Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Credit, that is. It’s what people want. And, apparently, I’m supposed to give it.

I don’t remember having a lot of options for extra credit while I was in school. I’m sure that could be a case of selective remembering. I know that there were certainly times I wanted it. But my memory says it was a bit of a rarity and I even recall one of my college instructors writing it into the syllabus – “There is no
such thing as EXTRA credit!” I remember thinking him a little bit of a hard you-know-what but didn’t give it much thought beyond that.

These days, extra credit seems to be the expectation – and not just from students. We get emails from various people pushing their particular special interest on campus and wanting us to encourage our students to participate. They are helpful enough to give us a list of ways to do this including, inevitably, “offer your students extra credit to…” We want them to participate in a campus conference – offer extra credit. We want them to attend a campus speaker – offer extra credit. We want them to attend Success day – offer them extra credit. We want them to participate in the campus food drive/book drive/coat drive – offer them extra credit.

In the beginning of my teaching career, I admit I didn’t give this much thought. I occasionally offered students the option of earning extra credit by attending a campus speaking event and writing something (evaluation, response) that related the speaking event to the course theory. I quickly learned, though, that the extra work was not worth the extra credit – for me or for my students.

More significantly, I once gave students the opportunity to earn extra points by donating to a campus food drive. Many did, but many didn’t. One of the ones who didn’t, was gracious enough to come talk to me privately. Our conversation changed my approach. She told me that she would have loved to have earned the extra points and would have loved to give to the food drive, but that her family had to actually make use of the food shelf so she couldn’t give. I realized that my ‘extra credit option’ actually amounted to selling grades to the wealthier of my students. Ouch.

This experience caused me to step back and really evaluate the notion of ‘extra credit.’ Having done so, I’ve eliminated it from my teaching. I arrange my courses so that grades are earned based on a number of assignments worth smaller amounts of points. Doing poorly on or missing any one assignment won’t kill anyone, nor will it make the difference between any two grades.

I’ve determined that to be in line with my own philosophy of education, grades should not be based upon sheer volume of work. If I give enough ‘extra credit’ options, anyone should be able to get enough points to earn an ‘A’. But grades and evaluation should be about more than simply amassing points. They should be about quality as well, and they should distinguish between students operating at different levels of expertise, effort and ability. Not everyone should get an ‘A’. Not everyone is exceptional. And, for me, if that ‘A’ isn’t earned outright but given away through a process of ‘extra credit’ makes the concept of grades essentially meaningless.

I’m sure that many of my students will disagree with me. I’m sure that many of my colleagues will as well. However, I’m content with grading the work that has been assigned, and evaluating my students’ performance on that basis, and leaving the ‘extra’ to others.

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