Extra Credit in College Courses: Blessing or Curse? Weighing the Pros and Cons

Pros and cons balance

Picture it: Fall semester on a suburban college campus in a dimly lit classroom. I’m handing back graded papers to my students and as I make my way to the back of the room, I can’t help but notice a dejected student, Ben*, who has just received a failing grade on his latest assignment.  

Ben: (sighing loudly) “Professor Trunk, can I talk to you for a minute?” 

Me: (looking concerned) “Of course, Ben. What’s on your mind?” 

Ben: (nervously) “Well, Professor, I’ve been struggling in your class, and I was wondering if there’s any way I could do some extra credit to boost my grade.” 

Me: (raising my eyebrow) “Extra credit, Ben? You’re barely hanging on as it is. Are you sure you can handle more?” 

Ben: (desperate) “I promise, Professor, I’ll put my heart and soul into it. I’ll do whatever it takes! Just give me a chance!” 

Does this scenario sound familiar? For me, it is a common occurrence – one that I’ve dreaded for most of my teaching career. What is the best way to handle Ben’s request? Is extra credit a blessing or curse for students? What about for the instructor? After 16 years in the classroom, you might think I have the answer to this question. Spoiler alert: I do not; however, I do have thoughts about the pros and cons of extra credit assignments. Allow me to share. 

If Ben caught me in a generous mood, I would likely acquiesce to his request for an extra credit assignment. Indeed, there are benefits to assigning extra credit. If Ben is struggling with his grades in my course, the opportunity to complete an extra credit assignment may be enough to motivate him to stay engaged. Knowing that he will have an opportunity to boost his grade might encourage Ben to participate more in class discussions and, fingers crossed, to earn better grades on future assignments in the class.   

If I tap into my own memories of being an undergraduate student, I might also be more likely to accept Ben’s request for extra credit work. I always appreciated it when my professors had empathy for (read: took pity on) their students who were desperate to make up for that horrible grade on the last exam. We all have challenging times and if a small act of kindness from his professor could make the difference between Ben failing the class or getting back on track and making up for his previous mistakes, why not bet on kindness? 

What if Ben is doing poorly in the class because he just has not been able to relate to the material? Sure, that sounds like a Ben problem, but as a psychology professor, my goal is to inspire students to be excited about learning in general and about psychology specifically. Could an extra credit opportunity that is tailored to Ben’s interests and academic strengths possibly spark his interest in psychology? If so, my answer to his request is a solid yes. After all, as an educator, it is my job to help students connect with the subject matter and hopefully take ownership of their own learning in the process.  

If you’re someone who regularly gives in to requests for extra credit, but you’re ambivalent about the merits of these assignments, rest assured that the advantages can be significant. However, we must also recognize that extra credit work can become a crutch for some students and that assignments without rigor can ultimately compromise the integrity of a course. Let’s look at some of the drawbacks of complying with Ben’s request.  

One of my most significant concerns with extra credit is the potential for introducing grade inflation into my courses. I am wary of artificially boosting students’ grades and have therefore become stingier with extra credit assignments over the years. An assignment that accurately assesses a student’s true understanding of the material takes time to plan and grade – time that we educators do not often have enough of. Simply assigning busy work just for the sake of boosting students’ grades undermines the integrity of our standards and our grading system. 

While Ben may have been the only student to ask for extra credit work that day in class, it would arguably be unfair to give him the opportunity to boost his grade without also allowing his classmates the chance to do the same. Extra credit, if offered, should be equally accessible to all students, otherwise, it can lead to disparities in final grades. Whether students complete the work is often a matter of time and motivation – indeed of necessity. Some students simply do not need extra credit to do well in a course.  

Extra credit assignments should be just that – extra. Students’ focus should be on the primary course material and scheduled exams and assignments. Any bonus assignment that diverts their attention away from regular coursework is probably doing more harm than good. The promise of extra credit might also encourage students to procrastinate or even ignore primary course material in favor of completing extra credit assignments later. When students ask for extra credit work, I worry that their motivation is less to master the foundational concepts of the course and more to simply accumulate extra points toward a final grade. In the latter case, the extra credit assignment could easily serve as merely a distraction from core material.  

While opportunities for extra credit certainly have their virtues, to this day, I dread the inevitable requests that most frequently rear their heads around midterms and finals when students are reckoning with their grades. To minimize my own discomfort with these requests, I carefully design extra credit opportunities (while secretly hoping that I won’t have to implement them), and I always keep in mind that extra credit assignments must complement student learning objectives, or they become glorified busy work.  

In the case of Ben, he readily accepted the opportunity to do a reverse psychology experiment, and I am pleased to report that in his pursuit of extra credit, Ben completed the assignment with humor and creativity and went on to pass the class as well. 

*Name changed to protect privacy. 

Dr. Dunja “Dee” Trunk, a professor of psychology at Bloomfield College of Montclair State University, has a passion for teaching and a genuine belief in the transformative power of education.