Extra Credit Is Not Really Extra

Wayne Stauffer explains why he believes it's all about students' misplaced desire for choice.

January 16, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Komarova Anastasiia

I don’t offer students extra credit. I say that in the syllabus and in my online course orientation. As a writing instructor, I typically have 700-plus essays to evaluate every semester, so I have plenty to do already. But I only recently figured out the recurring request for extra credit, especially at the end of the semester.

I’m sure you’ve heard it, too: Student A comes to me after class (or in my office or emails me) and acknowledges a missing assignment (or more). They then ask if they can do any extra credit to make up for the zero(s) because I don’t accept assignments after the due date.

I point out, first of all, that if Student A had completed the original assignments and submitted them, they’d have no need for extra credit. Then I remind them that I noted in the syllabus and online that I do not offer extra-credit options.

I primarily teach first-year composition. So far, I’ve thought such a request to be simply a holdover from junior high or high school, where extra credit is ubiquitous -- handed out like Halloween candy. Show up at the doorstep and you, too, may have some … just because. But I now think it’s much more than arrested development.

Here is the epiphany: the “extra credit” is not really “extra.” The request for extra credit is the students’ way of trying to assert choice over the assignments. They want to choose an alternative.

Student A is saying, in effect, “I didn’t do that assignment because I don't really like that assignment. What other choices are there?” “Can I do another assignment instead?” Or, “That assignment sounds too hard. I’d like another, not as hard.”

The fact is, Student A did not complete the assignment in the first place because they didn’t “like” it or didn’t “feel like” doing it. The request for extra credit is a way of saying, “I'd like to substitute an easier task for the harder one I chose not to do.” Then, as the numbers start to shake out closer to the end of the semester, they realize that the missing assignment(s) will result in a failing score (or one that won’t transfer), and the request becomes more urgent. (And yes, I know about all of the circumstances outside students’ control that could be the reason they didn’t submit the assignment on time. I earned my degrees, too.)

In our consumer society, we have far too many choices. Think of the number of cable/satellite TV providers (and the multiple channel listings each has), cellphone companies (and the variety of plans and hardware each offers), restaurants (and various menu items at each), automobile manufacturers (and the different models and option packages for each), consumer electronics manufacturers, insurance companies (and the different plans each offers) and so on. If I don’t like one of those, I can choose a different one that is more to my liking. When it no longer pleases me, I can choose a different one that does. This almost endless buffet of choices conditions us to look for them in every aspect of life.

Don’t misunderstand me: I love the variety of consumer product choices we have. I think it’s great.

But too many students bring this subtext thinking to college course work: “I pay my tuition, so I should have a say in what I have to do to get the credit.” But a college education does not work that way. Or does it? Colleges offer so many options, with full-semester, second-start, eight-week, five-week, mini-term and online courses. And each course is offered at multiple time slots, all days of the week and evenings. And there are different professors from which to choose.

Students are so conditioned to this variety of choices, even with their courses, that they assume that it also applies to the assignment listing. They think that they may pick and choose which assignment combination they will complete in exchange for course credit. (And many students shop syllabi and browse RateMyProfessor for the “right” professor who does not require too many, too hard, assignments.) Many professors also offer several choices within a small limit. And, yes, some offer extra credit. So we even enable this thinking.

Subconsciously (or maybe not so subconsciously), students resist the list of assignments they must complete to earn credit for the course because I’ve given them only one set: write just these six essays at an acceptable level, and you’ll earn credit for the course. Many don’t like to write, so they want an alternative that they hope is not as challenging as the assignment itself (or that involves writing). To return to the Halloween motif, they’re like the junior high and high school kids who show up not dressed in any costume and then express outrage when you do not give them any candy. They want the goodies without making any effort.

I know other professors have their sensible rationales for offering extra credit, and I have no quarrel with how they want to work the assignments for their classes. But I don’t apologize for not offering extra credit and never have. I already have more than enough to read and evaluate. Why should I want to accept even more to do because students cannot be troubled to do the work they’re assigned?

Now that I understand what is going on, however, I may add a version of this internet meme explanation to my orientation at the beginning of the semester in hopes of calibrating my students’ expectations for the new term and my course. This note is alleged in the meme to have been posted on a professor’s office door:

The grading period ends the day of the final exam.

No, you cannot do extra credit to bring up your grade.

If your grade is so low that you need help, it is most likely because you have chosen to do little to no work this semester, in which case, history tells me that, even if I did give you an assignment for “replacement credit,” you probably would not do it anyway.

Do us both a favor …

Remember how disappointed and upset you feel right now. Take a moment and really let it sink in. Every time you fail to turn in an assignment in the new semester, think of how you feel right now and know that, if you continue to make the decisions that have led you to this moment, you will be facing down this sign again.

What can you do to bring your grade up?

Maybe you should start with your work … when it is assigned.

Bio

Wayne Stauffer is an English professor at Houston Community College. He teaches zombie essay-hunting skills to his composition students.

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