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I will have a draft of a new textbook ready for the fall semester. It is an engineering class.

I very much want feedback from the students concerning the quality and usefulness of the material.

What are the best practices for getting this feedback from students? Is it ethical to give a grade (or extra credit at least) based on students' feedback?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment, and please avoid answering in comments: if you want to oppose the idea of collecting feedback from students, write an answer. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 6 at 21:37

12 Answers 12

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In practice, you will receive great feedback from a very small proportion of the students (and this subset will consist almost entirely of students who will do well on the course regardless). But even the weakest students can and will make perspicuous observations, or point out gaps in your explanations, that will be helpful. And then many students will be hard-pressed to contribute anything.

If any credit at all is traded for feedback, you actually raise the threshold for students who are aware they are not among the top and hence afraid of saying something dumb. The "swots" might go into overdrive, which generally produces lots of great feedback, but you feel you are abusing the time and kindness. The majority who has no substantial thing to contribute might feel compelled to manufacture something.

The "extra" idea does not mitigate against the latter problem, since students will evaluate every bit of possible credit in terms of the relative effort. Any carrot being dangled is far play.

So: my answer based on experience over several books and years of teaching: do not skew or degrade the feedback you could be garnering with any of these extra credit arrangements (quite aside from ethics which has been well addressed in the other answers). Use the book-in-progress as lecture notes, make it very clear that you are aware it is still teeming with mistakes, and that any and all comments are hugely appreciated.

At the end, you will know the main feedback contributors by name. They will come to you for recommendation letters, career advice, and so on. And then you will be able to reward their kindness in kind. Such is not a bribe; the praises you have to sing about such a student are genuine!

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    Letters of recommendation absolutely are a bribe, and absolutely do affect students’ motivations and behavior. All professors see this. So yes, the praise may be genuine, but let’s not be naive about the effects of this gamified rewards system of academia on human behavior. Whether it’s grades, letters, fellowships, or other carrots and sticks, academia is full of bribes. (To be fair, I don’t have a suggestion for how to eliminate them, and don’t think this statement is true only for academia - the same could probably be said about most workplaces and industries.) – Dan Romik Mar 4 at 17:12
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    @DanRomik Sometimes they are a bribe, but there can exist genuine relationships and actions, which are not motivated by personal gain. – axsvl77 Mar 4 at 18:40
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    @axsvl77 of course. That’s true equally for grade-based incentives. This answer tries to draw a distinction between grades, which are supposedly a kind of bribe, and letters of recommendation, which are supposedly more honorable and not tantamount to bribes. What I’m saying is that this distinction is arbitrary and doesn’t make sense. Both reward systems are a kind of bribe. That doesn’t mean OP shouldn’t use them, though. And yes, in the situation OP is asking about, I believe the students’ motivation to help out will be primarily intrinsic and “noble”. – Dan Romik Mar 4 at 18:43
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    The use of the word "bribe" is problematic, because its definition is very much dependent on context. Mirriam-Webster defines it as "money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust", which in theory could apply to any purchase or sale, except perhaps for that "position of trust" part. However, the general feeling seems to be offering or soliciting something that isn't normally up for sale, in this case a grade or future recommendations from a professor, that ticks that box. I'd say this is probably bad territory to play in – TheEnvironmentalist Mar 6 at 2:59
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    Horrible answer. The only reasonable solution is for the professor to pay the students. If you want professional work done, you pay for it. That's all there is to it. – user91988 Mar 6 at 21:06
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Is it ethical to give a grade (or extra credit) based on student feedback?

I think the key question is, will reading draft material from your textbook help students towards their understanding of the subject of this class?

If yes, then it honestly sounds like a great exercise to me. Not only does it force the students to actually read some material related to the class (albeit in an unpolished draft form), it also could allow them to "check" their understanding by comparing the draft with the material they are already familiar with. Some suggestions:

  • It seems best if they are asked to read material that you have already covered in class and that there are other sources on; that way they are not just completely lost, but they have something to compare to and a way to reliably detect errors.

  • If this is part of the grade (extra credit or otherwise), I think it should be mainly based on completion, not on how many errors and typos they find. You could also ask them to write a "summary" of the chapter to check their understanding and thoroughness.

If no, then it is unethical. Your job as a teacher is to help the students learn the material, and using them as free labor to proofread your book is inappropriate.

This could be the case, for example, if the book is not exactly on the subject of the material that the class is covering, or if it is in such an unpolished form that it is difficult to get anything out of while still a student, and not an expert on the material.

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    +1, you nailed the essential points. I have done this with draft book chapters and course notes and it works to everyone’s benefit. My suggestion to OP is to make it an extra/bonus component of the grade rather than required. And don’t forget to keep a list of the students who have useful feedback and mention them in the acknowledgments section. – Dan Romik Mar 3 at 17:27
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    I worry that the OP could use this answer to justify optimizing for their book rather than for their class. I would agree if the question was changed from "Will it help their understanding" (ie anywhere >0 in usefulness) to "Is this the best thing to help their understanding" – Nathan Cooper Mar 4 at 12:54
  • @NathanCooper Good point -- I agree with your clarification, and I also agree with the now accepted answer. – 6005 Mar 4 at 13:52
  • It's not enough that reading the draft is arguably helpful to students. If it's helpful to you, and you would otherwise have to pay people to do this. It is very similar, though not identical, to letting people paint your house as an exercise in becoming a painter. It may be educational, but you're getting a free paint job (ok, imperfect metaphor, they might stain some places). – einpoklum Mar 6 at 0:52
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    @6005: It is anything but irrelevant. When a teacher has pecuniary interests relating to how they teach a course, this is an ethical issue, and the course content may be inappropriately warped. What's more, it is usually very difficult to realize in hindsight whether this has happened and how. – einpoklum Mar 6 at 9:11
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It is ethical to ask students to proofread a textbook. It isn't (generally) ethical to grade students based upon their feedback having proofread (unless their is an agreed-upon educational basis).

Some students will read the draft of your textbook, especially if it is required reading. You can ask students that do read your book to provide feedback and you can offer to include any students that do with an acknowledgement.

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    "It is ethical to ask students to proofread a textbook." It absolutely is not. You have power over students, you should not ask them for such favors - ask them to do work which you would otherwise need to do yourself or pay for. If these are graduate "students" who are actually paid a salary or a research stipend to be part of and assist your research and/or teaching efforts, then it is more likely ok (depending on the details). The most you can do is say that you're working on a textbook draft, offer a link, and say that feedback will be appreciated but will in no way affect the grade. – einpoklum Mar 6 at 0:49
  • @einpoklum The most you can do is say that you're working on a textbook draft, offer a link, and say that feedback will be appreciated but will in no way affect the grade vs. ask students – user2768 Mar 6 at 8:36
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It is ethically fraught in any case. It can be perceived as a bribe by some. It can be perceived as a requirement by some students that asks them to go beyond learning and demonstrating their learning.

Certainly you can ask students to proof your text books and you can solicit their opinions. I would do the latter anonymously, however. You will get better and more honest replies. You can still give an acknowledgement to the class, if not to individuals.

It is fairly common to pay grad students to do this sort of thing and to ask them to write exercises. But there are no grades involved.

My suggestion is to make it a side transaction, fueled by money, not by grades.

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    :s/money/other perks/ – Captain Giraffe Mar 4 at 2:45
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    In practice, I'm sure that any financial rewards given to students will be a much greater headache (in terms of reactions and in terms of paperwork) than grade rewards. Moreover, the "go beyond learning" argument can be made verbatim for homework: Very few homework exercises are really "on the critical path" to learning the material; many are sideways explorations and digressions. – darij grinberg Mar 4 at 9:49
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    I agree with everything you've said, except that the last sentence should only be relevant for students who have already gotten their final grade for the course. Maybe even not for another semester or two afterwards (i.e. right now only for people who took it a year ago). – einpoklum Mar 6 at 0:37
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    @darijgrinberg: It's easier to butter up students with grades because academic oversight is weak and employment justification is strong. But what you're suggesting is avoiding red tape by bending, or breaking, ethical principles. – einpoklum Mar 6 at 0:44
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    @darijgrinberg Why would financial rewards be a greater headache? That's how business has been done for centuries. You want work done, you pay for it. There is no reason this would be a "headache" for anyone (except, of course, for a stingy prof who doesn't want to pay). Not paying them would result in headaches. – user91988 Mar 6 at 21:58
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I have done this in one course (letting students proofread my lecture notes for extra credit) and might be doing it a few more times. A few caveats:

  • Keep the stakes low. This should be extra credit that can take an A- to an A, not a source of points that lets students max out their grade without writing exams. There are several ways to do this: You can make each correction worth very little, or you can cap the correction points per student, or you can let correction points peter out (e.g., the n-th correction a student finds is only worth 1/sqrt(n) points or so). I don't know what the best option is. Moreover, there should be a way to get the maximum grade without reporting errors. Rationale: There is generally a certain type of student that tends to find a lot of mistakes, while others just don't see them, either subconsciously correcting them in their mind or focusing on the "big picture" and reconstructing the details on their own. All else being equal, error spotting probably correlates positively with scientific success, but all else is not usually equal, so it is not a great measure of ability. Moreover, if you value corrections too highly, students will get too defensive about bad corrections for the sake of grade optimization.

  • Make sure you aren't only rewarding the "fastest gun in the west". Let students know they can still get points for correcting slightly outdated versions in reasonable time.

  • Prepare a few canned "thanks, but that's not what I'm looking for" responses for students "correcting" what are actually matters of style. In case of doubt, give out points, even if you don't correct.

  • Prepare a comfortable way to keep track of what student has received how many points. A specific tag in your mailbox is one option, but there are probably better ones around.

  • Including the model solutions in the "bug bounty" (i.e., giving extra credits for mistakes found in them as well) is probably a good motivator to make students read model solutions, which may improve their later homework quality.

  • As my lecture notes are open content and closely relevant to the class material, I have never found any conflict of interest in rewarding students for improving them. If the notes were to become a commercial textbook, I'd be a bit more conflicted, although I'd still say it is on the ethical side, if the students get to keep the notes. If the notes were unrelated to the class material, I honestly don't know; as a student I would find such a grading scheme somewhat bewildering.

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    This answer has great practical tips. One more such tip could be to be sure to thank the proofreaders in the book itself, because the book is a project that goes beyond grading of the current semester and therefore any extra credit should not be the sole reward for participating in proofreading. – Jirka Hanika Mar 4 at 8:00
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    for extra credit Then this is unethical, because it is not testing your students' knowledge of the subject. If the grade doesn't actually matter to the students' outcome on their course, then it's not too bad. If this counts towards the grade of degree they get though, you very seriously need to be talking to your university's ethics board and legal team, because you're putting yourself in a real corner here. – Graham Mar 4 at 9:13
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    @Graham: My reasoning is that as long as the errors found are in relevant course materials, error hunting does test the students' knowledge of the subject. (It isn't much different from homework problems, many of which are not really central to the understanding of the subject but rather can be viewed as brainteasers. Part of the problem is that no one really knows what helps students understand the subject.) – darij grinberg Mar 4 at 9:47
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    @Graham: Moreover, I can't imagine any course where "interacting with professionally written subject matter" (i,e., training wheels for future articles and reviews) would fail to be part of the discipline being shared. – Daniel R. Collins Mar 4 at 13:38
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    @darijgrinberg If you don't know what helps students understand the subject, then I suggest that finding that out would make you a better teacher! I know from my own uni days that this is the case for almost every university lecturer, because they are selected for their knowledge of the subject and not their ability to teach it. Teaching in schools is radically different today from what it used to be, based precisely on research into what does help students understand. Universities still seem to be stuck in the "put students in rows and talk at them" model though. – Graham Mar 4 at 14:11
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In grad school I took a class where we test-drove a textbook draft (not the professor's, but a colleague's). We used a tool where the PDF was available online and students could highlight parts of the text and post comments or questions or feedback about it. Everyone could see and respond to each other's comments, including the textbook author and the professor.

I don't remember exactly, but I think students were required to participate by posting regularly on each week's assigned chapter, and constructive feedback was requested, but it was pretty much just a participation/effort grade. Comments didn't have to be feedback or constructive to get full points.

I don't know if this kind of approach would work for you, but I think it was very effective for students and the book's author and I feel there were no ethical issues with this setup.

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  • Wait, the author was not the course professor? In that case, the scenario is completely different IMHO. Suggest you make this a comment rather than an answer. – einpoklum Mar 6 at 0:43
  • @einpoklum the author asked our professor to test-drive the book, which was still in the drafting stage. So I feel the scenario was very similar. – usul Mar 6 at 4:51
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Proof reading is work. Pay them.

It's probably worth checking with your faculty if they have arrangements with any proofreading services for publications since these will already exist. If you want to reward students with work experience in academia then you should request a casual work contract that is managed by your institution's HR department (never engage in a contract by yourself). Though, it is still an iffy question ethically, particularly where this might take work away from professionals.

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One textbook we used was created, chapter by chapter with all the examples over several semesters at one university.

The author expressed his thanks to the students in the preface...

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    I see such acknowledgments in many textbooks, but this doesn't answer the question: is it ethical to give students grade credits for it? – darij grinberg Mar 3 at 15:58
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    @darijgrinberg that was not the only question... – Solar Mike Mar 3 at 15:59
  • That's just fine but it's not what OP asked about. – einpoklum Mar 6 at 0:38
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I would hand out a draft of the book to the students (or the relevant parts only) and award bonus points towards the final grade for every valuable suggestions that helps to improve the manuscript. I did this several times already and the students appreciated this. Probably relevant: I used the bonus points only for a "pass of fail" grade, so the students could look for improvements to make up for fails in the homework assigments but not to improve a final grade.

To make sure that you only count every suggestions once, you can use a forum to collect them. I do this will all my teaching material for some years and it really helps.

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  • In several universities, you could be brought up on disciplinary charges for doing something like that. And if I were in the student union when you tried to pull this stunt, you'd find your name in the local papers: "Lazy professor pays students for proofreading his book by artificially inflating their grade." Just don't. @Buffy's answer has it right. – einpoklum Mar 6 at 0:42
  • @einpoklum can you cite the relevant policies and/or news reports involving your claimed “several universities”? Oh, and good luck trying to portray an academic textbook author as “lazy”. – Dan Romik Mar 6 at 20:05
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A long time ago, one of my professors used lecture notes that were intended to become a textbook. He offered a bottle of champagne to the student or team who reported the most errors in the manuscript.

This clearly removed the issue of a grades-for-services trade, and still encouraged us to spot and report errors. The bottle was good enough to try for, yet cheap enough that it wouldn't bother the tax authorities.

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No. We were required to buy a draft release of a new text book, written by the professor. Corrections were handed out on photocopies. The typsetting was bad. The binding was poor. The book was $250 back in 1997.

And we didn't get a 'new' copy with all of the fixes.

Just remembering this event... and we (as students) all made fun of the situation and how ridiculous it was as a requirement for the course.

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  • I am planning to make the book open access. – axsvl77 Mar 6 at 20:58
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It's your book. You are the one who should proofread it, not anybody else. You should take sole responsibility for it, but also, you should then receive sole credit for it.

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