Answering the Objections to Extra Credit

Credit: iStock.com/PeskyMonkey
Credit: iStock.com/PeskyMonkey
Where do you stand on extra credit? All but one of the more than 20 faculty who shared their views with us endorsed it. By contrast, in a 1989 survey of faculty across a range of disciplines, only 28 percent believed that extra credit should be offered routinely (Norcross et al., 1989). In a follow-up survey, extra credit was only offered in 13 percent of the courses (Norcross et al., 1993). In a different survey of psychology faculty, 18 percent reported never using extra credit and 67 percent said they offered it in some courses (Hill et al., 1993). More recently, 67 percent of over 300 sociology faculty reported offering it at least once within the past two years (Izienicki & Setchfield, 2019). But there’s still not enough research to establish that beliefs about extra credit have changed across a broad range of disciplines.

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Where do you stand on extra credit? All but one of the more than 20 faculty who shared their views with us endorsed it. By contrast, in a 1989 survey of faculty across a range of disciplines, only 28 percent believed that extra credit should be offered routinely (Norcross et al., 1989). In a follow-up survey, extra credit was only offered in 13 percent of the courses (Norcross et al., 1993). In a different survey of psychology faculty, 18 percent reported never using extra credit and 67 percent said they offered it in some courses (Hill et al., 1993). More recently, 67 percent of over 300 sociology faculty reported offering it at least once within the past two years (Izienicki & Setchfield, 2019). But there’s still not enough research to establish that beliefs about extra credit have changed across a broad range of disciplines.

Of interest to us was the significant number of our contributors who noted they had changed their minds—gone from being against extra credit to offering it. Most reported starting careers opposing extra credit. Robert Olinger (Management, Drake University, Iowa) says that as a new adjunct professor, his perspective was that “a student should do high-quality work the first time instead of doing more mediocre work to raise the grade.” With more experience, however, he has developed a perspective on using extra credit to improve learning. Robert Fulton (History, Emmanuel College, Georgia) describes the transition that occurred during his career:

In my teaching career I have observed the entire gamut of the “extra credit” perspective, from the #neverextracredit movement (note: not a real movement) to the prodigious lavishing of extra credit to the point where it overwhelms the underlying assignments. I have been guilty of the latter, throwing out “awards” daily to an extent which surprised even me. Through painful and personal experience, I have learned to be judicious and purposeful in my use of extra credit assignments and awards.

So far there’s been no research exploration of whether this change of mind is representative of the experience of most, many, or only a few faculty.

It is clear that opinions about extra credit tend to fall in either the for or against category. Those who responded to our call with views and sample assignments made the case for a carefully designed kind of extra credit that constructively responds to the usual objections raised by faculty opposed to extra credit. What they propose articulates a nuanced position, as their responses to these objections show.

Objection 1: College students shouldn’t need extra credit. Our respondents do not support extra credit for everyone. They suggest that it’s appropriate for some students, in some kinds of programs, and at some kinds of institutions—specifically, adults, in applied programs, and at community colleges. Suzi McKeen’s (Reading and Writing Center Coordinator, Wor-Wic Community College, Maryland) comment illustrates this perspective:

I still believe that the traditional notion of “extra credit” has no place in a college-level class. Students at this level should be encouraged and expected to do all the work necessary to complete their chosen program of study. But given the often complicated lives of students who attend my community college, it seems fair to provide them opportunities to make sure they are learning and mastering the skills and knowledge they need to successful in their future careers.

Saadiqa Khan (Head of Department, General Education, Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies, Trinidad) explains that the students in her college’s programs are mostly essential service employees—police and healthcare and public utilities workers:

I often employ extra credit as a part of my assessments. Initially, it largely took the form of “insurance”: in the event they were unable to complete the required coursework assignments, the extra credit assignments would serve as a substitute for them. During the lockdown period for the pandemic, my extra credit assignments allowed these same students, especially the healthcare and security workers, to continue their studies even as their professional commitments increased tenfold.

This targeted use of extra credit merits attention even though it hasn’t yet received any in the literature. It does raise some interesting questions: Might it be more appropriate in courses at, say, the beginning of a college experience? Does it make sense in some kinds of applied programs but not in others? Does it make a difference whether students are trying to work education into already full and complicated lives? Do extra credit opportunities build the confidence of those students who are terribly anxious about their ability to succeed in college courses?

Objection 2: Extra credit encourages students to expend less effort on the required assignments because they can make up missed points by doing extra credit.

Objection 3: Extra credit motivates students for wrong or not very good reasons. Pynes (2014) asserts, “The vast majority of students want extra credit opportunities for one reason: to improve their grades” (p. 193). A small study offers a concrete example. Half the students said they did the quizzes as a means to raise their grades; the quizzes could earn them up to 21 points in a 350-point course. Only 3 percent said they did the quizzes because they helped prepare them for the exam, despite the fact the quiz scores were strong predictors of exam performance above and beyond gender, GPA, and ACT scores (Padilla-Walker et al., 2005).

Objection 4: Extra credit is a bailout for students who didn’t apply themselves during the course. “Why would a professor want to give extra credit work to a student who has failed to demonstrate an ability to do the originally assigned work?” (Pynes, 2014, p. 206).

Objections 2–4 are not the same, but they all grow out what students believe about extra credit. Our respondents answer the three objections with policies and extra credit assignments that clarify the goals and objectives of extra credit and in some cases redefine it. Here’s Erin Laverick’s (English, Concordia University, Michigan) extra credit policy: “I will not offer you extra credit. However, if you are willing to attend class and work hard, then I will offer you opportunities to relearn course content and revise assignments.” If it takes “multiple learning attempts” to master the content or write a paper, Laverick is willing to provide extra opportunities subscribing to the old adage “practice makes perfect.” Robin Field (English, King’s College, Pennsylvania) writes about extra credit as extra learning and believes that “extra credit is an opportunity for extra learning that benefits students far beyond any boost to their grade.” And Janelle Lorenzen (Math, Southeastern Louisiana University) defines extra credit as “careful reflection, error analysis and corrections of previously submitted work.”

Beyond such clarifications, policy adjustments can overcome these objections. Several examples in our sample assignment collection make extra credit available only if all the assignments required so far in the course have been completed.

Objection 5: Extra credit opportunities are not always equally available to all students. Our respondents agree. To be legitimate, extra credit should be possible for every student to accomplish. For example, if it’s credit for attending an event with the opportunity to ask questions and meet and interact with the presenter, a recorded version of the event does not provide an equal experience. Janelle Lorenzen provides another example: “Assigning a challenging bonus question on an exam tends to benefit students who already have a firm understanding of course material.”

Objection 6: Too often extra credit is easy busywork. This weakness can be overcome by connecting extra credit with course goals, a link repeatedly proposed by those who shared their views with us. Wren Mills (Organizational Leadership, Western Kentucky University) writes, “I have always been supportive of offering students a chance at extra credit as long as it remains aligned with a course’s learning objectives rather than just a ‘here’s proof that I attended something’ assignment." The collection of extra credit assignments published previously illustrate how extra credit can be used to accomplish course goals like; more and better content mastery, course enrichment, assignment revision, and the development of learning skills.

Our contributors infrequently mentioned the three most common uses of extra credit identified in the sociology faculty survey: (1) attending a designated event and preparing a summary of it, (2) correctly answering optional exam questions, and (3) participating as a research subject (Izienicki & Setchfield, 2019). Psychology faculty (Hill et al., 1993) rated how often they used, the educational value of and the accessibility of 39 different extra credit options. Participation in a research study topped that usage list, but overall responses indicated use of a wide variety of options.

Objection 7: Why bother? The students who do extra credit are the ones who don’t need to. There’s some research that supports this objection. In one study students were asked on the first day of class whether they would take advantage of an extra credit opportunity. Eighty-one percent said yes, but fewer than one-fourth submitted one or both of the extra credit assignments. Moreover, the students who completed the extra credit “were more likely to attend class, attend optional help sessions, and earned higher grades than other students, even when the points earned for extra-credit were excluded from the calculations of grades” (Moore, 2005, p. 12). In another study where students could earn extra credit for participating in research studies, only 38 percent of 193 students took advantage of the opportunity (Padilla-Walker et al., 2005).

The objection is the same one made about faculty who attend teaching workshops: they aren’t the ones who need to be there. But if good teachers are made even better by participating in workshops and good students learn more by doing extra credit, does the failure of other teachers and students to avail themselves of these opportunities justify denying it to those who do benefit?

Objection 8: Extra credit contributes to the grade inflation problem. This objection is also easily overcome if the options are limited and don’t count for a large portion of the course grade. Kristie Guffey (Agriculture, Murray State University, Kentucky) has three rules of thumb for extra credit: (1) it’s fair, (2) it aligns with course objectives, and (3) the points offered are less than 5 percent of the overall grade.

Objection 9: Faculty use extra credit for self-serving reasons. Anne Tumbarello (Nursing, Molloy College, New York) supports this objection:

In my twenty years of teaching, I have observed peers use extra credit to incentivize students to complete course evaluations, raise poor test scores, or assist with rounding up a grade. In my opinion, these actions are not sound educational practices. Often, I find them to be motivated by a faculty member’s desire to be liked, or to avoid student disappointment or anger with a grade they earned. It takes courage to be an educator!

Is needing a good response rate on end-of-course evaluations justification for incentivizing their completion with extra credit? If a teacher makes changes based on course-rating feedback, then future students benefit, but what’s the value for students who’ve just completed the course? Are students being offered extra credit to participate in a research study because the teacher needs research subjects or because participating offers students an educational benefit related to the mastery of course content?

Objection 10: Extra credit means extra work for the teacher. Yes, it does, but none of our respondents mentioned this as a concern. It’s a reason that may be salient to some faculty but probably not to those who’ve opted for extra credit. Teachers tend to be used to extra work.

References

Hill, G., IV, Palladino, J., & Eison, J. (1993). Blood, sweat, and trivia: Faculty rating of extra-credit opportunities. Teaching of Psychology, 20(4), 209–213. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top2004_2

Izienicki, H., & Setchfield, S. (2019). Extra credit in the sociology classroom. Teaching of Sociology, 47(1), 32–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X18801908 [open access]

Moore, R. (2005). Who does extra-credit work in introductory science courses? Journal of College Science Teaching, 34(7), 12–15.

Norcross, J. C., Dooley, H. S., & Stevenson, J. F. (1993). Faculty use and justification of extra credit: No middle ground? Teaching of Psychology, 20(4), 240–242. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top2004_13

Norcross, J. C., Horrocks, L. J., & Stevenson, J. F. (1989). Of barfights and gadflies: Attitudes and practices concerning extra credit in college courses. Teaching of Psychology, 16(4), 199–203. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top1604_7

Padilla-Walker, L. M., Thompson, R. A., Zamboanga, B. L., & Schmersal, L. A. (2005). Extra credit as incentive for voluntary research participation. Teaching of Psychology, 32(3), 150–153. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top3203_2

Pynes, C. A. (2014). Seven arguments against extra credit. Teaching Philosophy, 37(2), 191–214. https://doi.org/10.5840/teachphil20144414


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