February 3rd, 2010

Extra Credit Assignments: An Innovative Approach

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My students are always asking for opportunities to earn bonus points. I offer a variety of assignments during the semester, but they still want bonus points, which they seem to think are easier to obtain than the required points. Generally, I’m opposed to bonus options because I feel that if students are struggling with the current assignments, they do not need an “extra” assignment for extra credit. In addition, the word “bonus” seems to suggest something for nothing. I want my students to realize that grades are earned, not given. However, I recently tried a bonus activity that benefited my students and also met my expectations for a substantive learning experience.

The end of the spring semester correlates with increased absences and assignment apathy. The weather is beautiful, my classes are in the afternoon, and student attendance drops. In addition, students in my classes are preservice teachers who must do a minimum number of field observations in area schools before the end of the semester. Those who have procrastinated start feeling the crunch and begin to miss class in order to complete the required number of hours. Those attending class often arrive unprepared. Clearly, this is not the easiest time of the year for teaching.

In a mathematics class for prospective elementary teachers, we had been working on a particular section for several class sessions, so students had more time than usual to complete the homework assignment. On the day this homework was to be discussed, I decided to offer a bonus activity. I created a sheet with 11 problems that applied many of the concepts we had covered in previous class sessions.

Students could earn one point for each problem solved correctly. The problems had to be worked out during the allotted class time, and students could not begin working until a trade had occurred—the bonus sheet in exchange for completed homework. This trade made the students accountable for previously assigned work and removed my fear of giving them something for nothing. Students who had not completed the assignment had less time for the bonus opportunity because they had homework to finish up first.

An interesting classroom dynamic occurred after I explained how this bonus opportunity worked. Many of the students with their homework done began helping students who had not been able to work through all the homework problems. Students who had not even started the homework began to work diligently in order to have even a little bonus time. As I walked around the room, I heard not only the buzz of mathematics but also comments like “I told Julie she shouldn’t miss class” and “I knew I should’ve done my homework!”

I want students to be successful in and out of the classroom. This means learning the mathematics we’re covering in the course. But I also want students to realize they are ultimately responsible for their own learning and accountable for their actions. The bonus problems reviewed concepts that the students needed to know and understand. By design, the activity reinforced the responsibility of students to complete assigned homework. Since the only students who received few or no points were the students who missed class or had not completed the homework assignment, the lack of bonus points earned was not the fault of the teacher (e.g., test too hard, too long) but rather the consequence of a personal decision.

The bonus activity was a success and is a practice I’ll repeat. My students were delighted with the opportunity, and I was guilt-free. The activity let students know that I am sensitive to their needs and ideas, but it also showed how a missed class is a missed opportunity—and that doing your homework pays off!

Tena Long Golding, is an associate professor of mathematics at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Excerpted from Bonuses of a Bonus Assignment! The Teaching Professor, June-July 2008.