Extra Credit

School is about to start, dangit.  That means it’s time to write up the syllabus and firm up how students will be evaluated.  I won’t be teaching anything different that previous years, but a number of my colleagues will be designing new courses, and many for the first time.  There is a whole host of pedagogical concerns that the University and the department don’t prepare us to address, but that’s another blog post for another time.  My concern here is extra credit, something I’ve discussed with my peers and on which there seems to be little consensus.  

I am an adamant opponent of giving extra credit for many reasons, many of which are articulated in this blog post.  

Extra credit is a chance for low performing students to mask their failure to do course work as proscribed.  Mostly, this is through laziness - coasting through a college course doing a minimum needed to succeed.  Some students genuinely struggle, or genuinely do not know how to succeed in a college course.  In my class, if they seek help or advice this can be remedied, but extra credit doesn’t help them overcome those barriers.

Extra credit also gives a boost to already high performing students, ones who will clamor for every point possible.  If people are getting over 100% in your class, the work they turn in to do so is inherently unnecessary.  A 100% implies a perfect score from a student who was able to completely absorb the course material and demonstrate fully what it is and what it means.  This is practically unachievable, though I’ve had a few students come close.  If you deviate from the grading scale set for your course by distorting it with extra credit, it becomes more difficult to see if students are actually getting the material (your lessons are working well) or if their grades are better because they did a token of extra work.

I can see a few reasons where one would offer extra credit, though I don’t foresee using them myself:

  1. Incentivizing student participation in an extra curricular relevant to your course or discipline.  Perhaps there is a speaker coming to campus doing important work in your field and you want your students to see him/her to give a dimension of applicability to what they are studying.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen this aspect abused on one hand  by instructors pushing an agenda and on the other by students who show up for the bare minimum of time to do their write-up and then leave shortly into the presentation.  A few students may be earnestly interested, but probably would have gone any way.  This is also extremely disadvantageous to non-traditional students and student parents who may not be able to attend extra-curricular activities due to work or home schedules.  The way around this is to provide multiple avenues to earning those points, including, perhaps, an online lecture one can watch that is not time and place dependent to accommodate all schedules.
  2. A major catastrophe interrupts the normal course schedule.  This past year, we had three snow days - equal to the combined total of the rest of the University’s history.  This put a wrench in a lot of course schedules, pushing back exams and lessons.  In this case, students were equally disadvantaged by shared circumstance and extra credit as a means of covering more material and providing them with an opportunity to cover the full breadth of lessons you might have had to cancel could be appropriate.
  3. Testing out new course tools.  I have done this before simply for course points and not extra credit.  Last semester, I developed an online map quiz that I wasn’t sure would work, so students got 5 points just for taking it because it was glitchy enough that equal comprehension and achievement didn’t necessarily translate into an equal score.  Sure enough, it glitched hardcore, but I could still see who had made the effort to take it and attempt to answer questions, and who hadn’t.

If nothing else, having extra credit codified in the syllabus adds a degree of consistency and predictability.  Adding it later disadvantages the students who have worked hard to achieve what was laid out in the syllabus while privileging students who have not done the work.

What do you think?  Teachers have many different reasons for and against giving extra credit.  I most certainly have not covered all of them here.

Zach Rubin, 2018