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Last week, when I returned the latest batch of assignments in a short story class, the inevitable happened. A student approached me and asked, “Can I do extra credit?”

This request flummoxes me more than it should. It’s not that uncommon these days, and on the surface it sounds reasonable. Given the confines of the course, why not push the boundaries and go deeper or broader? Do something extra special!

Of course, that’s almost never the underlying impulse, as any educator knows. As we discussed extra credit—which is to say, as I tried to explain why that wasn’t an option in this class—the true motive emerged: I’m not happy with my grade, and this will improve it.

A host of issues clouds the subject of extra credit, but let me begin with what I remember when I was a student. Once upon a time, the students who wanted extra credit were overachievers, an annoying term levied on excellent students. They engaged with the material and wanted to show that they were capable of something more. Given the chance, they pursued special projects, did independent research or took the initiative in some other way. One extra-credit essay I recall from a literature survey took three of the authors we were studying, absorbed their writing styles and engaged them in dialogue. How do I know this? The teacher was so impressed, she had the student read part of it in class.

But the students who ask for extra credit now don’t seem the type for intellectual inquiry, at least not judging from those I’ve dealt with. They’re students who aren’t doing as well as they’d like, trying to make up for their performance by doing other assignments. They assume they’ll do well on them, or at least get an E for Effort.

From the teacher’s perspective, here’s where the feelings of guilt start. How can I deprive these students of the chance to excel? They’re actually asking to do more work! They want redemption. And I can assuage both my guilt and their anxiety over grades just by assigning some extra work.

Any student who does work beyond the course requirements should be rewarded, right? But suppose the student doesn’t do well on the extra assignment. Should that grade count? Yet no one’s thinking that way. The extra credit the student demanded—it was more than asking—was to revise her essays for a better grade. That’s not what she said, of course.

“I just want a chance to improve my writing.”

“But one of the assignments is a revision of your work. We went over this in the syllabus the first day.”

“Just one?”

“I’d prefer you to apply what you learned from one piece of writing to what you write next.”

“But we should be able to revise anything we hand in.”

“Actually, you can. I told you that I’d be happy to look at anything else you revised and discuss it with you. Just not for a grade.”

That didn’t sit well. This pedagogical offer, which may involve far more work on my part, rarely gets taken up. Some educators have argued well for not giving grades at all, and if we did that, I’ll bet that requests for extra credit would disappear off the face of the earth.

“If we’re willing to work harder, that’s good, right?”

“Sure, but then why don’t you work more on the assignments you do have?”

That didn’t sit well, either.

We went round and round on the subject of extra credit. It was commendable, she argued. It showed initiative.

A high school memory floated up of a popular biology teacher who gave extra credit for answering baseball trivia questions at the end of his tests.

I also recalled an incredulous rejoinder from an overworked adjunct instructor constantly beleaguered by students: “Extra credit? You didn’t even make regular credit!”

I told the student that I’d ask other teachers whether they gave extra credit and what their rationales were. Then I’d get back to her with the results. As it turned out, some teachers will give it to students who score below a certain level. Or they may offer a do-over for one assignment, and students who want to take advantage of that option can.

But as many teachers have observed, when an extra-credit option is available, not all the students are up for it. In fact, to offer extra credit is elitist in a class where some students with jobs or family commitments are doing all they can just to get through the required material. Those who can afford to take the extra time will get the credit; those hard-pressed will not.

In the end, I told the student that I didn’t think it was fair to offer extra credit but that we could meet to go over her work in close detail—where and how she might improve—so that she’d do better on her next piece of writing. She took me up on my offer, and both of us thought it really helped. The next piece she wrote was markedly better.

I have to give her credit for that.

David Galef is a professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University.

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