November 9th, 2011

Does Extra Credit Have a Place in the College Classroom?

By:

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.