October 19, 2007

Do I get Extra Credit for this?

Like Ricki, I HATE that phrase. Hate it.

But EVERY student, without exception, seems to utter it at one point or another during the semester. And they'll go the extra mile to get it, too. Troy University Professor Richard Scott Nokes writes:

Why is it that students who wouldn't scratch their bottoms to get a final exam grade will do anything for extra credit? Last week, I had midterm exams, and many students put, at the most, an hour's worth of effort into the take-home project (worth 25% of their grade). This week I gave an opportunity for extra credit, worth only a tiny fraction of the midterm, and the students are meeting after class and going to the Writing Center to work on it. Maybe I should start calling my regular assignments "extra credit."(h/t Prof. Taylor)
I feel your pain, sir. My subject is biology, not medieval literature, but the students approach is EXACTLY the same.  They'll spend HOURS collaborating on a tiny piece of crap that is worth maybe 1-2% of their grade (if I'm feeling charitable), but brush off the actual studying.  Which is, you know, the basis of 100% of their grade.

Interested, I decided to see if anyone has written a scholarly article on extra credit, and the psychology behind why students prefer it over just doing their work.  A quick google search turned up page after page of syllabi with possible extra credit assignments from psychology classes at universities all over the country.

There are only a few articles looking at extra credit, and those look at it as a motivating factor, not why it is preferred.

(I put the rest of what turns out to be a longer piece than I had planned to write below the jump!)

I think students prefer extra credit for one simple reason:  They can't lose.  That is, if they do the work, they will either turn it in and be ahead a few points, or not behind at all.  They see no penalty to losing points on an extra credit assignment, because lost points don't count against them the way they would for a traditional assignment.  For example, if I give an exam worth 100 points, and a student scores 98/ 100, the student feels like he/she has "lost" 2 points from their grade.  If I give an extra credit assignment worth 5 points, and the student earns 3, he/she doesn't mourn the 2 points lost, but rather celebrates the 3 points "gained".

What students don't seem to realize is that even if they "win" a few extra points doing an "extra credit" assignment, it isn't enough to cover the potential shortfall of "losing" MANY points by doing the EC instead of whatever the syllabus SAYS they are responsible for.  Which includes making time to read and study.

I don't generally give extra credit, and when I do, it's only available to students who have demonstrated an ability to be responsible and do the work I've asked them to do, even if they haven't done it well.

I mean, it's hard enough to get a kid to think critically and explain that life isn't fair, and yes, they need to work harder.  If I help them out with a pile of extra credit, they're just going to drown all that much faster at the next level.  Which is Medical School for many of my students.

I like to use the analogy of the express train with them:  The train leaves the station at the appointed time and arrives on time.  It does not stop in between.  You have to ride along or jump off. The train can't wait for you to catch up.  If you can't keep up, you better jump off, get it together, and wait for the next one.  Rest assured the "Med School" train runs faster than the one I'm driving.

I tell them, "You'll be surprised just how many of your "crises" you can cover for if you feel like you have to."  And, "You make the choice, you set the priorities.  You.  Not me."  And, "Figure it out.  Intellectual laziness is no excuse.  What if I asked you to come up and teach the class?  You'd have to learn it well, then, huh?"

My best student is a full time student, but she also works and she has a two year old daughter.  I am constantly amazed by her.  Sure, she's bright, but I've seen her work, I've seen her study.  She prioritizes and puts in the time.  She does the work.  No excuses. And she hasn't yet asked me for extra credit.

We talk a LOT in my class about the metacognition of learning, ways that people learn and motivations for studying.  We also talk about test-taking, and how to figure out what are the MOST important nuggets of information.  We probably spend TOO much time talking about these things.  But I want them to get a sense of what they're doing and why, what's really important to know cold, and what you can look up later.  How to think about new information being presented to them.  This is a generation (5-10 years younger than me!) with no metacognitive skills or insight about learning whatsoever.  They know the buzzwords ("But I don't know what type of learner I am") but they lack the ability to apply that knowledge to their own lives.

I had a student look me in the face yesterday and say, "Hey!  I get it.  We're doing these labs to reinforce what we learned in class.  It's the same information".

This is in week 8 of a 15 week semester, folks.

It was all I could do to be encouraging and not laugh in his face.  He's a bright guy.  He just doesn't have the tools to THINK about what he's doing.

Interacting with my students makes me reflect on my own path.  Twelve years of study in my field isn't what makes these things easier for me than for them.  A lot of what I'm teaching this semester (fossils, protists, cellular respiration) are things I don't know much about, and in fact many are concepts I learned just to teach them.  Sometimes, I only really "get it" as I am in the middle of the class, trying to explain it to the students.  What makes it easier for me is that somewhere along the line I learned HOW to think about what I'm studying, how to organize that information into important and unimportant, and my students just don't seem to have those tools.  I try to model my own thinking and learning, but they can't see what I'm trying to do.

It's incredibly frustrating.

Now, before you start wondering what this has to do with extra credit, I think that their lack of cognitive and meta-cognitive skills also pushes them towards extra credit, which is supposed to be "easy", right?  Studying is hard.  Learning how to think a different way is harder still, and by comparison, "extra credit" is a walk in the park.

As instructors, we get to go to all of these "professional development" seminars. We sit around for days and discuss learning theory and pedagogy and all this other jargon crap which really boils down to: How do we get the little trolls to learn?  And of course, the answer is "You just make them".  Which is increasingly difficult in these days of entitlement and reduced consequences.

So we give them extra credit to make up for their shortcomings, and our own guilt and frustration.

Posted by caltechgirl at October 19, 2007 12:05 PM | TrackBack


I have happened by your site once or twice before but have never commented.
I am an undergraduate student, majoring in Political Science. I earned my A.A. in June and have since transfered to my current university, where I will earn my degree next November.
While I love extra credit, I look at it as a last resort. But I think your theory is right for most of my peers. I try not to look at it that way. When I was a sophomore, I took a class within my major, that should have been an easy A. I had a terrible test day on the mid term and while I earned full credit on all the subsequent assignments I earned a B. The professor, a retired Air Force Lt. Col., was surprised I had not asked for extra credit. It was my fault I did poorly on the mid term, not his. I did not understand why. Now I do.

Posted by: Archerychic at October 19, 2007 01:16 PM

You are so right about kids not 'thinking'. Even though I'm at the elementary end of the spectrum, I see the danger of the increased push for standardized testing and ONLY standardized testing as a means of recognizing gains. Kids are being taught to regurgitate facts without any semblance of understanding.

Posted by: Mrs. Who at October 19, 2007 02:39 PM

I think the "not knowing how to think" point is correct and quite brilliant. I wonder of some of the resistance to things like timed-testing in math (I remember doing timed tests for things like the multiplication table when I was a kid - they were stressful but you learned your stuff) and homework, and what is sometimes sneered as as "drill and kill" is coming from people who don't comprehend that work done outside of class reinforces what's learned in class.

You know, maybe I need to talk to my students about thinking and the importance of thinking about what you are learning. I kind of took it for granted that they understood that, but I guess now they don't.

I don't offer extra credit. Once in a while, if, as I'm writing an exam, I come up with a question that's really good but I know only 10% or so of the class would get, I put it on there as "extra credit" - it's a reward for the people who are paying attention and making connections that the average student isn't; it's not a way for someone who's slacked to salvage their grade. Once in a while in my gen. bio. class I announce a "homework amnesty" where I will allow people to complete and hand in any homework that they missed doing earlier. That's as close I as come to "extra credit" - giving them a chance to redeem themselves on the actual assignments. (And you'd think the people with Ds would jump at that chance. Nope, it's usually the A and B students who were maybe sick for one of the homework assignments who jump to do it and who thank me for the opportunity.)

Posted by: ricki at October 20, 2007 05:51 AM

One of my favorite lines was when a classmate asked if there would be extra credit available the professor respond, "You should really be focused on getting your regualr credit done."

Posted by: the Pirate at October 21, 2007 12:46 PM

I had a professor one time who, when asked for extra credit by someone in the class actually assigned a 2 page essay for five points. Needless to say, I don't think many people ended up turning it in since the work was not worth the reward. I don't think anyone asked for extra credit again after that.

Posted by: Carmen at October 22, 2007 07:23 AM