Saturday, October 28, 2006

Extra Credit

Ok, so as part of being on the market, I have become obsessed, once again with the Chronicle of Higher Education forums. Back in a pre-wiki, pre-blog world, those forums were my first experience with an electronic community of academics, and apparently going back on the market in earnest has sucked me back into lurking there obsessively. So anyway, I don't only lurk on the job search experience forum, but I peruse the other forums as well, and on the in the classroom forum, there's a thread going about extra credit. As I only lurk on the forums, I'm not participating in the conversation there, and even if I wasn't only a lurker, I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable participating in this particular thread. Why?

Because I give extra credit. What students might consider "good" extra credit. Not in all courses, but in some. Consistently. Does this make me a bad teacher? A grade inflator? Not rigorous? I don't know.

The consensus on the forum thread seems to be that "extra credit" is an atrocity. Well, perhaps I exaggerate. But basically most (though not all) posters seem to agree that to give extra credit is just plain unethical or at the very least bad policy. Some sample comments:

"For me extra credit is a bad idea at any level--it makes some students aggressive or whiney (demanding more extra credit) and sometimes it devalues/makes students lose their focus on the original material."

"Personally, though, I wouldn't give them extra credit just for the sake of raising their grades. Not only does it invite whining, etc, as arugula pointed out, but it also lets students know that they don't have to try too hard, since there will be a back up of some kind."

"I don't give extra credit. I give credit. They can have all they earn."

"I never give extra credit and am very against it. My current course is a pre-req. for another. If a student does not understand my material well, hu will not be ready for the next course."

(Incidentally, "hu" is the gender-neutral pronoun of choice on the forums. It sucks.)

But so at any rate, it got me thinking about when I started giving extra credit and why. It all started in my Survey course. In my first semester at my university, I taught the course for the first time - ever. I basically modeled it on what I remembered from my undergrad experience. A midterm (in class), a final (in the regular final period), and two 3-5 page analysis essays (equally weighted) - oh, and "participation" which included quizzes, discussion, etc. My evaluations were... well, not the best I've ever received. Many students thought the course was "too hard." Some of the more constructive comments asked that the grade be broken down into more parts or that the first paper be weighted less than the second. More than a few students said that I expected them to be grad students.

Now, part of this was the learning curve of me going from the high-falutin' institution where I did the bulk of my teaching as a grad student to a regional comprehensive. Part of it had to do with the fact that students challenged my authority in the classroom because I'm female, young-ish, etc. Part of it had to do with the particular dynamic of that class. And, I believe, part of it did have to do with the fact that this class does require more of students than some other courses of a similar level, and yet it is still a general studies course and so many are taking it just because it fits into their schedule and fills a graduation requirement, even if they don't have any passion for literature (or even enjoy reading).

Basically, I had a lot of kinks to work out.

So I did make some changes to the regular syllabus.

1) I developed two paper options, one recommended for majors/minors, one for non-majors/minors, which ultimately require the same amount of writing and for students to develop the same analytical skills, but with the non-major/minor option requiring slightly less abstract thinking related to the assignment. The papers are also weighted less toward the beginning of the semester now.
2) The midterm is now a take-home.
3) The quizzes are now their own separate grade.

But still, something was missing. And then it dawned on me: maybe I need to give them extra credit opportunities?

I'm not sure what I thought about extra credit in grad school. I only taught comp, and since I have a "revise everything but the last paper for a totally new grade" policy, it never was necessary. I suspect I might have thought that it meant I was "caving" to "grade-grubbing students." But I don't really remember.

But I decided it was worth a try for a number of reasons at my current institution. And at least for me, it has worked. My reasons for continuing to make extra credit a part of certain classes (my "service courses" in literature and the course in which I teach Notoriously Difficult Novel) are the following:

1) I actually find that having specific extra credit assignments that I open up to the entire class actually decreases whining. My students don't haggle over points on exams or papers any more. I'm a tough grader. And I assign a lot of work, and difficult work, compared to some of my colleagues. Having extra credit as an option softens the blow of that for some of my students.

2) Extra credit options allow me to assign students some "enrichment" assignments that I think are cool but that I don't feel necessarily should be a part of the syllabus. (Incidentally, these "enrichment" activities always require a good deal of work - things like reading an extra novel or watching an unfamiliar film (or films), writing careful analysis, connecting the extra credit work to the work of the course. They are time-intensive and they are graded, so while the potential exists for students to raise their grades significantly, that raising of the grade is not guaranteed.)

3) I have never had a situation where a student who didn't "deserve" a particular grade got one through extra credit.

Now, the way that I handle extra credit is that it doesn't become available until after the midterm. (I may mention that there may be some extra credit coming, I don't necessarily do so. This is not mentioned on any course document.) Students need to see where they are after the first paper assignment and after the first exam, and they need to have a sense of the level of work that I expect from them - on all assignments - including what I will offer as extra credit. The extra credit is not easy. If you are doing very poorly, the extra credit will not save you. If, however, you screwed up on something early in the semester because you underestimated the level of attention you needed to give to an assignment or test, it can give you a boost to where you would have been had you known that I'm not an easy teacher. (I do make my expectations clear, but it's difficult for students to really internalize those expectations because they have so many other experiences that tell them that teachers don't really mean it when they state similar expectations.) Most often, extra credit helps the "plus" students - the students used to getting B's who earn a C+ or students used to getting A's who earn a B+. Extra credit assignments have a specific deadline, and just because you submit something for extra credit does not mean that you will necessarily earn extra credit. Because yes, you've got to earn it.

Now, I'll be honest: part of the reason that I've gone the way of extra credit in some classes is because I do care about my evaluations, and the extra credit addition allows me to give "real grades" while still to make students feel like they have the chance to excel in my courses. It gives them the impression that I'm tough but "nice." But am I giving real grades if there are unstated grades that are available? I think so, but I suspect that those on the forums would disagree.

Do you give extra credit? Why/why not? Am I wrong to think that it's just not that big of a deal? Have you had bad experiences with offering extra credit?


Anonymous said...

a) i can't get over the "hu" thing. that is pretty ridiculous.

b) i think, as you say, that the idea extra credit should not be stuck in a dichotomy. AlwaysYES/AlwaysNO is generally not a good practice in my mind. That said, it depends on the institution and the type of class. At my current place, I would say no extra credit. At a different institution, I would say maybe/yes. It depends on the field, type of course, etc. The point of revise and resubmit writing is that you want students to improve. and since there is the built in opportunity to improve grade (though through improving performance) "extra credit" is not needed. But in a different type of course, i agree with you, extra credit is a help for some. and i doubt that it will bring any D student to an A.

BikeProf said...

What always gets me about those forums (I *hate* the way they call them "fora") is the tone of no-compromise, lofty superiority the writers tend to assume. If you are so weak as to give e.c., the posters insinuate, you are the lowest form of life in the university.

That said, I do offer e.c from time to time, and, like you, I make usually base it around enrichment (e.g. go see the author speaking on campus). I look at e.c. as a sort of gift--I'm giving my students an opportunity they wouldn't usually have, and, because it's a gift, I hate it when students ask for e.c. The worst is when a student fails an assignment for some reason and asks to "make it up" with an extra assignment. I once had an F on the assignment policy for plagiarism and had a student ask for extra credit to make up for the plagiarized F. Shameless.

Dr. Crazy said...

BP - I agree with your take on the forUMS:) And yet, somehow, I cannot stop reading them.

I also agree with thinking of E.C. as a gift, and I NEVER give extra credit at students' requests. Actually, I think I feel much more comfortable being a hard-ass about that because I build in some extra credit assignments that are available to all. It keeps the playing field level, and is not at all meant to let a student "make up" for some colossal failure (or complete lapse in academic integrity).

I think part of my policy on this relates to not wanting to have to sit in judgment over who "deserves" extra credit. (Just as I hate sitting in judgment about what absences are "excused" or not, which I don't do.)

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, so blogger is crazy and somehow this post is posted twice and there are two separate comment threads going. So I'm going to xfer comments from the other thread here, and then I'm deleting the duplication of the post.

Flavia writes:
I give extra credit on a more minor level, although I very much like the way you do it--I may consider doing something similar in the future.

In my survey classes, I give two extra cedit assignments, worth the weight of one quiz each. Since I don't allow quizzes to be made up (although I do drop the lowest quiz score), this means that some students, really through no fault of their own, are going to have a low overall score on what I consider to be a relatively easy part of their grade--so to me this is just giving them a break on that part of their grade.

One extra credit option I've used: having the student memorize a lyric poem of at least 14 lines by one of the authors we cover, making an appointment to come to my office hours, and reciting it with feeling. I'll often ask them a question or two about a particular image or line, but the memorization is pretty much all of it. Students tend to enjoy this assignment, and I think it's a really valuable way of teaching them about how poetry works (I've long considered making this a requirement, but I think it works better as extra credit).

I don't think I'd give extra-credit in an upper-division course, although it's hard to say (I'm teaching my first 400/500-level next semester)--having students read an entire additional work and write about it sounds like a responsible use of extra credit if one happens to wind up with a group of students, at that level, who aren't as prepared as they should be for the paper-writing requirements.

Dr. Crazy said...

Profgrrrl writes:

hu??? for real???? I think I'll go back under the rock where I've been living. I like it there. Referring to people as hu scares me.

As for extra credit, what you describe is reminding me of learning contracts one prof I had used. You could write up what you would do for a B, B+, A-, A. Usually more assignments for the higher grade -- and the expectation of mastery (working assignments until the instructor was satisfied).

10:46 AM
~profgrrrrl~ said...

Oh -- and I've put extra credit questions on exams (questions that I'm testing), and if the question bombs just give everyone a point for trying it. I've also done things like offered an additional quiz to whoever wants to take it, allowing them to drop a lower quiz grade (it takes some a few weeks to adjust to my quiz expectations) and 1/2 the class will usually do that. Just gets their grades to where they likely would be, really.

Horace said...

My survye course approach is similar to Profgrrrl's... I have e.c. questions on my Quote ID midterms. There students respond to five of eight quotes identifying author, title, and exploring (in some depth) thematic/historical/political etc. significance of the quote. For the three they don't answer, they can identify author and title for one point each (a total of 6 points e.c. on a 15% test).

I also drop a low quiz grade (to mitigate the attendance policy), and occasionally will offer "completion quizzes" where they earn 100% just for tackling an assignment. My goal is to offset some assignments that I consciously design to be what my students think of as "beyond the 200-level."

For upper division courses, no extra credit. I think just because e.c. is a way for me to ease students into the higher demands of college classes, so they make sense in 100- and 200-level sections, but by the time they're taking junior and senior coursework, that easing should be done, at least to my mind...

And by the way, this is why I prefer blogs to CHE and IHE forums. Courtesy. Thanks for raising the question.

Dr. Crazy said...

I wanted to address the e.c. in upper-div. courses issue, because I didn't really talk about it in my post. In MOST contexts, I do not offer e.c. in upper-div. classes, for the reasons others have noted. That said, when I teach Notoriously Difficult Novel, and actually force my students to read the whole thing, to do a presentation on one chapter of the novel (not unlike graduate seminar presentations), and to write a 5-page literary analysis of some aspect of the novel, that is expecting a LOT of them (especially at my institution, where others who teach the novel a. don't teach the whole thing, b. don't actually expect students to read what is assigned, and c. have no writing or graded work connected to the novel). So, in that class, I did offer one little bit of extra credit, which students could do in order to raise their grade for the paper that they wrote on Notoriously Difficult Novel. This assignment required them to watch two films and to write an essay about how these films do/do not constitute a "rewriting" of Notoriously Difficult Novel. To me, this was a way to keep these students in the course (which really didn't get easier after Notoriously Difficult Novel was done) and to maybe give them the chance to continue to think about the novel and to understand it better through that thinking. But by and large, no, there is really no need for extra credit in upper division courses, and I don't really think it's a good idea.

undine said...

I include extra credit questions here and there on exams and quizzes; those questions reward people who were really paying attention. I offer an extra quiz at the end of the semester for those who want to take it; the lowest quiz grade is already dropped. Also, I'll give an extra credit assignment if there's a speaker and I want students to attend, although they have to write something about the speaker to get credit; simply showing up isn't enough. Mostly, however, there aren't any extra-credit opportunities except those dealing with quizzes, which are a minor part of their grade.

I won't give an extra credit assignment at a student's request, and any opportunities that do come up are open to the whole class.

Terminaldegree said...

I'd give extra credit, except for one thing: the university where I teach thinks that it's ok to give me 100 students in a section and no TA.

The extra bookkeeping that extra credit would require seems like One More Thing To Cope With.

(But if anyone has any suggestions on ways to make this easier, I'm open to ideas...)

Dr. Crazy said...

I think if I were in your situation TD, I'd only do extra credit as a "bonus question" sort of a deal on tests, if I was feeling generous. 100 is TOO MANY in a section without TAs.

Flavia said...

I meant to add this, in re: the forums: the job-market one is a FEVER SWAMP, especially as MLA interviews and callbacks get going. I had to stop reading them last January because they were totally stressing me out.

And that was, apparently, before they'd moved on to "hu." If they keep that up, I'll never be able to read another forum again, just on principle.

Terminaldegree said...

Yes, extra credit on tests--great idea! Thanks.

k8 said...

Generally, I'm against extra credit, but...

...this semester, my freshmen composition students are blogging rather than handing in journals. To encourage them to respond to more people than required (which is only 1), I give them a very small amount of extra credit. Here is how small - posts and each required responses are worth 5 points each. They can earn up to 1 point each week for extra comments/responses - each extra response is worth .25 points.

So, it is really a very small amount of extra credit that is only applied to their blogging/journaling grade. However, many of my students are commenting on more than one blog post, so it seems to be working in a way that supports the idea of having public journals for the class - that is, I want this interaction so this seemed like a small price to pay for asking students to do "extra" work.

Anonymous said...

Like undine, my extra-credit opportunities for my 100-level history survey are pretty much confined to 1) an extra credit question on some of the quizzes and 2) attending guest lecturers and writing a response paper. The frequency of these will vary semester to semester, but this is what I say in my syllabus: "A maximum of 50 extra credit points may be assigned at instructor's discretion. Typical assignments include field trips and outside lectures (both requiring short response papers)." In a class of 1000 points, the 50 points possible gives students a nudge but is not enough to drastically affect their grade. And the key word is maximum--students are not guaranteed 50 points, which makes them more inclined to write thoughtful response papers instead of crappy ones.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention that I'm a first time reader also residing in the glorious Midwest. I enjoyed your blog--feel free to check mine out at

Dr. Crazy said...

Welcome, Kristen! I'll definitely check out your blog!