This ‘extra credit’ question does no credit to fairness

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A recent exam question by a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, who presented his students with the opportunity to raise their grades if the class acted altruistically, has gone viral, revealing — although no one seemed to see it — the delicate balance between incorporating life lessons into exams and the legitimate assessment of performance.

The question, which illustrates the \”commons dilemma,\” goes like this: \”Here you have the opportunity to earn some extra credit on your final paper grade. Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added onto your final paper grade. But there’s a small catch: if more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points. Your responses will be anonymous to the rest of the class, only I will see the responses.\”

The Internet responses to the question were largely laudatory. Most saw it as a clever, well-crafted lesson in human behavior, and many viewed using a test question to conduct a social experiment as inspired teaching.

I believe it was neither. The question actually tainted both the life lesson and the validity of the test.

Whether or not we are comfortable with a competitive grading system, the assessment of final exams and papers must, as we guarantee students, be based upon their knowledge and performance with respect to the subject matter we’re testing, rather than on their selflessness or, for that matter, any other personality trait.

Adding two or six points based on selflessness or amiability or generosity might encourage those commendable traits, but it would clearly skew the test results. Artificially raising the grades of several students would penalize the rest of the group, and — if all of the students happened to choose two points — lifting the curve for the entire group would reduce the value of the grades earned by those who otherwise performed at the top of the class.

Moreover, the experiment itself is not valid. One who is confident in his or her ability to perform well on the test, but concerned that more than 10 percent of the class will choose the six-point option, might instead choose the two-point point option not out of altruism but merely to help ensure that they score higher than others whom they believe to be less prepared.

Which is not to say that life lessons in general cannot or should not be blended into a standard academic testing instrument — indeed, doing so can represent good teaching. It’s merely to say that care is required to ensure that they not work, like the question posed by the Maryland professor, at cross-purposes.

A seamless blend can be achieved when the lesson is congruent with the knowledge or skills being tested. For example, important lawyering skills tested on a law exam include the careful reading of all materials that may have a bearing on the outcome. Accordingly, from time to time I have provided the answers to a multiple-choice question or two from the exam at the end of the routine instructions, which are under the boldface heading \”Read These Instructions Carefully.\” The students who read them will learn, for example, that they are to mark \”E\” as the correct answer for question 36 even though only options \”A\” through \”D\” appear in the test booklet. I’m told that students remember that lesson in close and thorough reading long after they’ve forgotten whatever question 36 was about.

Lessons in altruism and human behavior may, of course, be far more meaningful than a mundane lesson in careful reading — but not if they compromise the assessment of the knowledge and skills we have promised to impart.

Fortunately, memorable life lessons can, with proper care and at no peril to accurate assessment, be melded into our testing instruments.

Author Bio: Jay Sterling Silver is a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law.

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