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Revisiting Extra Credit Policies

For Those Who Teach

Revisiting Extra Credit Policies

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I remember being surprised when I first read the results of a survey on extra credit published some years ago in Teaching of Psychology. Almost 20% of the 145 faculty (across disciplines) reported that they never offered extra credit and another 50% said they offered it only under exceptional circumstances. The two most common reasons for not giving extra credit were that it encouraged lax, irresponsible student attitudes and it was unfair to offer it to select students (say those doing poorly). I also think it is avoided because it means more work for faculty and most of us already have more of that than we can handle.

The question of giving students an extra chance is, like most pedagogical issues, less cut and dried than it might first seem. If the second chance is designed so that it represents a robust learning opportunity, if its completion means that a student who hasn’t mastered the material finally does and if learning is our ultimate goal, then complete opposition to second chances or extra credit seems less defensible.

We also should be called to take a second look by some of the creatively designed strategies teachers use to give students a second chance. They are far removed from the ubiquitous worksheet that can be dashed off with little cerebral effort. For example, I was re-reading an article I haven’t read for sometime and had forgotten that it contained what the author calls a “second chance exam.”

Here’s how it works. The instructor attaches a blank piece of paper to the back of every exam. Students may write on that sheet any exam questions they couldn’t answer or weren’t sure they answered correctly. Students then take this piece of paper with them and look up the correct answers. They can use any resource at their disposal short of asking the instructor. At the start of the next class session, they turn in their set of corrected answers which the instructor re-attaches to their original exam. Both sets of answers are graded. If students missed the question on the exam but answered it correctly on the attached sheet, half the credit lost for the wrong answer is recovered.

The benefits of this strategy? Students reported that they thought they learned more having to look up answers rather than just being told the answers during the debrief. They also reported that the strategy reduced exam-related stress. The teacher felt the strategy put students at a higher cognitive level. They had to think about the question, determine an answer and then decide whether or not they had answered the question correctly.

Does a strategy like this contribute to lax student attitudes? They still suffer consequences if they don’t know something. They have a fairly short timeframe to track down the correct answers. And it isn’t a strategy offered to some students and not to others.

There is no question that students are hungry for extra credit. Often they seem more motivated to do the extra credit than the original assignment. Is that because they think extra credit is easier? Or, does the motivation derive from not having done as well as they expected on an assignment? It could be the latter. A few years back, someone wrote an article for The Teaching Professor which described a kind of insurance policy extra credit assignment. Completing sets of extra homework problems was optional, but if students turned them in on the designated date, points awarded for the problem sets could be applied to a subsequent exam. Surprisingly, only a few students took advantage of this “insurance” option.

I’m kind of left thinking that student attitudes about extra credit (which we probably have to admit derive from previous extra credit experiences) are not the best, and I’m not sure we help them learn when we succumb to what they want. But I also believe there are some viable ways to offer students a second chance and some legitimate reasons for doing so.

References: 
Norcross, J. C., Harrick’s, L. J. and Stevenson, J. F. (1989). Of barfights and gadflies: Attitudes and practices concerning extra credit in college courses. Teaching of Psychology, 16 (4), 199-203.

Deter, L. (2003). Incorporating student centered learning techniques into an introductory plant identification course. NACTA Journal, (June), 47-52.

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