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!

I so agree! I've been in the extra-credit spiral, and it's awful,

I have a clause about extraordinary documented emergencies in my syllabus. It specifies when they need to ask for help, and is pretty specific about what sorts or things qualify, I use it occasionally, and haven't had a problem.

What I ended up figuring out is that even a generous set of policies won't turn a student from a poor student into a strong one. So, I stopped making those kinds of deals.

My Dean always emphasizes "do what the syllabus says" to our new adjuncts and new faculty, but I also need to remember to pass on that info and some war stories.

But you left out that old standby, the Incomplete. There are good reasons for them, and I've even had one student actually finish one of those, but the rest of the requests are just wishful thinking.

I'll share my fave tactic: Remind them that an I automatically turns into an F at the end of the next semester (they often do not know that), so their plan to turn a D into a C via an I for the final exam they aren't ready for is more likely to turn that D into an F.
Let's take this one step further: Stop offering extra credit entirely.

You're creating expectations in students that are wholly unrealistic and enabling detrimental behavior (i.e., "I can slack off for 14 weeks and bail myself out by writing a vapid, 5-page 'How I Feel' paper completely devoid of originality, substance, introspection, critical thought, appropriate attribution, and proper grammar"). You're also mocking those of us attempting to maintain some semblance of academic standards.
I work bonus points into most assignments, so that students don't ask for extra credit—they've already been told how to get it.

I generally grant "incompletes" only for medical problems, though I will do so sometimes for family emergencies also. Just being too busy doesn't cut it. Most incompletes are never finished, so I regard it as a fairly low-cost way to handle students who are failing but are convinced that they are just behind schedule.
This is good advice.

More naively, I've only offered incompletes when I can find some documentation (or potentially get some on file) for medical or other issues that generally fall under what the institution puts in for the attendance policy. I've said that I need this in case I'm checked up on—it turns out I may have been correct!

Other extra-credit has tended to be during the term, to get students to academic activities after class (the carrot, in other words). Not everyone can attend these, so now I'm wondering if that's something I should stop….
For the last 10 years before I retired, this was my "extra credit" scheme. It was predicated on an institutional need to know when students attended (for financial aid purposes--it's a long story).

I gave a 2 question multiple choice quiz at the end of each class. So I always knew who was there. I had a scheme for aggregating the quiz scores to the equivalent of a test score. If the overall quiz score was better than the student's average (genrally of three) test score, I *added the overall quiz score as a fourth test score*. Otherwise, I ignored it.

So it was an opportunity open to everyone through out the semester. It was not one big thing. It could only help, not hurt, someone's grade (mostly it made more difference). And if anyone asked for an "extra credit" opportunity, I said, "Read the syllabus--it's described there." (When I got that, it was usually from someone who had missed half or more of the classes/quizzes.)
That's "mostly it made NO difference"
I agree.

One bit of "extra" credit I include in some of my classes is grade replacement. The final is comprehensive and divided into sections corresponding to the regular exams. If students do better on the "exam 3" section of the final than they did on the actual exam 3, I use their grade from that section of the final as their regular exam grade.
It's clearly written in the syllabus, and it's equally available to all students, but it can be helpful for students who struggled at the beginning of the semester but improved later on. They still have to demonstrate understanding of the material, they just all get a second chance.
My extra-credit assignment was for my students to participate in the university's program for volunteering as a tutor in a middle school or a high school class (our subject) for 10 verified hours over the semester.
When I first began teaching I also took the extra credit "bait" and lo, I was trapped. I definitely felt like my harsh grading led to many disgruntled students. What I should have been doing all along was pushing students to refine work that did not meet my expectations. This challenges students to earn their way to a grade rather than simply having a binary definition of success (you either "got it" or you didn't).

I highly recommend that all new instructors, but especially CC instructors, be encouraged to read an older piece of work by Martin Spencer (1979) titled: "On the Conflict of Social Philosophies in Higher Education." If your teaching philosophy aligns with that of a contract basis, the best option is to simply allow students to resubmit their work in lieu of offering extra credit...it would then even be possible to allow multiple resubmissions if the student is willing to put in the work.

To Anonymous who posted at 9:55--I couldn't agree more about the uselessness of offering easy extra credit points that serve no educational purpose. But that doesn't mean they can't be a useful carrot to shape behavior. For example, I offer a few extra credit points for students who go to the Writing Center for help with their first paper--a big deal when many are still in developmental English. And used judiciously, you can give someone who struggled early on a chance to redeem themselves by showing that they now do understand the material. As long as the assignment is a) rigorous enough and b) offered to everyone, you're still upholding academic standards but also giving students a chance to learn from mistakes.
An extra credit formula for lazy adjuncts: Just ask the students what final grade they deserve and give them half a grade higher.
Technically, it isn't "extra" credit if it is in the syllabus, and it certainly isn't what the students mean if it has to be earned before the last week of class or on something like a comprehensive final exam.

My advice on an incomplete is a bit different than what GSwoP@10:05 says. My college's policy is that a student has to be passing and have completed a substantial part of the course to be eligible for an I, which lets you blame someone else for doing something sensible. That gets rid of the ones who missed two out of three exams and want to make them up over the summer. If my college didn't have that policy, I would put it in my syllabus.
I never fell into the extra-credit trap.


But some students require different handling to get the best from them and from the teacher too. I've had students in class to learn the five-graf essay who were reading Montaigne and Dr. Johnson on their own and clearly taking lessons from those masters.

They begged me for more work, harder work, different work, work at their level, work they could be proud of, work where I could really offer them help.

In other words, to go off syllabus and turn their experience of ENG 101 into a writing tutorial.

So, does the teacher owe more allegiance to the student in front of him or to the institution paying him to teach a course?

1) Agreed - any grade opportunity must be offered to all students, not just some
2) Agreed - extra credit can serve as a valuable incentive for participating in related outside activities, such as going to the tutoring center, attending office hours, etc. I've used it when I want students to bring in "realia" materials. They forget otherwise.
3) I LOVE the idea of "mastery" learning - allowing students multiple times to really get it right instead of just marking them wrong and moving on. However, that places a horrendous burden on the instructor to not grade just 30 assignments (assuming 30 students), but suddenly to grade 60 or 90 as students turn in draft after draft. In my experience, some students continue to miss the mark in new and creative ways each time. Do you give up when they've had 3 chances? Never give up on them and continue grading their revisions well into the next semester? What do you do with the honor's student who isn't happy with an A, but wants to revise for an A+? Advice for practical ways (institutional or instructor-level) to deal with mastery-based learning would be great topics for a future column!
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