I am extremely ambivalent about extra credit.
On one hand, I am convinced that most extra credit is utterly worthless, if not downright counterproductive. It has the potential to provide students with an incentive to do shoddy work on their regular assignments, or shirk them altogether. It has become so ubiquitous that students simply expect it, leading students to assume that any poor performance on a test or a paper can be undone simply by turning in some extra credit. In previous semesters, I have made it a point to say I offer no extra credit, leading to moments of pleading by students, desperate to resurrect their grades, followed by everything from bewilderment to anger when I refuse.
On the other, many of my colleagues—whose teaching skills range from very good to extraordinary—offer extra credit, and have shared with me the types of extra credit assignments they provide. Much of the feedback I’ve gotten from colleagues about the extra credit they assign acknowledges part of the reason why they offer it is to give students more chances to succeed. (The reason why they need more chances is a worthy subject unto itself, one I’ve contemplated discussing further in a future blog post). They have convinced me it is possible for extra credit to add to the substance of a class, rather than merely provide students an opportunity to pad their grade. So for this semester, I decided to try extra credit. The question became, what extra credit assignment(s) should I offer?
I began by remembering a stipulation that a professor I TAed for in grad school included on his syllabi: a student MUST turn in every assignment, or that student automatically fails. It doesn’t matter if the student has a solid “A” going into the final paper or exam, if the student doesn’t turn in a final paper, or show up for the exam, the student fails the course. I thought it essential to include this stipulation in my class, as well, specifically because I don’t want students making calculations about whether they can afford to ignore one of my assigned primary source analyses if they turn in their extra credit. Extra credit is extra, meaning in addition to, not instead of.
I also thought it appropriate to make the extra credit count for a substantial amount. If I’m going to offer it to students, I should make it worth their while, right? The extra credit I offer in my class this semester is worth a total of 25 points (the entire class is 100 points), meaning a student has the potential to make up a lot of ground if they don’t do well on their earlier assignments.
Lastly, I wanted to offer students some options with their extra credit—but I wanted to make sure the assignments worked with my class, building upon what we’re already doing in class. So I offered students two different extra credit possibilities: one is a single assignment; the other are much shorter assignments they can do multiple times throughout the semester.
The longer assignment is a paper (2-3 pages) analyzing a biography and the Wikipedia page dedicated to a particular historical figure who lived during the time period covered in this class (this is a U.S. History I class, so any historical figure who lived prior to or during the U.S. Civil War). Yes, I force students to go to Wikipedia—but not to copy from it. Instead, students must treat the Wikipedia page as a source that can tell us something about how their historic figure is understood today. Their paper needs to analyze the Wikipedia page and the biography together, comparing them and contrasting them, and eventually reaching a conclusion about what these sources say about how we currently view this figure’s importance to our history. This is the only assignment I offer that requires students to do outside research. Students have to locate the biography (and obviously look up the Wikipedia site) themselves, though I make myself available to consult with them throughout the process. This assignment is a modified version of an assignment the professor I TAed for in grad school offered to his students—although his assignment wasn’t extra credit. Students have the entire semester to write it, and it’s worth a potential 15 points.
The other assignment is to turn in two open-ended discussion questions pertaining to a primary source or set of primary sources we’ll be discussing in class on a given day. These questions, I explain to students, allow students to set the agenda for our discussion while also further deepening their understanding of the material. Just writing questions about a source forces one to contemplate what it’s about and why its subject matter is important. Students must turn the questions in on the day the source(s) is/are due to be discussed in class (they can’t turn them in late), and they can submit questions a maximum of five times throughout the semester. Each submission of two questions is worth a possible 2 extra credit points, for a possible total of 10.
It is my hope that these assignments work with my regular assignments, rather than undermine them. It’s also my hope that students won’t devote less effort to my regular assignments and rely on the extra credit to make up the difference. Though I’ll be honest, that’s my fear.
How many of you offer extra credit in your classroom? What kind of extra credit do you offer, and how has it worked out for you so far? Post your feedback in the comments, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.