Saturday, May 21, 2011

Putting the brakes on extra credit

Since my spring quarter is winding down, I thought we might revisit an issue Nathan raised a few years ago: extra credit.

With a few weeks left in the term, I'm getting lots of requests from students for extra credit assignments. Typically, this is motivated either by their having done poorly on previous tests and assignments, or in some cases, not having done them at all. Students are hoping I'll provide an assignment or task to help them augment their grades in my courses.

I have a simple policy concerning such requests: No (for reasons outlined below the break).

First, extra credit reinforces the misguided idea, evidently popular among students just out of high school, that not only does effort matter, quantity supersedes quality. But it doesn't, either in academic life or outside it. For many tasks — the bar exam, brain surgery, landing that big project for your company — you'll get one, and only one, chance to succeed. Students need to be able to do certain things well, not to do them a lot. Suppose I give a student an extra credit essay assignment. The student completes the essay, which is not fundamentally better than any of his previous efforts, and receives a D, say. In that case, the student hasn't learned much, if anything, from the assignment. The student has merely practiced again the same inadequate habits that informed the required coursework.

Second, considerations of equity and consistency intervene. If I make extra credit available to student X, then I think I must (in good conscience) give all my other students the same extra credit opportunity. Now I don't grade on a curve, but if one did, all sorts of problems then emerge: Student X is given an opportunity, via extra credit, to bend the curve in her favor. But then other students could only keep the curve unbent by doing the 'extra credit,' thus transforming it into, de facto, required work. But even without a curve, other students have a basis for complaint. First, students can legitimately complain that it's harder to get an A, say, with fewer opportunities to earn that grade than it is with more such opportunities. Why should X get more opportunities than they did? Couldn't the student who earned an A without extra credit legitimately argue that she is more deserving of her grade than the student whose A is extra credit-enabled? Second, extra credit breaks the compact I made with them in my syllabus, namely, that a certain body of tasks, evaluated on the basis of a certain set of criteria, due at a certain time, etc., will determine their grade.

Third, reasonable self-interest speaks against extra credit. I'd have to devise the extra credit assignments and grade them. And while I take my pedagogical responsibilities seriously, I don't see that I have any obligation to put in additional effort to help ensure that students who could have (with more effort, performance, etc.) earned the grades they seek do receive the grades they seek.

That's the policy, and those are the reasons. What are yours?


  1. Sounds good to me. I don't offer much "extra credit." Maybe 1% of the total points in a few classes—5 points? Sometimes. And it's based not on work but on some habit such as hanging on to work or outstanding presentation of an assignment.

    Do the work. Get it done. If it wasn't important I wouldn't have assigned it; if I had a superior way to asses progress, I'd have used it to begin with. Grades are earned, not given.

  2. I'm with you. I just say 'No' when students ask for EC, citing primarily your second point, since fairness is something students themselves are widely concerned with.

    What bothers me is that lots of faculty must be offering EC, because otherwise the practice of asking for it would surely die out.

  3. I think they hope. It's not true that so many teachers offer extra credit, but they hope to snow the rest of us by making it sound "normal."

  4. I agree with points two and three: I agree that it is only fair if everyone gets extra credit, so if one person asks for it and you say yes, the same opportunity should be given to everyone. And I agree that you shouldn't be expected to do it since it is just more work to do if there's no special reason to do it (e.g., ambiguity in essay format causing poor marks all around).

    But the first reason, that quantity supersedes quality or that it's not how brain surgery works, is misguided. First off, students are still learning to manage their performance in this way -- people doing brain surgery are already supposed to be experts. The expectation for them to manage their performance the first time around should be somewhere between high school and brain surgery, and closer to the former (in first or second year classes, that is). I see the comparison with brain surgery or the "real world" as a weak reason to be against things like extra credit.

    The other issue, that quantity supersedes quality, is easily fixed by allowing people to have a grade replaced rather than extra points added for any performance. So if a student gets a C, and then gets another C, they get nowhere rather than a higher mark. It is not giving them too much of a freebie either, since they will have to more than double the time invested to do a make-up grade.

    Also, you say that it's surprising that people keep asking for it, if it's not common by other faculty. I doubt this is it. My bet is that it is high school that creates this expectation. Where I live (BC Canada), high school students are somehow allowed to write tests at any time, any number of times, because (the argument goes) only the Work Ethic grade should reflect performance, and the actual grade reflects competence. It's due to (certain) parental pressures on administrators, and administrators changing teaching policy. Anyways, it's not your colleagues, but high school, that creates the expectation of extra credit.

  5. Correction to the above: For the last paragraph, Gazza mentions why students keep asking for it, not Michael.

  6. I used to feel this way about extra credit, but recently I’ve been persuaded that extra credit (when done right!) can be a good thing. The way I think of it, the positive case for extra credit goes something like this: it lets students who have made mistakes early in the term make up for those mistakes in a genuine way by giving them an opportunity to go above and beyond (by doing extra credit). If there is a student who didn’t understand Descartes’s third Meditation, but is willing to do the work necessary to understand it and show that understanding, it’s better if that student does learn the material, rather than just moving on to the fourth, fifth, and sixth meditations and never grasping the third. Extra credit provides the opportunity and incentive to learn that material.

    I think your case against extra credit is really interesting, but I’m not sure I’m persuaded by your reasons, so let me go through them.

    1. I disagree with your first big reason on the same grounds that Taylor Murphy put forward above. As for the scenario you outlined after that (a student gets a D on an extra credit assignment but “hasn’t learned much, if anything from the assignment”) I would also point out that you can grade extra credit differently than you would a normal assignment. A student who learns almost nothing by doing a regular assignment may well get 60 points out of 100, but I don’t see the need to give a student who learns almost nothing any extra credit points whatsoever. (By the way, why are we giving a student who learns almost nothing a D and not a 0, anyway?)

    I wonder if maybe the thought lurking behind reason 1 is that we are doing a disservice to students by not grading them on the basis of their study skills. I’m all in favor of encouraging good study skills, but I don’t think we should be in the business of punishing students for having bad study skills. Obviously if those bad study skills lead to bad papers, bad tests, and so on, then we ought to give those assignments bad grades. But if a student is turning in great work, and I know she has bad study skills, I don’t think I should lower her grade at all (or punish her in some other way).

    2. Your second big reason, having to do with equity and consistency, seems to be a cluster of three sub-reasons.

    2a. The first sub-reason, that if you graded on a curve, it would cause problems, seems like a non-starter to me, since grading on a curve is a bad idea, anyway (I take it that’s why you don’t do it).

    2b. The second sub-reason is that a student who earns an A without extra credit deserves it more than the student who earns an A with extra credit, and this difference in desert ought to be reflected in the grades they each receive. I think I disagree with this because we have different ideas about when a student deserves an A. It seems to me that a student deserves an A if they’ve learned what the professor expects them to learn, and then some. (The “and then some” is ambiguous – maybe they’ve learned more material, learned different skills, or done their current learning with precision and panache…) Extra credit is entirely compatible with this understanding of when a student deserves an A.

    I think I do understand where 2b is coming from, though: there really is a difference between the student who earns an A without extra credit and the ones who earns an A with extra credit. But that need not involve a difference in how much they have learned at the end of the term. It might involve a difference in effort or intelligence – the person who got an A without EC might be smarter, the person who got an A with EC might be a harder worker – but I don’t think we should try to reflect those differences in the final grades. (E.g., if two students both got the same grades, but you know for a fact that one studied less, it would be wrong to try to give them different grades on the basis of that difference.)

    (continued below)

  7. (continued from above)

    2c. The third sub-reason is that extra credit breaks the compact made in the syllabus, that a certain body of tasks will determine the students’ grades. I must not understand what you’re saying here, since it seems clear to me that you can make extra credit part of that body of tasks that will determine students’ grades (and thereby keep the compact). Unless, of course, the syllabus says that there will be no extra credit – then, of course, allowing extra credit would break the compact. Perhaps I’m missing something here?

    3. The third big reason is that you don’t have an obligation to make an effort to help students get the grades they want to earn, and “could have … earned,” but did not earn. I’m a little puzzled by what you mean here, mostly by the past tense (“students who could have … earned the grades they seek”) – certainly if a student did not earn a given grade it would be wrong to give them that grade. Maybe you mean one of two things. Maybe you mean (1): you don’t have an obligation to make an effort to help students to get the grades they want to receive, but will not receive, given their past poor performance. I think this is true. Or maybe you mean (2): You don’t have an obligation to make an effort to help students who have shot themselves in the foot (so to speak) earlier in the semester.

    As for (1), certainly you don’t have an obligation to make sure that students have a shot at getting whatever grade they want to receive, whatever their past poor performance. But this doesn’t provide a reason against extra credit. Extra credit shouldn’t be devised such that there is so much of it that, whatever their past performance, they can get whatever grade they want. Rather, it should be designed in such a way that they may get a higher grade (than they otherwise would have without the EC opportunity) in exchange for meeting more of the learning goals of the class. But that underdetermines whether that higher grade is as high as the one they want. As for (2), I just think it’s false that you need not put in effort for students who have shot themselves in the foot earlier in the semester. Surely you do this all the time when students who have not been very good students during the first half of the semester start showing up to office hours more, e-mailing you with questions more, and so on. And I think it’s all right for this to happen – people make mistakes, and if students are willing to make up for those mistakes (genuinely make up for them), we should help them do it (within reason).

    Really interesting post, thanks!

  8. It depends on what you mean by "extra".

    Does extra mean "not on the syllabus"? Changing the rules because students are in a tight spot does set a bad example. Life doesn't work that way.

    Does extra mean "just for you"? When students ask for a way of getting extra credit, they don't expect something exclusive. It is clear that they want something to benefit people in their position - a life-line for those who are failing the class. In other words, the kind of option they want would make it easier for students who didn't work hard earlier in the class.

    But consider this. In a typical class, 20% of the grade is for quizzes, 20% for the final, 60% for papers. I set four papers, the best two count towards the final grade. Students can choose to submit just two papers. Many students are disappointed with the grades for the first couple of papers, but by the end, they have learned how to complete the assignments well. But suppose a students' first two papers receive an A? The syllabus states that, for students who submit all four papers, if their average grade for papers is higher than a B+, they will receive extra credit. This means that students who score highly on their first two papers have an incentive to carry on writing. Having that extra credit takes the pressure off in the final.

    I call it 'extra-credit' because it creates the possibility of a final score higher than 100%. The student could achieve an A without doing those last two papers - they are earning credit that could be surplus to their requirements.

    Another way I've seen colleagues use extra credit is as an incentive to get students involved in an event. At one institution, we were urged (but not required) to give students extra credit for coming to listen to a guest speaker. The administration wanted a good turn-out. Of course, they understood that there must be some academic justification for extra-credit, but they encouraged us to use our imagination and find one.

  9. I always say I don't do extra credit, but I guess I actually do, though I hadn't thought of it that way. Dan's post about letting people make up for past mistakes made me realize this. It's a standard part of my courses--an aspect formally specified in the syllabus--that anyone at any time can ask for a "retake" of any quiz, administered in my office after some appropriate amount of one-on-one review/tutoring time. If they do better on the "retake" (it's the same format and topic as the other quiz, but of course different questions) then the new grade simply replaces the old grade. If it's lower, then (at present) I don't do anything--they simply keep their old grade. (I'm thinking about changing this to a system where a lower "retake" grade will be averaged in with their former grade. This adds an element of risk, and while I don't want people to be scared to attempt a "retake," I also don't want a lot of cheap "might as well try it" unprepared attempts at a "retake".)

    I always emphasize to my class that there's no extra credit--but in a way, I guess this is extra credit. But it's fair, since all students explicitly have access to exactly the same sources of credit and those sources are clearly specified in the syllabus. The only problem from the OP that I do suffer from is that it makes extra grading work for me--_to the extent_ that students actually take advantage of the opportunity. Unfortunately for them (and in a twisted sense, fortunately for me) most don't, even when they should.

  10. I agree with Michael on this one. Extra credit reinforces the wrong values. By far the worst way to teach students to think analytically despite earlier mistakes or failures is to allow them to literally make those mistakes or failures disappear.

    Instead it helps to have a couple of assignments really early in the quarter/semester that force students to write. These assignments should be worth only a small portion of the grade (5% maybe) but required in order to stay in the course (at my university students can fail a course if they do not submit all the assignments on the syllabus even if they are otherwise doing well).

    When students do badly on these early assignments they tend to either 1) drop or 2) become motivated to do better on the next one.

    1) takes care of the problem for me. If these students have neither the time nor inclination to stick it through this quarter/semester then they're better off not doing so. 2) is win win. Students feel the ding and humility of performing below their expectations but the hit was not so great that they can't still pull out a high B or even an A.

    All without the need to invoke the extremely burdensome and, frankly, irresponsible, notion of make up work or extra credit.*

    *There are of course always other non-pedagogical concerns that may justify extra credit. Maybe the department really needs a lot of people to show up to x or maybe they really need subjects to participate in study y. Extra credit may be justified in those cases but it is NOT because of the pedagogical value.

  11. Just a heads up: A nice discussion of extra credit has been going on at the Faculty Focus blog:


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