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Exploring Extra Credit

Extra credit can be an overused classroom tool. As a learner, I always viewed extra credit as teachers bribing students to work for points instead

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Introducing Our Series on Extra Credit

Kara Coleman’s article below opens our series on extra credit with a set of criteria for assessing extra credit activities and assignments. She applies those criteria to the scenarios we shared when we asked for your views on extra credit. On October 12, we’ll follow with a collection of extra credit assignments you submitted; they’re varied and all applicable across a wide range of disciplines. Rather than pitting pro and con arguments against each other, our third piece in the series (October 19) uses our readers’ responses to answer the most common objections to extra credit. Those who submitted views and sample assignments were all, save one, in favor of extra credit—but those who submitted advocate for extra credit with clearly designed purposes and features. Gary Stark’s article (October 26) concludes the series and lays out a set of guidelines that avoid the pitfalls of extra credit.

—Maryellen Weimer

Extra credit can be an overused classroom tool. As a learner, I always viewed extra credit as teachers bribing students to work for points instead of cash. And as a new teacher, I thought the same and acted accordingly. We've all done it! You need something from your class—a survey to be completed, an event to be attended. Or maybe the students underperformed on the midterm, and you’re looking for ways to boost their grades. In all these scenarios, the go-to method seems to be offering extra credit. But is incentivized manipulation the intended purpose of extra credit?

Based on the name, extra credit means students receiving additional points for doing something extra, but what qualifies as extra? Extra implies going above and beyond expected proficiencies related to the course. I’d like to offer a quick checklist of requirements that can be used to qualify a task as extra credit.

Let’s take a look at scenarios shared in the call for views on extra credit and evaluate the appropriateness of the assignment or activity using these criteria.

Scenario 1: Two faculty members, one on the tenure track and the other with a renewable contract, are concerned about the low response rates for online end-of-course evaluations. They’ve decided to tell their students that everyone will get five extra credit points if 75 percent of the class completes the course evaluation.

I have done this in several of my classes. For tenure, especially, the metrics and response rates can be critical. Feedback is also invaluable for continuous course development. And the reality is that most students aren’t interested in completing the evaluations without an incentive. Offering evaluation completion as extra credit can be effective. But how does it measure up to the four requirements? The course evaluation is course related and inclusive. Everyone has the option of evaluating the course. Providing feedback serves the student body as a whole. The instructor can use the evaluations to improve the courses which benefits present and future students. But there is no demonstration of elevated learning. A student does not have to be proficient in the course material to fill out a course evaluation.

As an alternative, instead of offering extra credit for completing the evaluation, an instructor could reserve the last 15 minutes of a session for students to complete it, provided that everyone has a phone or access to another electronic device they can use to complete the evaluation. Response rates do improve when students are given course time to complete evaluations, and that can be provided in online courses as well.

Scenario 2: At a commuter campus in a large metropolitan area where most of the students enrolled are working adults, a faculty member's syllabus lists 10 on-campus events scheduled throughout the course. Students may attend up to three, writing a page-long summary of each, and get enough extra credit points to boost their course grade by 5 percent.

Promoting attendance and engagement on campus is essential to building a dynamic and connected student community. For working adults, however, making these events mandatory could conflict with other obligations and priorities. Assuming the events can be appropriately linked to the course and materials are free and open to students, this extra credit opportunity is course related, inclusive, and beyond the call of duty. The instructor should evaluate all events to ensure that they are student serving, providing a meaningful experience to students, and the modality or delivery method promotes inclusivity.

Scenario 3: A faculty member lets students earn extra credit that can proactively be applied to their exam scores. Students write five multiple choice questions and three short answer questions. They must correctly answer each question on submission two days before the exam. Each student can receive up to 10 extra credit points based on the appropriateness of their questions and the quality of their answers. The exam is worth 100 points.

This assignment is course related, inclusive, and student serving. The questions students create must be appropriate and related to the course. Writing exam questions can help students think critically about the course material presented and therefore aid in their development as learners. Each student has the opportunity and ability to submit the eight questions and answers.

The instructor must define quality for students, though. If quality reflects the demonstration of elevated learning, say questions that require critical thinking, this extra credit assignment fits all the necessary requirements. The instructor may need to provide instruction on how to write these questions and share some sample questions that meet the quality standard.

An alternative would be to require all students to come up with the questions mentioned above as part of their base exam grade (10 out of 100 points). This way, the instructor could award extra points only to those questions worthy of being on the actual exam. The instructor could even choose to use some of them on the following exam.

Scenario 4: A faculty member is involved in a research project exploring student study habits in required courses. For a small amount of extra credit, students may complete the 20-question online survey being used in the study. After completing the survey, students are given information on evidence-based study habits along with recommendations for their use.

It is essential to determine the relevance of the research project to the course. Study habits can apply to all content areas, but the connection should be explicit. This assignment also seems instructor serving, which could be inappropriate for extra credit. While this scenario is course related and inclusive, it lacks the necessary requirements of being student serving and demonstrating a student's ability beyond the call of duty. Instructors can certainly ask students to participate in research projects, but that becomes a worthwhile activity when there’s learning potential for students.

To offer extra credit for completing this survey, the instructor could create a multistep assignment where filling out the survey is the first step to understanding students’ study habits. Students could be required to research and develop a study plan, implement it, and assess its effectiveness. All parts of the assignments would then earn them extra credit.

Kara Coleman, MBA, CPA, is an assistant professor of business administration at Mount Mary University, where she teaches accounting and finance courses to undergraduate and graduate students. She is also working on her PhD in urban education at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, studying the unique challenges people of color face in academia. Her research involves exploring the ways educational institutions open and close pathways for marginalized students pursuing business degrees.

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