Thursday, April 24, 2008

Extra Credit Gone Wild?

There are a lot of ethics & philosophy-related events that happen in my geographical area (Atlanta). For my ethics classes especially, I let students know about select events and allow them to attend (and write up a detailed summary and reaction) for extra credit. My main reason for doing this is to encourage them to get out and be exposed to philosophical ideas, arguments, information and people that most of them are not very familiar with. Many students take advantage of these opportunities, and seem to often enjoy and benefit from them, but I am wondering about a possible problem here.

The possible problem is some semesters there are are so many of these events that a student could significantly raise his or her grade by going to a lot of these events. Thus, conceivably, a student could do rather poorly on the tests and papers -- so much so that the student would fail -- but the extra credit results in a passing average. Or the student is at a 'C' or so, but does so much extra credit to get bumped up to even an 'A'. Since I suppose one's grade should really be (mostly?) based on to what degree on has "mastered" the information and skills presented in the class, these extra-credit-enhanced grades don't reflect that competence.

Is this a problem? If so, what to do about it?

One idea is a "cap" on extra credit. But what would that cap be? And, more importantly, if there were a cap then fewer students would be getting out there to see these interesting presentations, which would be bad, from my goals for teaching.

Another idea is to revise the view that students' grades should be one's grade should (mostly) based on to what degree on has "mastered" the information and skills presented in the class. Another category could be added (e.g., "interest in the material," manifesting itself in going to see outside speakers?), but perhaps any such category would be bogus. Or maybe not: maybe cultivating students' interests in and motivation for engaging intellectual topics is a goal in itself, although one that can't easily be measured. I don't think interest in the material should be graded, but perhaps it can be justly rewarded?

Another option is that extra credit activities could be assimilated into the legitimate "skills" category, since they are supposed to be events where one applies the critical thinking skills we are learning and practicing in class, and somehow by that route such radical grade improvements are justified.

I wonder what thoughts people have to these issues. Maybe someone has already dealt with this problem and has a good response.


  1. I'm curious: what sort of events are you thinking of?

  2. Nathan,

    My policy has always been "zero." I just don't offer it. Mostly my reasoning is that too many students abuse it to "clean up" their failure to do previous work. I'm not sure if I want to reward that kind of behavior.

    Still, at the same time, I wonder if students are in the situation of the child learning to play chess (I'm thinking of MacIntyre's analogy). Are they still at the point where only external rewards will get them engaged in important things such as seeing talks, going outside the class to investigate application of class material, etc? If so, then perhaps extra credit has a place, even if the student is motivated wrongly. The hope would be that though exposure, eventually the student is motivated to acquire the "internal goods" of the educational game, to use MacIntyre's wording.

    I'm not sure. As I said, my policy is zero EC, but I'm not partisan about it. I'm certainly willing to hear about what others have to say.

  3. If you make them write up summaries and reactions, then I'm not sure what your concern is. After all, they are developing--or taking steps toward developing--mastery of some philosophical ideas. True, they may not be taking steps toward mastering precisely the material in the class, but if we are talking about intro students, shouldn't we be happy if they get any philosophy down, and not just what we contingently happen to be teaching?

  4. It sounds as though you're currently using extra credit work as a way both to motivate students to "get out and be exposed to philosophical ideas" etc., AND to mitigate (or compensate for) the low grades that they receive for their other assignments. You sound worried that the effects of compensatory part are getting a bit out of hand (and allowing extra credit work to raise someone's course grade by two full letters seems like good evidence of that to me!). So, why not just include "Attending Philosophical Events and Writing Summary/Reaction Papers" as a regular old component of the course, that can't count for more than, say, five percent of their course grade? That plan might make the students' grades a more accurate indicator of what they're actually being assessed on.

    Like Chris, I don't offer any compensatory extra credit: I just have too many students who, already in the second or third week of the semester, are eagerly asking whether they can "make this up somehow" when they've missed too many classes, or bombed a quiz, or turned in assignments a month past due, etc. If they spent as much effort and ingenuity on the credit as they do dreaming up extra credit proposals, then they probably wouldn't need that extra in the first place. And I don't offer them any motivational extra credit because I think -- maybe incorrectly -- that it insults them to give them a bonus for showing what is, after all, a fairly minimal level of intellectual curiosity. But I'm not sure, either.

  5. Thanks for these thoughts.

    Upon some mathematical reflection, I doubt that a student is able to raise his or her grade in my class using extra credit as much as I suggested in my original post. So that's good.

    Justin, for one, there are lots of schools in my area and some of them have ethics centers or an ethics speaker series, etc., so there are lots of philosophy-related folks who come to town who put on student-accessible talks. Those are the kinds of events I was referring to.

    About a point of view that says that students should be motivated by interest in the subject itself or the intellectual rewards of engaging in stimulating material, etc. and not external 'carrots', my take is this. Most of my students are intro students with no background in philosophy. For them, as for most people, the idea of trying to carefully, systematically and patiently address an intellectual problem is a bit foreign and puzzling (this might be a serious understatement). If a 'carrot' helps them see that this kind of stuff can be interesting and worthwhile, and contributes to developing a better motivation for academic engagement, then I'm all for it. Alternatives might result in far fewer of them getting out there to do these things and thereby fewer becoming better-motivated students, an overall worse result.

  6. Nathan,

    I like the idea of motivating students to attend outside events, and even of rewarding them for doing so.

    However, given that the final grade we give them is, for most students, the only signal we broadcast to the rest of the world about how well they learned what we think they ought to learn, I think it's part of our professional responsibility to ensure that that signal is honest.

    Of course, that signal is far form perfect, and introducing a little more noise into it isn't so bad—especially if it is for the sake of motivating students to get some outside exposure to ethics. I'd say that allowing students to boost their grade by a third of a letter grade (e.g., from a C+ to a B-) is fine. But any more than that makes me squeamish. Whereas the difference between a student who gets an A and one who gets an A- may not be all that great, the difference between a one who gets an A- and one who gets a B is (or, at least, should be) significant. To erase that difference through extra credit adds too much noise the "signal," in my opinion.

    On the other hand, if "developing greater interest in the subject" is one of your learning objectives for the students, that's a different story. I'm slightly dubious of this objective for various reasons, not least of which is difficulty in measuring it well. In particular, I wonder if the write-ups they do for these events are really demonstrating their achievement of this objective—or even helping them make much progress toward it. If not, then I don't think it's responsible to count them so heavily in calculating grades. If they do, and this a learning objective for your course, then why not require several of them and offer the chance to do a few more for extra credit?

    My suggestion is to cap the amount of extra credit they can get from this, but perhaps require students to attend two or three to get the full amount of extra credit. You might be able to find other ways to get them to attend these things, such as getting some funding to buy food for "philosophy club" discussions afterward.

    Sorry for the long post.

  7. Nathan,
    Does your department support a philosophy club? If not, this might be a way to encourage these sorts of activities without straightforwardly adopting them within your curriculum. If the club is recognized, it can often apply for money - this can help students host ride-sharing to the events and perhaps a post-talk philosophy club event with food. In my experience, such things often end up including more than the students who would otherwise participate precisely because there is no credit involved and no teacher looking over their shoulders, as it were.


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