November 9th, 2011

Does Extra Credit Have a Place in the College Classroom?


Some instructors never offer it under any circumstances. Others embrace it as a way to help students learn the course material or improve a disappointing test score. And a small minority, if pushed, will admit they only offer it when students wear them down until they finally gave in to it.

The topic is extra credit and, as the authors of study on extra credit practices concluded in an issue of Teaching of Psychology, “few topics among academics precipitate as much acrimonious debate as offering extra credit in college courses.” (240) They wondered “why such a seemingly minor matter triggers such vehement reactions.”

In a special 30-minute online seminar Extra Credit: An Undeserved Gift or a Second Chance to Learn?, Maryellen Weimer, PhD, editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter and professor emerita at Penn State Berks, outlined some of the research that’s been conducted on extra credit practices, and shared numerous innovative extra credit assignment strategies being used by faculty who teach in a variety of disciplines. The seminar also included four brief video clips from instructors sharing their favorite extra credit assignment.

“As I always say about these seemingly simple and straightforward instructional policies and practices,” said Weimer, “they seem straightforward at first but once you start considering them, you see there are a lot of interesting assumptions about learning, about students and about motivation, and it’s good to revisit some of these larger beliefs that drive the decisions that we make.”

According to Weimer, some instructors oppose extra credit because they believe that:

  • It reinforces students’ beliefs that they don’t have to work hard because whatever they miss they can make up with extra credit.
  • Students who ask for extra credit tend to be those who aren’t working very hard — or those who hope they won’t have to work hard — because some easy extra credit options will be available to them.
  • Time spent on extra credit means less time spent on regular assignments.
  • Extra credit (especially if it’s easy) lowers academic standards.
  • It’s inherently unfair to students who work hard and get it done right the first time.
  • It means more work for already busy teachers.

On the flip side, Weimer said, those instructors who give extra credit do so because they feel:

  • It reduces student anxiety and builds confidence.
  • If learning is the goal and students haven’t learned important content, extra credit offers a second chance to master the material.
  • Not all students “get it” the first time.
  • Students are motivated to do it, so why not capitalize on this motivation by creating a robust learning opportunity.

“One of the things we often say is that when you have learned something people don’t usually ask you how long it took you to learn it or how many times you had to try it before you got it,” said Weimer. “Looking at examples of what other teachers are doing is probably the best way for you to decide whether extra credit is an undeserved gift or a second chance for learning.”

Reference: Norcross, J.C. , Dooley, H.S. and Stevenson, J.F. (1993). Faculty use and justification of extra credit: No middle ground? Teaching of Psychology, Vol. 20, No. 4: 240-242.

  • RKH

    The only circumstance when I offer extra credit is ONE *extra* composition in a writing class, and its specific purpose is to offset a low test or exam score. It's not available to students who have not turned in all of the assigned compositions — they have to do all the required ones to be eligible for the extra credit one. The reason I do it is that some students write very well, but don't do so well on tests, and this helps them while still being fair — anyone who is eligible can do the extra composition and earn additional points.

  • C. Carter, Ph.D

    I've been teaching introductory environmental science for many years – first face-to-face and then on-line classes. Most of the students are non-science majors; often science is difficult for them. Textbooks are crammed with information difficult for business or humanity majors. Therefore I have always created a list of short-answer study questions to emphasize the points on which I tend to focus for chapter quizzes and exams. In order to inspire students to answer these questions in posts on the discussion board, I offer a small amount of extra credit on the upcoming chapter quiz. My goal is to get the questions answered with my replies also posted so that students can better prepare for the quizzes. There are always some students who ignore the extra credit. Some appear to be very good students who need no extra credit. Others are not and probably would not pass even with the extra credit.

  • Thank you RKH and C. Carter for sharing your extra credit assignment policies. Both are great ways of encouraging learning while being fair to all students.

  • I generally prefer extra credit because it allows me the chance to hand out more creative assignments that the students find more stimulating than the normal tests and assignments. However, I have more than 40 students per class. And since the students doing well always want to do the extra credit too (while many of the poorly performing students are not at all interested), the workload involved in reading and correcting extra credit assignments can be overwhelming. In any case, when I do offer extra credit, I do so during the first half of the semester while regularly reminding students that extra credit will not be available after the midterm. In that way, all of my students are forewarned and forearmed.

    • A&P

      Your experience is exactly why I don't offer extra credit. It's more work for me and the students that do it, don't need the points.

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  • Varholick

    I teach a technical subject (accounting) and give two test per course. If someone really blows the first test I give makeup questions on the second test. These questions are not any easier than the first time around and it requires the student to go back over the material and learn it. The first half of Accounting is where they learn the core material and tends to be harder than the second half.

  • B Patrick Joyce

    I have consistently ( 40+ years in research oriented institutions) offered extra credit (equivalent point value to one of 10 quizzes) to students who will schedule a short (no more than 15 minutes) meeting with me, preferably during my office hours. I use the time to get to know the student's major, minor, home town, outside interests, official university activities (sports, student gov't., membership in student professional organizations, …), … This works especially well in my larger (70+) classes. This allows me to learn the student's names, call on them by name in class, and connect the material (economics) to their interests.
    I have found the students also seem to appreciate the opportunity to find their instructor is at least partially "human". All kinds of students will do this, ones everywhere on the curve.
    I like it as many of my students are really interesting people and I probably would never have otherwise discovered it.

    • patepsych

      Great idea! I've typically been opposed to extra credit (only 5 years teaching in higher ed relative to your 40+), but I like this idea in that it is beneficial for both faculty and student. As we transition toward a "flipped classroom" where interaction is paramount, getting to know your students can be very helpful!

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  • Lisa Newton

    As a student who has had an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of extra credit many times, I am definitely in favor of this opportunity. I understand the desire to be cautious when it comes to offering extra credit. I struggled through algebra and many times would not have earned and A if not for extra credit. So did I earn the A? I studied for every test way beyond what other people would ever imagine doing. Every now and then my teacher would offer an extra credit problem that could be turned in the next day. The first person to solve the problem was the only one who would receive the extra credit, I would e-mail my teacher the answer at 12:01 p.m. On one particular problem I worked for 6 hours without even thinking about the time or becoming frustrated or fatigued. Working on this problem helped me realize that as you work on math, math works on you. Once I solved the problem I didn't really care whether I received the extra credit or not, but I did and my teacher called me a rock star. When you have a brain that is so resistant to math it is a major roadblock when it comes to higher education. Many math teachers are not that great at teaching the math impaired. Any incentive to get that slow learner in the "zone" should be seriously considered.

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