August 11th, 2011

So What Did We Learn about Extra Credit?


The July 20 post on extra credit has generated a record number of responses; 42 at last count. I thought it might be useful to consider what we learned from our exploration of this topic.

Clearly it’s a topic of interest—one we care about deeply. I wonder why that is.

Based on the variety of different ways of awarding extra credit shared in the comments, I don’t think there’s any question that it’s possible to design ethically responsible extra credit options that can offer students robust opportunities to learn material, learn more of it or learn it at a deeper level. Hats off to the designers of these very impressive and creative strategies!

Not everyone is in favor of offering extra credit and those who are opposed object most strongly when it’s the students who aren’t working hard or who are hoping they won’t have to work hard in order to do well are the ones asking for it. They are also opposed to poorly designed extra credit options—ones that compromise standards and make students believe that deadlines can be missed and poor performance can be overcome after the fact. There also isn’t any question that extra credit can be used in ways that don’t result in more learning or contribute to the maturation of learners.

Your commentary further convinces me that nomenclature is an issue. There is a distinction between easy, after-the-fact extra credit options and legitimate second chances. A legitimate second chance is teacher designed and controlled. It engages students in robust intellectual work and increases the likelihood that material missed can be understood correctly or that necessary, inadequate academic skills will be further developed. Those opposed to easy, after-the-fact extra credit have far few objections to bona fide second changes.

As illustrated with this topic and so many others, teachers are wonderful about sharing strategies. We do so without hesitation and without caring if someone uses a strategy we’ve developed. In fact, if someone “borrows” something we’ve designed, it feels more like a compliment than a theft of intellectual property. I love this aspect of teaching and hope we never forget how much there is to learn from and with each other.

I also think your commentary demonstrates the great diversity in our instructional practice. The options for extra credit range from none, never, under any circumstances to variety of test, quiz, assignment and attendance possibilities. I hope the commentary has encouraged you to revisit your beliefs and practices. As with so many aspects of teaching, few extra credit options are absolutely right or wrong. What makes a policy “right” is that it fits with a philosophy of teaching, that it is thoughtfully crafted and that its effects on student motivation and learning have been carefully assessed.

Do we have anything left to learn about this topic? I think so. Very little in the commentary offered in response to the blog post unpacks, organizes or explores the premises on which these extra credit strategies rest—what they assume, in this case, about who’s responsible for what in the teaching-learning process. The comments opposing extra credit come closest to articulating beliefs. “Students need to learn to meet deadlines.” “Tests are for demonstrating what you know. They are like life where don’t always get a second chance.” Those who give extra credit do so because they want students to learn—they believe they have a responsibility to do things that help them learn.

But there are more beliefs and assumptions inherent in these policies. Here’s a set of questions not answered by the commentary: Does it matter how long it takes a student to learn? What if it takes three tries or even more? Are the bright students, the ones who work hard and get it the first time disenfranchised by policies that aid those who take longer to learn? Why? How? When you were a student what did you believe about extra credit? How would you characterize the responsibility teachers have for student learning?

Are there other topics that would generate this kind of rich exchange? Please let me know what else you’re interested in reading about and discussing on this blog. I’d love to write more posts that motivate you to share your opinions, insights and good ideas.

For more on extra credit policies, join Maryellen Weimer for a 30-minute online seminar Extra Credit: An Undeserved Gift or a Second Chance to Learn? Learn More »