Extra credit question: What’s wrong with extra credit?

Extra creditSo I read a blog post today that railed against the horror of offering students extra credit:

Few things agitate me more than a student who asks for extra credit either in lieu of the learning activities provided at a time or to just boost a grade.

School is about learning NOT points or even credits that don’t equate to any real value.

Pace Starr Sackstein’s experience, but her arguments strike me as harmfully idealistic and dangerously dogmatic.

We need to help students shift their thinking away from straight grades and points and think more about their learning and achievement in terms of what they know and what they can do. If we think this way, “extra credit” becomes obsolete.

Most of my experience in the classroom is in newsroom training, where “what they know and what they can do” is the only measure; I never handed out grades. And, yes, in my college classroom, I wanted my students to focus on learning, not numbers. However, I teach in the real world. Until students don’t need certain grades to advance in their majors, until they don’t come to my class with a lifetime of expectations built around grades, I will provide some form of extra credit. It is not conducive to learning when students halfway or three-quarters of the way through a course realize that they’re falling short of their grade goal and can’t do anything about it.

Why provide extra work in lieu of work that was never completed – it can’t be extra if there is missing work that was valuable to begin with.

In my years in newsrooms, I knew a lot of folks who had given no thought at all to retirement, or to what they could do if their jobs didn’t last to retirement. This was true even among business reporters. We’re human; the future seems too far away to worry about. For students, that unforeseeable future starts about three or four days away. When I was preparing to teach my first college class, more experienced teachers warned me that no matter how sternly I worded my syllabus and how loudly I preached on the first day of class, students would not believe I really meant it when I said I expected them to attend class, to turn in all assignments on time, and so on. Those wiser heads were right.

I was not a patsy; I largely enforced the rules I set. But that included refusing to accept assignments if they were turned in late, and refusing to allow tests to be made up after my deadline. It seems too starchy, though, to insist that the blunders students make in the first weeks of a class must haunt them throughout.

Does that mean I’m allowing them to not learn certain things? In my class, each week built on the previous one. If the students really failed to learn an early element, it would weigh on each succeeding assignment and extra credit wouldn’t be enough to save them. But their grade was made up of assignments and tests given through the semester. If they stumbled early but caught up, extra credit gave them a way to make up for their initial slowness.

What is the metamessage in how we value learning if we are willing to degrade the level of achievement to worksheets and extra homework or projects that don’t push the boundaries of learning?

I sniff a straw man burning. Who says extra credit has to be unchallenging? My assignments were designed to make the students demonstrate that they had caught up with the required learning. Getting points for doing extra credit wasn’t automatic; I graded those assignments as hard as any others.

Truthfully, I also used “extra credit” in other ways, based on advice received. Small helpings were offered for certain assignments turned in early. I know of at least one colleague who hands out points to those who show up for class on a day when most others ditch. Is this corrupting the educational process? Didn’t feel that way to me.

Do grading systems corrupt education? Yes, I think so. Sackstein’s correct that what matters is only what students learn, and grades are a very imperfect measure of that. But if teachers want to change the grading system, they won’t do it by discommoding students, but by discommoding administrators.

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