Will there be extra credit?

We’re entering the last few weeks of classes, when students (and their professors) are more productive and more filled with anxiety than at any other point in the semester. The range of possible grades a student can earn have narrowed by now, and students are wondering what they’ll need to do to edge closer to the top end of that range (or how little they can do and still hit the middle of it). Many students begin to think about how to hedge their investment in the course–so they start asking about extra credit.

Last week, CELT’s Facebook group featured a remarkable discussion of whether, why, and how to make extra credit available to students. The discussion was prompted by a post on the Faculty Focus blog that listed several reasons for and against the use of extra credit.

One camp in the discussion argued strongly against extra credit. Their argument goes something like the one Jack Slay made in the Chronicle in 2005:

My classroom policy is that the student will pass or fail the course based solely on the stated requirements. You get what you earn, I tell each class on the first day of each semester. Period.

I’ve seen too many students squeak by on extra credit, students who have not learned the material or who have learned so little of the material that it is virtually useless.

As one of the commenters in our Facebook discussion noted, “Extra credit is not available outside the walls of academia.” If we are training students for life, then extra credit cannot be part of that training.

Another camp (of which I am a member) reported giving students a few points for attending events like lectures given by visiting speakers. Call this the behaviorist approach to extra credit. There, the reasoning is that students may well learn something new; indeed, they may go one step further down the road toward a lifelong love of learning by seeing that there is something to be gained by listening to thoughtful speakers. (My students can earn more points by writing a short paper about the presentation.)

In a Chronicle blog earlier this year, Eliana Osborn defended the behaviorist approach, likening it to the way the U.S. Tax Code encourages behaviors like home-buying by offering deductions and credits for taxpayers who exhibit them. Someone could, however, make the case that Osborn goes too far in offering credit for non-academic activities like giving blood or registering to vote. (Extra credit for anyone who can articulate, in 100 or fewer words, what Stanley Fish would say about Osborn’s behaviorism.)

A third camp, one I now think I’d like to join, offers extra credit to students who dig more deeply into course material. One of our colleagues in English, Robin Field, sets out the assignment in the syllabus of a Core course:

The first extra credit assignment is a comparison analysis of the film Sweet Land to the original short story by Will Weaver entitled “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” (available in the short story packet).  This paper should explain the major differences between the film and the short story of the novel and discuss the reasons behind the changes seen in the film from the original short story.  You may also discuss which version of the story (film versus short story) you find more compelling.  This paper should be three pages long.

For an upper-level course, Robin offers extra credit for effective peer review of a classmate’s work:

read the second paper written by one of your classmates and then write “reader report”:  a three-page critique of the paper.  In the critique, you will briefly present the claim of the paper and then describe the strengths and weaknesses of the argument.  I will judge your reader report to be either “helpful” or “not helpful.”  The helpful reader report will be submitted to the author of the paper, and you will raise the grade of your own first or second paper (your choice) by two thirds of a letter grade (i.e., from B- to B+).  Unhelpful reader reports will not be shared with your classmate and will not receive extra credit points.

Another colleague, Mary Sanders, gives extra credit in her forensic biology class for good answers to questions like this:

A man, who is struck by a car, is taken to the hospital. After several days, it is obvious that one of his legs requires amputation. During the second week, the man’s family complains about the hospital care and threatens to sue – the man has maggots in the leg wound. The hospital states that the man’s wounds were cleaned and well taken care of but that he had to have picked up microscopic debris – including the fly eggs – when he was hit and knocked down. Is this argument plausibile? Why or why not?

The approach illustrated in these examples has a lot of positive potential. It’s behaviorist, but it confines the behavior it encourages to activities that line up closely with the course goals. Mary has said that this approach “has led to increased class discussion and interest.” Yes, a student might substitute effort put into the extra credit assignment for effort put into a regular assignment, but that may not be the worst thing, especially if the model of learning in the course is closer to “uncoverage” than to coverage.

I wonder if Prof. Slay’s trouble with extra credit isn’t in part the result of poor assignment design. Clearly, he’s seen some bad extra credit assignments (citing test-tube cleaning and “Play-Doh busts of Einstein” as examples). His own assignment–asking students to research the origins, history, and context of archaic words used in the novel Cold Mountain–edges toward the best practices just identified, but Slay did not anticipate how students would think about the assignment, what words would seem archaic to them but not to him. As a result, the students’ work was disappointing and, to him, smacked of an attempt to earn five easy points. The assignment might have worked better, had Slay only given students a list of words to research. He gave up too quickly, missing an opportunity to push his students to learn something beyond the syllabus.

As our colleagues at King’s show us, there is another way. Credit them for sharing it with us.

Is there a place for extra credit anywhere in a college course? If so, what forms can extra credit assignments take? What percentage of a course’s total points should students be allowed to earn through extra credit?

Photo by stock.xchng user bjearwicke, Garrison Photography / Creative Commons licensed.

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3 responses to “Will there be extra credit?

  1. Thanks, the thought of Stanley Fish saying anything in 100 words is the funniest thing I’ve read all day. Though I suspect his critique would be only two words long.

  2. In the past I’ve given some extra credit in exchange for a thoughtful written response to a visiting speaker’s evening lecture, to ensure that we’d have a semblance of an audience for the visitor. And I’ll always remember how impressed I was when two dozen students showed up, outside of regular class time, for a teaching demonstration I gave during an on-campus interview at a small liberal arts college. I didn’t know that they had been offered extra credit for coming, but it didn’t matter–their genuine interest helped convince me that I’d love teaching there. Smart move by the senior members of the department….

    • Nice, Tom. I’ll have to keep the extra-credit trick in the bag for when we bring candidates on campus this spring. Though I’m confident that our majors, at least, would come to a talk or demo anyway. We’re lucky to have a great group right now.