Why did the undergraduates cross the road?
In concept as well as in practice, I have never understood extra credit. As someone who was home-schooled by a former Catholic high-school principal, “extra credit” was never a part of my pre-college vernacular [In fact, while telling her about this blogpost, my mother asked what a “paper or exam rewrite” was.]. In undergrad, not a single professor used those words in class (perhaps students made deals with professors privately, but I was blissfully unaware.).
At UGA students would request extra credit. They would ask in class usually as I was handing back an exam. I’d also get pleas via email the last week of class as students saw their grades going into the final. I read these situations—I think pretty accurately—as attempts to get a higher numerical score than the one actually earned. It read as an act of desperation and one which placed grades above actual mastery of content. Thankfully, as a grad student let alone as someone teaching a micromanaged coordinated course, I didn’t have that much choice in the matter. At most 5% of the students’ grade was up to my discretion and I certainly didn’t have the power to override an exam score or anything like that.
In time I did start using that 5% wiggle room to offer extra credit before the final exam; I’d give each student a different topic and assign them a certain number of problems on that topic. Only correct submissions would receive credit, and only correct submissions would be scanned to serve partially as a prep packet for the class for the final. In addition to getting students to start studying earlier and to make their own question banks, I realized it made my evals better (hate the game, not the player, right?). It felt mildly dirty and so I no longer give extra credit. Ever. But at the time I convinced myself I was at least teaching students a valuable and transferable study skill. I also thought I needed better teaching evals even though I was already above the department average (but by the way, no student ever mentioned extra credit in my evals one way or the other).
At Davidson, I was exposed to a new type of extra credit: extra credit earned by attending seminars and colloquia. At first I thought this was brilliant. The professor had no additional grading (they also were probably already going to the seminar); the seminar was actually going to be better attended making the speaker feel, and the department look, better; the students would get exposure to new ideas outside the regular classroom and the speaker specifically not being the instructor potentially could make the topic automatically interesting.
Having said that, there were obvious downsides. With few exceptions the ONLY students showing up to seminars were doing so because of extra credit. And even if I were teaching the only section of a course, what my colleagues did in their classes affected what I could do in mine. Because a few were known for giving extra credit for seminar attendance and because it was the culture that going to seminars meant receiving extra credit, it was all but impossible for me to encourage students to go without attaching a similar reward. There was another practical disadvantage: if a student had a class or athletic practice that conflicted with the seminars in question, then that student could never earn the extra credit.
DePaul and Carnegie Mellon and USNA all have a default atmosphere of “stress” that UGA and Davidson lack. At DePaul, most students are commuting and/or working jobs while juggling classes and/or stressing about money (ranging from how to pay for school to how to make rent). Carnegie Mellon is a collection of students who have been the smartest in the room for their entire lives who now realize when they’re all in the same room only one person still holds that title. They are double-majoring, taking overloads, trying to stand out. And at the Naval Academy students wake up around 5:30AM, go to bed maybe at midnight, and really don’t have too much time to themselves (there are “mandatory study hours” every night, but otherwise their day is packed). So whether their grade is attached to keeping a scholarship, keeping their sense of self-worth, keeping from getting reprimanded by a superior/parent, or some combination of the three, these students all are concerned about their grades and at all three places students asked for extra credit.
But part of why these students are performing so poorly (often just in their minds—the most common grade in my experience of students asking for extra credit is “B”) is lack of time (management). They are busier than one-legged tap dancers. Why would they want MORE work in the form of “extra credit”—they’re already demonstrating the baseline level of work is a bit too much to handle? Why would we give them more work when they’re so stressed? When is “extra” work even going to get done?
For these situations and for these often ad-hoc extra assignments, instructors really need to balance quality of assignment with quantity of time to devote to said-assignment. Here are two drastically different examples (from tenured faculty, if it matters) I’ve seen in practice that still floor me:
- A retake of a (first) exam if a student scored below a 70%, with the greater of the two performances counting but only up to a 70%. While (hopefully?) an opportunity not every student can take advantage of, this takes a lot of time. Students have to (continue to?) study and set aside 50-75 minutes to take the exam again. The instructor has to write a new exam, proctor the exam, and then regrade the exam. If the instructor to minimize schedule conflicts decides to use a class meeting or recitation for this, then the instructor and all students have effectively lost that day.
- Bonus points on a math test that have absolutely nothing to do with math. Granted, this is a bit of a Catch-22. Many students who “need” the bonus in terms of a grade boost are either not going to have the time to get to the problem, or they’re not going to have the mathematical know-how to complete the problem. The students who do have the time and/or mathematical prowess to complete the bonus probably don’t need it. So then some faculty have completely non-math questions as bonus. And not even non-math trivia, but questions with arguably no incorrect answer. Questions like “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in the course?” Honestly…not a math question. I’ve seen some who do these classic groan-inducers like “If you could be any kind of sandwich, what kind of sandwich would you be and why?” Also…not a math question. Just curve the test if that’s what you want students to do to “up” their grades. Don’t waste everyone’s time.
There is one pro- extra credit argument I have not yet addressed and that’s that extra credit can be an effective psychological and marketing tool to boost student confidence and create a positive environment (c.f., this article which claims traditional exams are such a psychological barrier to learning that pop extra credit quizzes in place of exams actually boost student performance). The opening joke, after all, has some truth to it–students perk up like beagles at the words “extra credit.” Many will put more work into an extra credit assignment than a “standard” one; indeed, it’s well-documented that extra credit can encourage students not to give their all on the first attempt.
I realize that my students are not me. They don’t necessarily learn the same way that I do. They haven’t had the same educational experiences prior to college that I had. Their (mathematical) strengths and weaknesses are not the same as mine. It’s neither logical nor reasonable to expect that what worked for me will work for them. And so even though I never experienced it, maybe my students would benefit pedagogically from extra credit. There must be some reason why more and more tenured college professors do it considering the blatant disadvantages in
- enforcement (Who is eligible for the extra credit? If just some students, what should the cut off be? When is the extra credit going to be completed? In class? Outside?)
- development (What exercises are worth their little free time? What exercises are worth your little free time?)
- emphasis specifically on grades and only secondarily on mastery (How does extra credit make students NOT continue to worry about grades? Is extra credit appropriate if grades are already being curved?)
- emphasis on course evaluations over any other teaching measure (Do or should instructors give extra credit only when an eval comes around? Is that not putting emphasis on grades and only secondarily on mastery (of teaching)?)
- impact on the others in the department (If your colleagues give extra credit, how can you not? Once you start giving extra credit, can you ever stop?)
Again: as in total grade value it’s usually negligible and not going to affect the numbers, maybe extra credit is worth a gain in student excitement and emotion. I know there was a post years ago on this by someone asking for extra credit ideas (with many in comments expressing the same concerns I’ve raised). I’d be really curious to hear how/if those writers’ opinions have changed over the years, or if there are new arguments to be made. My gut says this is a bad idea, my head says “if your colleagues are doing it, you’ll have a tough time not joining,” and my mind is open and in fact is aching to see the good.
Because the real question is “When does it end?” Extra credit, rewrites, and retests are rampant pre-college, and are increasing in popularity at the college level–and not just with introductory courses, but even those at the 300 and 400 levels. What happens the first time a student doesn’t have these multiple tries and extra opportunities? If it’s not until grad school, which already pushes people to an emotional and intellectual breaking point, is that good? (see this article on the perfectionism expectation) If it’s not until “the real world” when we’re talking about a salesman pitching a major account to a new and reluctant client or (as I’m led to consider more) an officer on a battleship making decisions that literally cost people lives, is that good?