is all-things-considered morally worse in some other way than rendering harsh or unpleasant treatment that is deserved.  (Punishing one's children sometimes is better for everyone including one's children).  So it can only be the case that sometimes one should be merciful.

Here things get a bit more complicated.  Perhaps it's never a requirement of justice to be merciful, but there is another moral "should" (a requirement to promote a human's welfare?) such that sometimes one should be merciful.  If the "should" is not one of justice, then there's no requirement of justice to be merciful in giving extra credit. Perhaps, though, there is another moral sense of "should" that requires mercy.

 Be that as it may, there is another response available with respect to the issue at hand: there are plenty of other ways to be merciful other than giving extra credit. One could "grade easier," or not give a bad grade to a bad test, or one could change a student's final grade, and so forth.  Of course it is questionable whether such actions are themselves just, but the point here is that giving extra credit is not a requirement of justice.   So just do the work, and don't think you're a victim if you don't get extra credit--there's neither a right to it nor a duty to give it.  And perhaps it's sometimes (always?) unjust to give it.


  1. Outstanding points all, Tullius. I am convinced. I will never give extra credit again.


    Actually, I do give extra credit to my PHL 110 (Introduction to Philosophy) course every semester. And the reason is entirely as follows: I must not (says Administration) cancel class even when I am going out of town for a professional conference/workshop. Since class must be held, I have to get another professor to cover for me. The easiest thing for me to do is to give a "bonus quiz" on the day(s) I will be absent - easier, of course, on the person covering the class.

    Why not simply a "full-credit" quiz? Because I have my quizzes built into the syllabus at certain points during the semester, and I've taught this course for so long that I don't want to rearrange it each semester depending on conference dates. Hence, extra-credit quizzes. [On rare occasion I will do the same for one of my other courses...]

    A more interesting question is one you allude to above: what is one's duty in regard to "sticking to" one's syllabus? You suggest (though it is unclear) that you do have such a duty. I ask you: do you see your syllabus as a sort of contractual agreement between you and the students? And if so, how strict is this contract?

  2. Monash,

    Your administration situation is an excellent illustration of the stupidity of many bureaucracies. Ultimately the administration is going to have to TRUST the faculty to teach students. Policies like that are inefficient headaches. If you hire the right people in the FIRST PLACE (and give the right people tenure) there is no need for those policies. Good teachers will see to it that students learn.

    Regarding your own practice of "extra-credit quizzes," what is the difference between a "bonus quiz" and a "full-credit quiz"?

    Regarding your question: Good question. First, yes I think I have a duty to stick to the syllabus, at least in a way that is favorable to the student. Of course there may be other duties I have that override my duties to stick to the schedule. If I'm to give a test on a certain day or am to give back their first exam with comments before their second exam but my house burns down, I may have a duty to family which overrides my duty to my students.

    I don't see my syllabus as a strict contract (and maybe not a contract in any sense but I'm not sure), though I have entertained the idea of having students sign their name to the syllabus saying that they've read it and agree to the conditions I've laid out for what they are not allowed to do, have no right to complain about, etc.

    My duty to them is partly grounded in (a) the promises I make and the things that I say that I intend to do in the syllabus, (b) their right to me making a reasonable attempt to do the things I have said I intend to do, (c) their rights as students to get their money's worth of learning, and so on.

    Their duties to do (or not do) things in the course are grounded in (a) their promise to abide by the code of conduct they signed in attending OBU, (b) the standing rights that I have in holding the office of Assistant Professor, (c) rights that I have as a person, etc. Among those rights are to be treated with a certain degree and type of respect, to their not turning in plagiarized work, to them not lying to my face in class, to not disrupting the learning of other students, etc.