Tuesday, April 28, 2015


“Can I Do Something for Extra Credit?”

This one is a PSA for newish instructors heading into the home stretch of the semester.

You may find yourself approached by students who aren’t happy with their grades so far, and who are asking for extra credit assignments to bring their grades up.  These may be the students who want to move from failing to passing, or they may be the B-plus students who want A’s.  Here’s a tip from an administrator who has adjudicated plenty of grade appeals:

Don’t do it.  Just don’t.  Don’t.  

When I get grade appeals from students, which happens nearly every semester, I don’t second-guess instructors’ judgments of academic quality.  If you said a given paper was a B-minus, then absent something really appalling, it’s a B-minus.  (“Something really appalling” might be something like an indication of racial bias or retribution.  “Being a hard grader” doesn’t even come close.)  In part, that’s because I’m not a subject matter expert in every subject.  In part, it’s because if I established an end-run around professor’s grading judgments, the line outside my office would go on forever, and many professors would just throw up their hands and give A’s to everybody just to save the trouble.  

I have no issue telling a student that missing a deadline had consequences, or that a given piece of work just wasn’t good enough.  I did that as faculty, and I do it now.

From an administrative perspective, those are the easy ones.  The hard ones happen when a professor goes off-syllabus, and applies different grading schemes to different students.  

What do I do when Ashley asks why she didn’t get an extra credit opportunity, but Brian did?  Or when one student gets extensions that others don’t?

In my rookie semester of teaching, I fell into the trap of allowing extra credit work.  I discovered quickly that someone whose graded work was weak will probably turn in weak extra credit work.  What do you do with that?  (That was before Google.  Now I’d expect a higher incidence of plagiarism, rather than original, albeit weak, work.)  

But even if the extra credit work had been good, it wasn’t fair to give some students an opportunity that wasn’t available to others.  

Typically, and this was true of “rookie me” as well, instructors go off-syllabus for the noblest of reasons.  They feel bad for a student.  They root for the underdog.  They’re trying to right some larger, global wrong.  I get that.

But unless you want to get administrators involved in second-guessing substantive academic judgments -- which you really, really don’t -- you shouldn’t second-guess your syllabus.  If a given rule in your syllabus strikes you in practice as too draconian to enforce as written, then change how it’s written, and distribute the new rule to everybody.  Don’t announce a rule so extreme that you would never actually enforce it, and then grant exceptions.  At that point, it’s much harder to stand on any given decision.

If asked why Professor Jones grades harshly, I can shrug and cite academic freedom.  If asked why Professor Jones had different rules for Johnny than for Jenna, I have a much harder time answering the question.  If you want your admins to back your academic judgments -- which you really, really do -- you have to give us something to stand on.  Be consistent, and you’re on solid ground.

Because someone will probably raise the question, I’ll address it here.  Accommodations for students with documented disabilities are not the same thing.  The key word in that sentence is “documented.”  Most colleges have offices charged with assessing disability claims and coming up with reasonable accommodations.  From my perspective, the documentation offers an answer to a question about different treatment.  Don’t freelance accommodations.  Adhere to what’s documented, and you’re on solid ground.  

If you’re such a softie that you have to offer extra credit in order to live with yourself, build it into the syllabus and offer it equally to everybody.  It still raises issues of quality, but at least it’s evenhanded.  But whatever you do, don’t bend the rules in the last few weeks, even for what seem like noble reasons.    

Good luck with grading!

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