Years ago, if colleagues asked if I offered extra credit, my responses were some version of “Absolutely not, never, and anyway it’s fake; it’s like grading on a curve; this is college, not high school; let the students do the real work; and furthermore, why do we need to create extra work for ourselves?”
Fast-forward, and I have changed my mind. I regularly offer opportunities for extra credit. On the surface, it almost feels embarrassing to admit.
In fact, when former students who have stayed in touch with me all these years have gotten wind of this, they are in disbelief. They also can’t believe that I give review sheets for exams complete with sample questions that I copy and paste into the actual exam. They are amazed, because they were able to work hard and succeed even without what appears to be handouts and freebies. And perhaps they have rightfully come to believe that others should be able to do so, as well.
In some ways, I feel like a sellout -- as if I have caved to some of the nonsense and charade that is so embedded in higher education that we can barely recognize it as such anymore. Yet I find consolation in the fact that, over 21 years of teaching, students have routinely told me that my classes are some of the most intellectually rigorous and emotionally demanding courses offered at any of the universities where I’ve taught.
Understandably, professors are all over the map on the issue of extra credit. A seemingly small matter like extra credit is likely to remain a big controversy among educators, so the more ideas and approaches for handling it, the better. Here, I address the reasons to support the offering of extra credit as well as some ways that we can create parameters for extra credit that enable us to continue to uphold high standards.
Showing Up Is Not Enough
A friend refers to extra credit opportunities as extra enrichment, and I concur with this. I see it as a way to contribute to expanding students’ curiosity and cultural capital while exposing them to the joys and rewards of lifelong learning. For example, I periodically encourage students to attend and write about special events happening on the campus -- such as activities sponsored by the Sociology Club, which I advise, or a Gender Bender Series that I coordinate with a colleague in anthropology. During such events, we showcase speakers, poetry readings, films and panels that focus attention on an interesting topic related to sociology and gender studies. In other words, these events are relevant to what students are learning in my course and expand upon classroom discussions.
The problem is that it seems too many professors stop there and award points for attendance or even transfer the burden to other faculty and staff members involved in hosting such events by asking them to circulate and collect attendance sheets. In my mind, just showing up is not enough. Extra credit should be about more than sitting in the back of the room and scrolling on a cellphone. In my syllabus, I explain that to earn extra credit, students must not only attend the event but they must also write a two-page analytical reflection paper connecting what they learned at the event to their class materials. And I have strict rules for both how they must complete these assignments and the deadlines they must adhere to.
Some professors argue that offering extra credit is likely to reinforce students’ laziness and belief that whatever they miss they can make up. Those who do not endorse extra credit also tend to assume that the students most likely to ask for it tend to be those who aren’t working very hard in the first place. I used to believe all that, too.
But, since deciding to offer extra credit opportunities, I have encountered the opposite. Often the very best students, who do not really need the additional points, are the ones most likely to attend extra credit events. The other group of students most likely to complete extra credit assignments is already doing above average but not superior work in my class; they’re the ones who show at every turn the willingness and earnestness to improve. Other students -- usually the more mediocre to poor ones -- attend events and simply neglect to follow the instructions of submitting the follow-up paper. That is the other reason I do not think simple attendance is enough to warrant additional points.
In reality, I find that very few people actually do the work for the extra credit that I offer. In any given semester, with about 110 to 120 students taking my courses, only 15 to 20 people may attend an event for the purpose of extra credit, and as few as five of them go on to write the paper.
To earn extra credit in my classes, students must formulate a thesis statement about what they want to focus on. They must also present a brief summary of the central points from the event. Then they need to think of specific and vivid stories and perspectives that emerged in the session that were meaningful. They must identify connections that they were able to make between the event and aspects of our class, such as lecture material, discussions, readings and classroom guest speakers and films. I also ask that they address the relevance that the event had for them personally and to demonstrate what was the most powerful and memorable aspect of it that they experienced. And I ask them what discussion, if any, they initiated with others after the event and how that impacted them. Lastly, I ask that they reflect on any ways in which the event could have been improved.
A Gesture of Good Faith
Each extra credit assignment gives students the opportunity to earn five points, but if they do not write a strong enough paper, they cannot earn all five points. And yes, at times, I have even assigned no points. I also take the liberty to assign points beyond five if the paper is exceptional.
By handling extra credit this way, I see it as a gesture of good faith. It’s a way of communicating to students that I want them to do well and have cultivated various conditions to make that possible beyond the regular assignments -- and, simultaneously, that I am holding them accountable. Students who take advantage of these opportunities tend to see both the value and meaning of the event they attended and the value added to their final grade. At a campus with fewer regular evening activities that are intellectually stimulating, and at one that is more remote and rural, students who attend these say it helps them to feel more a part of the campus community and connects them in important ways to their peers, professors and other resources for their professional and personal growth.
An interesting issue about extra credit is that some people attend an event and consciously decide not to write about it. After listening to speakers on domestic violence and rape, several students have told me that they feel uncomfortable earning any points for writing about those experiences based on someone else’s pain. Recently, I invited students to accompany me to a film on meditation that was part of a special screening off campus. My best-performing student in that class attended, loved it and chose not to do the paper. She was there for her own curiosity and the enrichment it provided.
As a scholar of gender, I see extra credit as interestingly gendered. Again and again, it is by and large women students who take the most advantage of any extra credit opportunities I offer. That is not simply because more college students are female than male. Even in my classes with the greatest gender balance, this is the case. Perhaps it is because male students might feel more confident, or even entitled, about their grades over all, particularly with female professors. Some are also less apt to keep planners and log events on their calendars. I find that when they do attend, they are less likely to submit the required accompanying paper that would earn the extra credit.
Inevitably, certain students will still complain about how I’ve structured extra credit. At the end of every term, a few will email me or come to my office begging and pleading for any last-minute attempts to salvage their grades. That is a good time to ask them why they chose to skip the extra credit opportunities that had already been offered during the semester. It’s also a chance to demonstrate to students that I have done my part to meet them halfway and that the rest is their responsibility.
That said, I have often been perplexed by students who are very attentive to extra credit pursuits yet do not come for help for papers and tests that they have bombed, or focus more energy on five points of extra credit than a much larger project. I use this as a time to remind them about priorities and energy. And the thing is this: extra credit is not necessary. It is simply an extra gift, a token, a gesture, a possibility.