Monday, April 02, 2007

The Ethics of Extensions

I've been thinking about this question lately after Confused, Maybe Not and I had a discussion about some of our colleagues' policies on giving extensions on assignments and on moving exam dates.

Many of those who are rigid about not giving extensions do so for one or more of the following reasons:

fairness: everyone in the class is getting evaluated on the same scale and adjusting the schedule for one or a few, but not everyone, allows some to have unfair advantages that others do not.

character training: part of the college experience is learning how to be a responsible adult and that means learning to get things done on deadline and learning how to plan out your work and buckle down when need be. The student knew the assignment was coming from day one in the class, the student needs to learn how to accept responsibility for doing the work and responsibility for the choice not to do it, if something more important comes up in life.

convenience: late papers are a pain when you are trying to get a hundred things done at the same time in a busy semester and if someone is going to be inconvenienced here because something popped up in a student's life and it is going to be the student or the instructor, why should the instructor have to be the one?

I tend to be a bit of a softy when it comes to extensions, the reasons tend to be the following:

pedagogical success: The job of an instructor is to help the student learn as much as s/he can from the class, assignments are learning opportunities and a student who has the time to do the assignment well and not rush through it will learn more, so an extension when it is asked for can facilitate learning.

fostering the student/instructor relationship: when a student comes to ask for an extension, it is often hard for the student who is asking an authority figure for an undeserved favor. The request for an extension is often a symptom of something that is making the student vulnerable and possibly undermining his/her education in a number of ways. Granting the extension is often a step in advising the the student and helping him or her get back on track.

If this were simply a case of competing virtues, of duty and fairness on one side and utility and care on the other, it would be an interesting philosophical question in and of itself...but there is a twist. The complicating factor in all of this is a regularity that I have noticed. Extensions may be valuable commodities, but they are rarely spent widely. In the overwhelming number of cases, the students do no better and frequently worse work after getting the extension when compared with other work handed in on schedule.

Sure, it may be that the comparable work was done at calmer times of the semester or that the extension was helpful, but not helpful enough and while the work was lackluster, it was not as bad as it would have been. No one can really judge such counterfactual claims; but, I can say that, in my experience, by in large extensions are not helpful in terms of boosting performance. Those with extensions do not work longer on the assignment, they just put it off longer and frequently end up working less on it because they think it can be triaged away.

There are, of course, exceptions and they tend to be the better, more focused, more diligent students. These are the ones who you know can do great work, expect to do well and work hard and have reasons that will keep them from turning in their best work. In these cases, the extensions really do make a difference, but the work handed in tends to be of the usual high quality.

So, the real reason I tend to be fairly easy in giving extensions is that it allows those who do really good work to continue to do really good work and for those who are slackers, it actually penalizes them while seeming to do them a favor.

The problem is that this sort of negative reinforcement would be a fine pedagogical strategy if the students actually learned from it. But they tend not to. I now give provisos with extensions -- "Sure, I'll give you a couple extra days, but it is my experience..." -- but, of course, these fall on deaf ears because these are students under stress who think they are the exception, even when you know better, and at the hectic time of semester, there really is very little time for reflection on the part of students who are just trying to survive until break.

So is giving extensions like giving candy to your children for dinner instead of vegetables? How much of an advocate is a teacher supposed to be? Is this a matter of being overly paternalistic or are the students and I partners in their education where I ought to be doing everything I can on my end, with my knowledge, to help them? Is it fair to treat students differently when everyone has the same expectations and gets graded on the same scale, even though you know that the class is made up of different individuals who respond to things in different ways and have different learning styles?

Please comment on this post below, but if things are hectic right now, feel free to take until Wednesday to add your views.