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By the end of the term, I always end up with quite a number of D and F students who want to improve their grades. Meanwhile, I usually have lots of menial tasks on hand during the summer, e.g. data entry, translations, proofreading, photo tagging, etc.

  • None of these tasks is work I am assigned or paid to do.
  • All of the tasks relate to my courses in some way and the resulting efforts would benefit the next group of students who attend my courses in the subsequent terms.
  • My school has no official "dead week", but naturally these tasks would occupy time that presumably the students would otherwise use for final exam preparations.

Is there any ethical or professional reason deeming it inappropriate to assign such tasks as optional extra credit, allowing students to move their 50 to a 60 or 60 to a 70 after ~10-15 hours of repetitive work?

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No. Just no.... –  Kogesho Jun 4 at 23:48
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Nice question, +1. To me, a big red flag went up at "these tasks would occupy time that presumably the students would otherwise use for final exam preparations". So your menial tasks would probably crowd out preparation for other finals, where students would do some actual academic work. This does not seem fair to the students or other instructors. Could you schedule your tasks for after finals? –  Stephan Kolassa Jun 5 at 4:14
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Why not have them dig your garden over and paint your house, while they're at it? –  avid Jun 5 at 6:42
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I'd hate to get surgery from a doctor who passed his degree by tagging cats in photos. –  Dave Clarke Jun 5 at 9:53
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What if the class he teaches is "Real World Applications in Data Entry, Translations, Proofreading, and Photo Tagging"? You're all jumping to conclusions. –  coburne Jun 5 at 14:46

5 Answers 5

As I see it, the grade in the class is supposed to measure a student's mastery of the material. Letting students improve their grade via unrelated menial work is not consistent with this standard and seems dangerously close to letting the students wash your car for extra credit.

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+1. I'm trying not to disparage anyone, but jobs that a secretary could do do not seem appropriate ways of gaining academic credit... especially when this could mean the difference between failing and passing a course (the OP explicitly mentions F students). –  Stephan Kolassa Jun 5 at 4:26
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Yes, if the work improves their mastery of the course material, that may be appropriate, as long as there's no deception (i.e.: the work is openly and publicly known to be of personal benefit to the professor). Other than that, it's a hard no. –  MGOwen Jun 5 at 6:34
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+1 for "[this] seems dangerously close to letting the students wash your car for extra credit." My feelings exactly. –  xLeitix Jun 5 at 7:21
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If the work improves their mastery of the material, that additional mastery will show up in their final exam scores, so no extra credit is necessary. –  JeffE Jun 5 at 11:42
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I will assign extra credit challenge problems from time to time in order to spice things up. They are always directly related to the class and equally available to everyone. Moreover they are worth at most 1-2 percent of the grade in total. When students approach to ask about extra credit in order to compensate for doing poorly, a good response might be: "First do all of the assigned work. Then we can talk about extra credit." –  Jim Conant Jun 6 at 20:35

My feeling is that it's sort of a sliding scale based on the amount of time they have to put in, the amount of credit they get, and the relevance of the task to understanding course material.

It's not uncommon for professors to allow (or even require) students to act as participants in a study (e.g., fill out a survey, be part of an experiment) for credit, on the theory that such participation helps them to "understand the research process". If the tasks they're doing have some relevance of that sort, I think you have an easier case. If it's totally mindless work with no connection to the class, it's more dubious. Also, at least at my school, every such opportunity must (by human-subjects rules) have an alternative credit opportunity that takes roughly equal time but doesn't require such participation (e.g., write a paper). This kind of alternative is designed to ensure that students aren't forced to work for the professor's benefit in order to improve their grade.

Also, assuming by "50", "60", "70", you're referring to their overall course percentages, that seems like a massive amount of credit to me. When I've given or received extra credit, it's usually been much less than that -- equivalent to maybe 2% or at most 5% of the overall grade. The intent is not to allow students with a flat D to move to a C, but to allow students who have a high D to move to a C. I think offering extra credit that allows students to raise their grade by an entire letter sets some dangerous precedents, especially when combined with the mindless-task aspect.

In the same vein, extra credit assignments usually were the work-time equivalent of say, one homework problem, or at most one homework assignment, expected to take the students maybe 3-5 hours tops, and often an hour or less. 10-15 hours of mindless work sounds like a pretty awful prospect to me. I think it's a bad idea to misuse the extra-credit leverage to have students slaving away for hours and hours.

So basically, I think it is possibly defensible, but more so if the tasks are not truly mindless but have some reasonable connection to the class. Also, I think the amounts of time and credit you suggest are a bit high, and especially so if the task is just grunt work.

Incidentally, as an example, I once was a TA for a class where the professor assigned homework in which the students had to take a spreadsheet and perform certain category-coding tasks on the data. I suspect (but do not know for sure) that the professor was using the coded data for his own research. However, the data was relevant to the class topic, and the coding task, although not exactly an intellectual challenge, was a realistic encounter with this sort of data, in that if students were to later write a paper using such data, they might well have to perform such a task as part of the project. Also, the amount of data coded was rather small (about 50 spreadsheet rows per student, as I recall). My own opinion was that, although such an assignment was perhaps not the best way to get students interested in the class, or enhance their understanding of the material, it wasn't unethical, because it was small in scale and legitimately (if uninspiringly) relevant to the topic of the class.

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Yeah I would not dismiss this idea as unethical out of hand for just the reason you mention about study participation –  inquisitiveIdiot Jun 6 at 17:54
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+1 for "relevance of the task to understanding course material". If that is absent, there is no other justification I can think of, and plenty of arguments against. –  Floris Jun 8 at 12:51

It is not ethical, you are misleading future possible employers about how capable the student is. A degree is a measure of how well someone can learn and how well they know their subject, not how well they can tag photos.

You are also devaluing the degree, so making it harder for other students at your university to get a job. A course that few people fail is of little value to the people that pass.

(Proofreading may be OK in a English degree)

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Perhaps I should have mentioned in my question that the course subjects actually fits close to the various tasks I assign them, as you suggest in your last line. For e.g. proofreading methods is covered in one my courses, not only would the students practice proofreading, but meanwhile be proofreading the very readings that they read in class. Meanwhile, the photos to be tagged all contain technical terminology that students must learn in the course, so the students would be reviewing that material and typing out the terminology they ought to have learned. –  Village Jun 5 at 10:11
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@Village - you should definitely include that information in your question. –  Davor Jun 6 at 6:44
    
A student is willing to exercise the skills they do have to compensate for the skills they need to improve in - that's a highly valuable skill for an employer. –  corsiKa Jun 6 at 20:23

It's funny to me that you mention Mechanical Turk in the question because it suggests where things might go if you were to implement something like this. You'd give students tasks. They'd post them to Mechanical Turk, offering a few cents in return. Your tasks would get done, and the students would get extra credit.

But it seems better to just post the tasks to Mechanical Turk yourself instead of inviting students to buy a passing grade in your class.

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If you do it, make sure the kids who have B's have the same opportunities. They probably care more about their grades, and would more ambitiously take the opportunity to do something dumb for the A.

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Getting an A from doing mindless work seems even more unfair than a bare pass. A pass means that you can probably get something done, an A implies mastery of the subject. –  Davidmh Jun 7 at 13:53

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