Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Revisions to the grading of an ethics course

It has been quite some time since my last post so I would like to share with you the changes I have made to the formatting of the grading of my intro to ethics course. I have done away with exams completely and am going to rely on the following: 1) three short critical papers with a 1000 word maximum limit where students will construct an argument and present a defense of one of the normative premises. Each paper will be worth 20% of the final grade. 2) A 10-15 minute presentation on a moral issue of the student’s choosing. They can work with one other student on this project, which will be worth 20% of the final grade. 3) Weekly response papers to the readings. These papers will not be graded but will serve as the focus point for class discussion. Students will discuss their papers in class. The grade for this element will be determined by the percentage of papers turned in and will be worth 10% of the final grade. The total of these three elements is only 90% so in order for a student to have the opportunity to earn an A they must provide a minimum of 8 hours of community service and write a 1000-1200 word essay describing their experience while relating it to a normative perspective discussed in the course.

There are many factors that have led me to make these changes. The number of students who simply occupy space in the classroom and do not get actively engaged with the material being discussed frustrates me. Having them do the response papers, a presentation, and community service are ways that I can have everyone actively engage in a topic. Simply relying on exams (essay exams to be sure) as the major factor in determining grades seems to result in students simply memorizing (often rather poorly) the general features of a theory or principle without taking the time to integrate it into their own framework to see whether or not the idea makes sense to them. Furthermore there is a general reluctance on many students part to follow the argument where it leads. By this I mean that often students will accept the premises of an argument but outright reject the conclusion even if it follows from the premises the accept. This is why I am utilizing the critical papers. It is often difficult for students to see exactly what the argument is that is being made, so by having them construct (or reconstruct) an argument and presenting reason in support of one of the normative premises I am hopeful that they will develop this critical analytical skill. They may still act as if the conclusion does not matter, but at least they will understand that it is unreasonable to do so. Lastly, many people think that the bad things that happen to a person are necessarily that person’s fault. You might be surprised by how often I hear that a homeless person is homeless because they choose to be. By having them engage in community service my hope is that they will start to develop a narrative approach to understanding ethics and begin to see the ethical issues in the context of real people facing real problems that may, or may not, be the outcome of events/actions for which they are responsible. I also hope that this experience will make ethics more real for them and that they can see that normative principles have good practical import on deciding what to do. After all, one of the important moral questions is, what type of life is worth living?

Anyhow, I am excited to see if this all works. I would enjoy hearing from you on what your plans are for teaching intro courses as I find them to be the most challenging to teach.


  1. Greetings all, long time reader, first time commenter.

    My initial reaction to the required community service was positive, and I like the idea of the student's having to relate the experience to a particular ethical position, premise or dialogue. But as I thought about it I became less convinced.

    Most ethicists, I imagine it's safe to say, reject ethical egoism, not only because it's a bad philosophical position, but because one that embraced it would seem, prima facie, to be less interested in pursuing a career in ethical philosophy. That said, most ethics classes that I've encountered present egoism as an option; a student ought to consider Thrasymachus' argument seriously, for instance, or else they fail to appreciate Socrates' response. Insofar as a student ought to feel like they may rightly embrace any position presented in an ethics class which they find compelling it strikes me as problematic to require students to do something which, arguably, would be inconsistent with such a position.

    To anticipate some of the complexities that would arise:
    first, don't we presume and enforce particular values just by virtue of acting within an academic institution? A student who has an normative commitment to laziness would be forced to act inconsistently in order to pass an ethics class honestly. This and similar examples would excuse the enforcement of some norms in the ethics classroom. However, to require compassionate behavior strikes me as distinct, insofar as (a) there's no intrinsic connection between the academic institution and the endorsement of "compassion" as a virtue, and (b) unlike a normative endorsement of laziness (which would seem like an arbitrary throwing together of some bare preferences) ethical egoism is a fairly established and defended (if not well) position, which a student ought not to feel is excluded as a possibility by an ethics class.

    Second, it might be said that the student wouldn't be forced to act inconsistently, insofar as it would simply be a situation where charitable activity was in the students self interest (helping them get an A). This is probably the best refutation of my concern, though a really sharp student may object to the enforced participation in an institution (charity) that she thinks is (at large) inconsistent with her ideals.

    One solution would be to allow such a conscientious student to earn that 10% with a 1500 word essay outlining their objection to charity as an ethical institution. If this were the direction one took, however, there'd be a risk of students just opting for the essay assignment based on disengenuously expressed theoretical commitments, as they might consider a three page essay to be less trouble than the community service. If one made the word requirement so high as to prevent this reasoning, then one might be reasonably accused of punishing the ethical egoist for embracing her position, which would problematic in a way similar to the initial objection.

    Just some I said, I'm all for doing everything to get people out there, and increasing social awareness. I suppose I just worry that the ethics classroom ought to provide an open forum, and the syllabus for such a class shouldn't begin with the assumption that certain ethical commitments are worthy, when there are (at least some) reasonable philosophical positions that suggest otherwise.

  2. I don't know your student population, but the required community service would become a huge hassle in mine for most students-- OR, they wouldn't be doing anything out of the ordinary, and I'd be teaching them that they ought to volunteer in order to get credit.

    The writing and presentation assessments are pretty similar to my basic ethics course and the medical ethics course I did last semester. I thought it worked well and am usiing something similar this year, although I am adding two take-home exams. They will recieve the questions on Tuesday and the answwers will be due on Thursday. If they've been keeping up in class, they should be able to answer pretty easily.

  3. I worked full-time while taking more than a full load of courses most semesters when I earned my first degree. Your course would've been one of those in which I had to resign myself to getting no better than a B, simply due to my desire to be self-sufficient and my refusal to accept welfare from my mother or from the state. Community service just wasn't an option for me; I was too busy supporting myself. (And surely there are students carrying even bigger burdens than the one I carried.)

    I can't fail to endorse raleigh's idea in the comment above of some kind of opt-out essay assignment, whether it be to raise respectable objections to forced community service, or, more likely, to explain why ethics may require one to do something else with the time that the community service would require. Perhaps you could restrict this option to only those who really need it by making an announcement when you give the assignment: "If you think the community service will be an unreasonable burden, see me after class or in office hours."

    Couldn't it be just as effective a teaching tool to devote a class period or two to the topic of moral luck?

  4. I disagree with the previous commenters. I think that the service learning component of the course is a good idea. (I understand the service learning project to include both the community service and the philosophical essay connected with it; it's not credit just for volunteering.) I think the previous commenters' worries are legitimate, but not compelling.

    I had a similar requirement in a 200-level "ethics and society" class that I taught this past spring, and it was quite successful. My students responded quite positively, too. I had them evaluate the project at the end of the semester. Most rated their "overall experience while completing the project" as a 5 out of 5; the mean rating was 4.48. 15 out of 21 respondents said that the project helped them understand the course content. In the free response section, many of them enthusiastically suggested that I keep the project in future semesters.

    Some responses to the worries voiced above:

    1. Unless someone has an unusually strong ethical objection to helping other people, I think it's fair to ask egoists to confront their own beliefs by engaging in community service. This is especially true if one of the student's reasons for being an egoist is that they think that people who need help got themselves into their present plight and therefore don't deserve help. The prompt for essay should make clear that it's okay to argue that the community service was not a good thing; but only after getting some experience with it.

    If someone regards helping others in the way that most of us regard, say, stealing or harming others, then it might be a different issue. But I doubt that most self-professed egoists in our classes do.

    2. The time factor. This is a big one for my students, since a lot of them work full time, too, and have long commutes. Eight hours might be a bit much. This project should take three nights (or one full day and a few hours of writing) over the course of the entire semester. If that pushes the overall workload for the course beyond some threshold of acceptability, other work can be cut instead.

    3. Is a class on moral luck an acceptable substitute? I don't think so, because I would bet that it's much less likely to get students to connect what's going on in the classroom to what goes on in the world around them. I think a hands-on experience is more likely to provoke serious thought.

  5. I'm satisfied that Dr. Morrow's comments adequately answer my own. I'd also add something in response to Kevin's comment: the fact that many students are very busy does not stop us from assigning enough work that they must dedicate significant time to the course in order to succeed. Suppose the assignment and the essay were to require, say, 16 hours of total work, I don't see how that differs from assigning a 10-12 page final paper. If Dr. Alexander had assigned such an essay, it would be a reasonable expectation that students would spend at least 16 hours researching it and completing it.

  6. The difference is that with a paper, the hours can be squeezed in anywhere in a 24-hour period. Community service opportunities aren't so easily squeezed in. Indeed, finding community service work that is available during the free hours of such a busy schedule is probably more work than the community service itself.

    Now maybe you think an A shouldn't be earnable by a person in such busy circumstances. Maybe you're right. I would've resigned myself to the B.

  7. Good point, Kevin. If someone's work and school schedule is so packed that the only time they have left is late at night or very early in the morning, there may not be community service opportunities available to them. If a student came to me in that situation, I'd probably make an exception and try to come up with an alternative assignment.

  8. Depending on what kind of community you're teaching in, if you were really determined to assign the community service (really convinced of its value), you could also try to build a relationship with the various community service organizations in the area to try to identify those that might be better able to accommodate those individuals with a tight schedule, (which might just be a good thing to do for other reasons).

  9. This discussion has been very interesting and valuable. David’s comments have addressed most of the issues as I would have, but I would like to add a couple of comments regarding Kevin's predicament or we might refer too as the ’predicament of the over-extended student.’ I would suspect that someone in this position would have to balance the work requirements in all the courses they are taking as well as balancing them with the other commitments they have. This balancing might require that a person in this situation strive for a lower grade in any course given the workload in those courses. Therefore, in itself, requiring community service is no different then any other assignment. It requires time and effort, as do the others, and this needs to be balanced with the other obligations that a person has assumed. Furthermore, simply because a student is overextended because of the choices they have made does not place an obligation on me to ease that burden if I think the requirements of my course are fair. Because of the importance of this issue I am going to make a new post in the next couple of days to address this issue in greater detail.

    I would also point out that no one must take an ethics course to graduate; it is one of many options available for students to meet Gen Ed requirements. Also we offer @ 15 sections per semester, of which I teach only 1-2, so the student can drop my course if they do not like the syllabus which I post @ 2 weeks before the start of the semester on Blackboard. In my syllabus I indicate the average number of hours I expect a student will spend outside of class per week doing assigned work. I am also flexible on what counts as community service. Finally, I would grant an exception (or extension) to any assignment for valid reasons and offer a reasonable alternative, but only after the student has demonstrated to me that they cannot fulfill a particular requirement as stated. I would not do it simply because someone claimed they were too busy. I also do not allow students to turn is work if they miss the class the work was due unless they present third party verification that excuses the absence. This is not a matter of trust, it is simply withholding judgment until evidence is presented that supports the claim.

    Anyhow, I hope to have the new post on how we should deal with 'overextended students' sometime Sunday. (Oh, the suspense!!!)

  10. I encouraged (but did not require) my students to volunteer through my local Hands On Network affiliate, New York Cares. They have dozens of volunteer projects every week, and cater largely to volunteers that work long hours, so they're quite flexible. That seemed to work out well.

  11. I wholeheartedly agree that being upfront about the community service requirement makes the situation fair for the busy student. I withdrew from a Social Work class that had a similar requirement, because I knew I wouldn't be able to fit it in. While it might be a nuisance to adjust one's schedule or wait to take it another semester, it's not an unfair nuisance!


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