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As a high school and college history teacher for 35 years, I have come to value extra credit as an effective tool in my “teaching resource kit.” Here's why, explained by how I use it.

Each student is given the option of completing one or more extra-credit assignments during the semester or quarter to improve his or her grade. The reasons are:

  1. Any student, even the best, can have an “off” day. This gives students the opportunity to make up for such a day.
  2. A student who has an interest in a particular topic should have the opportunity to pursue that interest and receive some credit for the effort.
  3. A student's style of learning may not match the teacher's style of teaching. Extra credit allows a student the option of narrowing that gap by focusing the project on the student's learning style.

I have seen some remarkable projects that resulted when a student was encouraged to follow an interest. Student interest has added depth to topics that we touched on only briefly in class. One of my students researched the life of Saint Patrick of Ireland, came to class dressed as him, and did a PowerPoint presentation about him.

Another student created a PowerPoint presentation on the Children's Crusade. Another student read A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca and wrote a brief skit based on part of the book. She involved other class members in presenting her skit to the class. They designed and built a model castle, cooked and staged a typical English medieval meal for class, and built a full-size working crossbow, along with models of several other medieval instruments of warfare.

Of course, there have been a number of “normal” projects, such as producing a paper on a topic of interest, reading a book and writing a report, or watching a history DVD and writing a summary and reaction. I have developed a cache of potential projects I can share when a student asks for ideas. I start by probing for students' interests before making suggestions.

Currently I am the librarian and history teacher for a nursing school. Nursing students can be extremely intense about their grades. Some are willing to argue at great length to gain a point missed on a quiz or assignment. I have used the extra-credit option on several occasions to defuse potentially explosive situations. The extra-credit option also provides a response to the student complaining because the final grade was a B+ not an A.

The following extra-credit rules provide guidance for the student and protection for me:

  1. All extra credit must be arranged with the teacher in advance. This allows me to visit with students about individual areas of interest, guide them to meaningful projects, and establish the value of those projects and a reasonable time line for their completion.
  2. A limited number of points are available through extra credit. Extra credit cannot raise a student's grade more than half a letter. For example: a C could come up to a B-, but a C could not be raised to an A with extra credit.
  3. Extra credit cannot be used to raise a failing grade to passing. A student must be putting in the effort to at least pass the course before extra credit becomes an option.
  4. No extra credit can be earned the last full week of the quarter. I do not want a bunch of students madly scrambling for extra credit at the end of the quarter. They must plan a little in advance.

Relatively few students take advantage of the extra-credit option, but those who do are enriched by the effort, and their work benefits the class. Four of 16 students completed extra-credit projects in my most recent section of Western Civilization: The Early Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. This extra-credit system does involve extra work for the teacher. I have to meet with students, be involved in developing their projects, and then grade them when they're completed. Even so, I am convinced that an extra-credit option such as this is worth the effort. I encourage you to consider adding it to your teaching tool kit.

Contact Bruce McClay at Bruce.McClay@wallawalla.edu.