7 February 2013

Extra credit

Posted by Callan Bentley

A quick poll: What do you think of extra credit as an option in teaching?

I’m in the beginning stages of designing an online course, and because of inter-campus politics at NOVA, I’ll be co-designing it with a team of four other people, three of whom I know pretty well and totally respect. Still: one big philosophical distinction that we’re going to have to discuss is the question of whether the course will have any extra credit options. I’ve found that many of my colleagues at NOVA offer extra credit to their students as an incentive to go to seminars, or stuff like that. Students seem to expect that if their grade isn’t where they want it to be, they can just do some extra credit to top the cumulative point value off to whatever level they desire. This expectation is pervasive enough that at the end of ever semester, I can expect a flurry of requests for extra credit assignments, particularly after the final exam scores had come back.

I’m philosophically opposed to extra credit. I feel that it undermines the strength of the course of learning that I’ve designed for them. Why bother learning the material, if you can just throw in a weekend of paper-writing effort at semester’s end? I state my objection boldly on my syllabus, and emphasize it on Day 1:

Extra credit?
No: there is none. Ever. Don’t ask. Especially don’t ask at the end of the semester, after the final exam when you don’t get the score you were hoping for. The plan of action here is to follow the course of study I have organized for you. Follow it well, and to the best of your ability. The score you earn will determine your grade, and that’s that. No exceptions, no matter how deserving the individual’s situation, no matter how important it is to your future plans. To do otherwise would be academically dishonest: every student can expect to be treated by the same set of rules. If you want to get a good grade in Physical Geology, you will have to demonstrate that you have learned a lot of Physical Geology: there is no other route to success in this course!

But not everyone feels this way. Plenty of talented educators do allow it, even encourage it. You may, and for very good reasons. Or you may be a student who values it for some reason other than gross point accrual. I’ve yet to discuss the issue with my collaborator colleagues.

What do you think?