Monday, March 17, 2014

Giving Extra Credit: Second Chances or Unfair Coddling?

Hi there, GTC!

Recently in the GTC, we were fortunate enough to participate in a workshop on extra credit facilitated by Matt Dumlao. What follows is a summary from Matt regarding both the main points of the workshop and the reactions of participants to the points being raised:

As we near the end of the quarter, TAs and professors alike are always besieged with students looking for ways to boost their grade. When performing well on the final assignments or exam is not enough, students may resort to asking for another assignment they can do to earn extra credit. In this week’s GTC meeting, we took up this timely topic and explored the ins and outs of extra credit in university instruction.

We began by discussing how we have seen extra credit used in courses before. We noted that usually extra credit assignments are essays or exercises that mirror what was done previously in the course. For example, students in music classes may be required to attend a concert and write a response to it, and the instructor may give them the opportunity to do more of those assignments for extra credit. Or, in a science class students may be given more practice on a particular procedure. In general, we noted that the extra credit assignments are something that can be performed individually and without resources from a classroom or lab. Also, the assignments typically cover material that was already tested on earlier in the term; anything that is truly fundamental to the course should be part of a regular assignment, not extra credit. Finally, we pointed out that some classes use extra credit to make up for poor performances on earlier exams.

Who is eligible for extra credit was another point of discussion during the meeting.  Sometimes students on the bubble between a passing and failing grade are given the opportunity to earn a few more points. Other times, the opportunities are open to everyone who is willing to do the work. In the latter case, we lamented that at times only the high-achievers went for the extra credit and the people who could benefit the most from the grade boost did not try.

We digressed a bit and noted that extra credit is often considered along with curving grades, particularly when the entire class performed poorly on an exam. If an exam was poorly written and the bulk of the blame rests with the instructor, we all agreed that curving the class might be the fair and necessary course of action. Under no circumstances, however, should students be assigned extra credit to correct for a problem that the instructor created. If the instructor is not to blame for the low scores during the term, extra credit may be used to give the class another opportunity to practice and learn the material.  In this case, it may be appropriate to carefully choose the words for the assignment: instead of calling it “extra credit” it may be more appropriate to call it “additional practice”.

Our discussion of curving grades lead us to the idea that students should know exactly where they stand at any point during the term. Students should not be ambushed at the end of the term when they are powerless to do anything. Keeping students in the dark until the very end will most likely lead to more requests for extra credit and create a more anxious classroom atmosphere.
We ended our discussion on extra credit by summarizing the pros and cons to using it in university instruction. We said the reasons to use extra credit included: (1) giving the students another opportunity to learn the material (that’s the main goal of any class anyway!), (2) some students may not “get it” the first time around (again, learning is the ultimate goal), (3) extra credit can reduce anxiety and build confidence, especially for students who aren’t “good test takers”. On the other side, we said extra credit should not be used because: (1) it could reinforce bad behavior or a poor work ethic (why work hard when other opportunities will be there); (2) it takes time, both from a student’s and a TA’s perspective; (3) it may be completely unnecessary, especially if only the high achievers do it; and (4) it may lower academic standards and put the instructor at odds with a department that may view extra credit as grade inflation. 

Extra credit will always be something instructors have to wrestle with. In my opinion, if you are not a grade curmudgeon philosophically opposed to extra credit, you will have to find the approach that in the end facilitates learning and makes the class as fair as possible.  Providing extra opportunities and second chances to students may be appropriate under certain circumstances. That said, other times it is important to put your foot down and refuse extra credit to some out of fairness to the rest of the class who worked hard on the assignments everyone was given.

What do you think? When, if ever, should extra credit be used? How have you used extra credit or seen it implemented by others? Add your comments below!

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