As I write this, there are two weeks of classes left in the semester at Florida A&M University. This is just before what I call The Time of Great Desperation. This time is when some students realize that their grades are not quite what they hoped and that they need to take sure and swift action to rectify matters. It is, in short, time to ask for extra credit.
During my K-12 years some teachers offered extra credit. In general, you would make a lame poster about nuclear power, seals, or nuclear powered seals and you’d get a few points added to your grade. I assume that teachers did this so they would have lame posters to cover up the bland paint on the school walls. Some go-getters would ask to do reports and thus provide the service of teaching the class for a while. Some teachers did offer extra credit but they clearly took some sort of fascist view of the matter-they expected the students to do something truly above and beyond-like create a perpetual motion machine or write a real paper on a difficult topic. Naturally, students much prefer the former over the latter.
Apparently many of my students had teachers who also offered extra credit of the lame sort. In general, students will ask me if they can do some minor extra thing in return for points added on to their overall grade. Since I don’t really need (or want) any posters about nuclear powered seals, I always pass on the requests for lame extra credit. In fact, I don’t even grant requests for non-lame extra credit. While some students probably suspect that I have this policy because I hate seals or I’m a jerk, I actually have this policy for some good reasons.
First, a need for extra credit would seem to imply that a class is poorly designed. A well designed class should give each student the chance to learn and demonstrate his or her skills, knowledge and competence (or lack of these traits). I’ve refined my classes constantly over the years based on what happens each semester and they consistently produce bell curves. People who work hard do well, those who do not, do not. This seems to show that the class is well designed and hence does not need to be fixed by putting in extra credit.
Second, extra credit is sometimes offered to make up for something bad happening to a student that has harmed their normal performance. However, a well designed class can deal with that without having to bring in extra-credit. The problem with using extra credit this way is that when other students hear you have given extra credit to Sally, then they will probably want extra credit as well. This leads to the need to create extra work, grade that work and to try to balance things out so the pre-existing grading system is not screwed up. What I do is offer make ups and paper extensions in the case of legitimate problems. I also have a quiz and assignment buffer. To be specific, in all my classes I have 15+ quizzes per semester, but count only the best 10. This allows students to have sick days, bad days, or whatever and avoids the need to jury rig solutions to students being sick or whatever. It is built right into the class and is set the same for everyone.
Third, if a student has time to do extra credit, then s/he should use that time to do the work that already counts. I most often get students asking for extra credit in the form of extra work because they did not actually do all the required work. To me, that is an odd request-why ask for extra work rather than doing the work that is already part of the class. Naturally, people make that request when they realize that time is running out and they will do poorly or fail unless they can somehow get the grades they are missing. One reason I don’t do this is selfish-I’ve been grading all semester and would rather not have more extra work to do-especially for people who simply didn’t do the work they should have been doing. Another reason is that this teaches a valuable lesson-a critical life skill is time and work management and learning that bad management has consequences is important. A final reason is that, as noted above, I already build “extra” work into the class and do allow make up work in legitimate situations.
Fourth, offering extra credit tends to open the door to deal making and negotiating when it comes to grades. While some faculty allow and perhaps even enjoy that, I prefer to have clearly defined standards for grading that remain the same for everyone. Deal making and negotiating, on my view, simply invites grade disputes-and perhaps rightly so. For example, suppose a professor cuts a deal with Sally and she passes with a C. Bob, who is in the same situation as Sally, doesn’t think to cut a deal and ends up with a D. But, Bob hears about Sally and heads to the Dean to complain about the unfair treatment. Because of the practical problems and the ethical problems (I’m committed to fairness) I don’t want to do anything that could lead to such deals.
That said, some faculty allow and even encourage extra credit. I disagree with this approach, but I’m sure some people handle it quite well and are able to utilize it properly in the service of education. After all, there is some value in seeing a poster about nuclear powered seals.