Why I Offer Extra Credit and the Guidelines That Govern Its Use

Credit: iStock.com/Tuncay GÜNDOĞDU
Credit: iStock.com/Tuncay GÜNDOĞDU
I’d like to begin with the main reason I offer extra credit. I offer it because I am an imperfect grader when it comes to assessing what is impossible to grade.

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I’d like to begin with the main reason I offer extra credit. I offer it because I am an imperfect grader when it comes to assessing what is impossible to grade.

My academic discipline is organizational behavior (OB). Essentially, OB is the psychology of work, except I am a “wannabe psychologist” who teaches a research methods course in a college of business. One of the difficulties with research in the behavioral sciences is measuring “constructs,” that is, concepts that don’t physically exist but are used to explain phenomena. Job satisfaction is a great example. We use it to explain certain behaviors, even though we can’t smell, touch, or otherwise directly sense what we’re calling job satisfaction. We generally measure job satisfaction with “paper and pencil” tests that ask respondents to indicate their level of agreement with statements about their job. These are contaminated measures because job satisfaction is not the only thing that affects one’s answers on a job satisfaction survey. Distractions, poor lighting, mood, concerns about anonymity, and countless other factors can all contaminate survey answers.

Learning (or “knowledge” or “understanding”, etc.) is also a construct. Since it is a construct, we’ll never get a perfect measure of how much our students learn. Maybe you have a student who has worked hard reviewing notes, rehearsing practice problems, and discussing the material in teams and really does know the material. But the contaminants prevent demonstrations of that knowledge—she has a migraine, he is distracted by the ill health of his partner, you gave poor directions on the assignment. As a result, the student fails to display a full understanding of the material.

While I pride myself on giving fairly accurate grades, it is only because I take special care to reduce all the contaminants that I can. But it’s an imperfect process, and some, often many, contaminants are beyond my control. As a result, a student may get a grade higher or lower than is warranted. I don’t really know which, so I humbly give them the opportunity to make up (through extra credit) points that they may have missed due to poor measurement.

I’m with my students: I like extra credit. Yes, I’ve heard the arguments against it, but I believe extra credit can be designed in ways that overcome most of the negatives. Here are the guidelines I follow. I think they provide a persuasive rationale for extra credit.

I believe these methods make grades fairer and help overcome some of the perceived problems of extra credit.

Gary Stark, PhD, is a professor of management at Northern Michigan University. He has served in NMU’s Center for Teaching and Learning as the university’s teaching and learning scholar and serves as OB1 (vice president) of the Management & Organizational Behavior Teaching Society.

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