Should I have extra credit in my course?

Having worked with a number of learning management systems, I found that one the biggest complaints from faculty to vendors is the lack of a a good mechanism to consider extra credit items in final grades.  I think this is probably more of a pedagogical issue than a technical one. Those wanting to use extra credit should first of all examine the purpose of having extra credit assessment activities. It will help to ask questions like:

  1. Do I want everyone to participate in this activity?
  2. What message am I sending to students by having extra credit items?
  3. Have I included statements in the syllabus about how extra credit items will affect their final grade?
  4. Will extra credit items affect participation in regular graded activities?
  5. Am I confusing my students?
  6. Am I confusing myself?

I can think of the following scenarios of having extra credit.  I have also included some recommendations.  Please add as needed.

  1. Extra credit item that should have been a regular grade item: If the assessment activity is something that you would want all students to participate, then make it a regular item, assign weight to it and hold everyone to the same expectation.  If you would like to add items “on-the-fly” without having informed students earlier in the semester, you do not have to use the extra credit method to include some items and exclude others.  That would cause confusion easily, when students compare what your syllabus has said and what you actually have in the course. It is better to create clear categories and add items to the categories.  Assignment groups and weighted grading allow an uncertain number of items in a category, leaving room for changes in your assessment while not confusing anybody. You could choose to drop some lower grades for a category.  Doing so makes more sense mathematically than having extra credit which may or may not count towards the final grade.
  2. Extra credit for extra work: If the purpose is to motivate students to do more than what the course requires at a minimum, I would add a category for extra credit (make it worth 0% if you use weighted grading) to distinguish it from regular grading categories. Then create extra credit columns for this category and mute them.  This will prevent students from seeing the extra grades.  Enter any possible extra credit grades as needed.   While muted, these grades will not be seen by students, but they will see that the columns and an extra credit category exist, which may motivate them to do extra work if interested.  Having them muted also reduce confusion for students as extra credit items will not be calculated until after they are unmuted.  You use the unmuted grades to adjust final grade as needed (see “4. Extra credit for grade adjustment” below).   Explain to students about this arrangement so that they know exactly what they are getting.  In the meantime, rather telling students extra effort yields extra grades, it is a better idea to hold everyone to the same high expectation of their work.
  3. Extra credit for differentiated assignment: If you would like to have options for the same assignment, but allow different kind of products/submissions, consider changing the assignment.  You can use the same assignment entry to grade a variety of artifacts.  We call this “free-range assignment”.   Check this paper Jennifer Shewmaker, Scott Self and Berlin Fang wrote on the  topic.
  4. Extra credit for grade adjustment:  If the purpose is only to give grace to students, to adjust scores for borderline cases (for instance, someone is only 1 point away from an A, for a course with a total point of 1000), calculate extra credit items only towards the end of the semester.  Otherwise there might be situations in which students feel they have earned enough grades through extra credit arrangements that they will not put in effort for their work towards the end of the semester.  That could adversely affect their motivation in the learning process.

In any of the cases above, it is unnecessary to find ways to factor extra credit into total grades, as that will make it a required normal grade item/category, which defeats the the purpose of having optional, extra credit items.

We would welcome your thoughts on the issue.

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