Extra credit is unfair to students


The old joke goes like this:

Q: Why did the undergraduate cross the road?

A: Extra credit!

I’ve known scores of students who would work their butts off for five extra points when they wouldn’t work nearly as hard for a normal 100-point assignment. It’s disheartening to witness such irrational behavior. However, this isn’t why I don’t offer extra credit.

I don’t offer extra credit because it’s inherently unfair.

I treat my students professionally. I respect their time and I expect the same courtesy from my students. When professors decide on an extra credit assignment in the middle of the course, this looks to me like poor planning. Even if the possibility or certainty of extra credit is placed in the syllabus at the start of the semester, that doesn’t make it fair to everybody in the course.

Just because all students are given equal opportunities, doesn’t mean that they are being treated fairly.

When students sign up for our classes, they are expected to attend class at the scheduled times, and complete the studying and assignments outside of class, though not at any particular time because they have other courses, jobs, and private lives. The syllabus says what is in the class and why the class exists. If a professor adds additional stuff to the course, at some point through the semester, then this provides a disadvantage to the student who has more commitments outside of regular class hours.

Maybe there are some ways that extra credit is used that is fair to everyone. I can’t think of any. If there is a regular part of the course that is used for points above 100%, that’s not extra credit, that’s just spreadsheet voodoo. Extra credit, as I consider it, is when students are given a chance to earn extra points by doing some stuff that is outside the typical curriculum of a course, or is scheduled outside class hours, or is connected to performance on an assignment in the middle of the semester.

Let me address different reasons that people might use extra credit, and why I view these reasons as unjustified:

1. Extra credit is a carrot to get students to do favors for their institutions. The most common one that I’ve seen that students get extra credit for attending seminars by visiting speakers. This drummed-up audience prevents anybody from being embarrassed by paltry attendance. This practice is manipulative, and doesn’t show adequate respect for time of students. Moreover, because not everyone may have equal availability to earn such extra credit, this gives some students an opportunity to earn more points than other students. (Assigning written assignments to students who cannot attend an extracurricular event to earn extra credit is punitive.) If students need to attend seminars for their courses, then this needs to be built into the course and scheduled during class hours, or placed in the course description. It’s not right to reward the students who have enough spare time to attend events while others might be working or have other commitments.

2. Extra credit is an opportunity for students to earn additional points if their exam scores were particularly low. I have seen some professors give students extra work, including an opportunity to revise exams, in order to improve their scores on exams. If a professor doesn’t like the mean score on an exam, the proper course of action is to give everybody a boost. If most students in the class performed below expectations, then offering extra credit to everybody is relatively punitive to the students who did perform higher than their peers. Some students did better than other students on an exam for a reason. To respect all of your students, honor those reasons and look to the future when students tank an exam. (For edu-folks: exams are summative assessments. Keep it that way.) The only way students should have a chance to revise an assignment or exam for additional credit is if it was structured that way in the first place and the students were aware of this policy at the outset. Anything else is unfair to those who did their best at the start.

3. Extra credit is assigned to motivate students. If students aren’t working hard enough, and extra credit is the incentive, then I humbly suggest that there is a suite of pedagogical approaches that will increase student effort and engagement that don’t involve the inherent unfairness in extra credit. Extra credit encourages students to obsess over their scores rather than focus on the content of the course. If you have students jump through hoops to get a higher grade than they think they would otherwise be getting, then how does this help them learn?

4. Extra credit keeps students happier. I’m doubt this is true. Does extra credit help professors out by boosting their evaluations? I’m not aware of any evidence along these lines and my anecdotal observations suggest that some students are aware that extra credit is manipulative. Even if extra credit would pacify some otherwise unhappy students, priority should be placed on fairness.

5. Extra credit is assigned because the professor overestimated or underestimated the difficulty of the curriculum. If students are underperforming because the course was harder than the professor intended, then the scale should be shifted. If students are overperforming and extra credit is required to give students enough material for learning, then other curricular changes within the bounds of the course should be implemented.

6. Extra credit is assigned to engage students with the community. If student involvement in the community through some extracurricular activity (such as a beach cleanup, or volunteer tutoring at a local elementary school) is desired by the professor, then it should be built into the required curriculum. It’s acceptable to integrate service learning in all kinds of courses. If you don’t want to require it, but want to provide the option, then you could make this activity one of a variety of things that are worth equal required points, or you could offer the possibility without giving student an academic reward for extracurricular activities.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all in favor of an instructor calling an audible during the semester to change up all kinds of things. I often have a large amount of points to ‘homework and in class assignments.’ I often don’t know exactly what those are going to be when I start the semester. However, I’m not going to give extra points on top of those assignments. It’s simply unfair and doesn’t respect my students’ time.

When students come see me about extra credit during the semester, I explain that I don’t give extra credit because it’s unfair to students who have their time budgeted to other activities and to those who were able to perform well consistently throughout the semester. Nobody’s argued with any substance, other than, “Are you sure?” Yes, I am sure.

One strategic reason to be clear about not offering extra credit is that some students accustomed to the practice might not try hard to learn the course material in the first part of the course, hoping that extra credit might bail them out in the end. By not having extra credit, and making sure this is well known, then you might get a higher investment throughout the whole semester.

The professor-student relationship is structured by the power that the professor has over the student. By coming up with (seemingly) capricious ways to increase student scores throughout the semester, this looks like an abuse of that power to make things easier for the professor and (seemingly) harder on the students who don’t need the extra credit.

If you are providing a carrot to some students, then those who aren’t able to eat or fully digest the carrot will then see extra credit as a stick.  When I start my classes each semester, I tell my students: “The world isn’t fair. But in this classroom, I place a high value on endeavoring to be as fair as possible.” If I offered extra credit, then I’d be undermining that notion.

Many of my students work long hours outside of school, in addition to a full course load, and they also have families to care for. I’m not going to ask anything more of them other than what was in the course catalog and what I made very clear in the course syllabus. Even if I taught a bunch of students on a residential campus, who did not have major family obligations including a paying job, I still feel that extra credit would be an unprofessional manipulation that wouldn’t fairly treat those who did their best throughout the course.

22 thoughts on “Extra credit is unfair to students

  1. “If there is a regular part of the course that is used for points above 100%, that’s not extra credit, that’s just spreadsheet voodoo.”

    True, but it may not feel that way to the students. This sort of “extra credit” can serve some of the purposes you identify (e.g., as a motivator), even though it’s mathematically equivalent to a grading scheme in which there’s no extra credit. Framing effects can matter.

    Here’s an anecdote (not about extra credit) illustrating what I mean. At my undergraduate college, organic chem was a course everyone dreaded (probably the same is true at many places). It was really hard. Our exams consisted entirely of synthesis problems: give the series of reactions that you would use to convert some specified starting compound into some specified end product. Such problems are difficult because, in trying to solve them, you often hit dead ends. After a few steps, you need to remove a hydroxide group from a particular carbon atom or something, and you don’t know a reaction that will do it (either because you’ve forgotten it, or because there is no such reaction). So you have to backtrack and try to figure out a different route from starting compound to final product.

    So as a prof, how do you examine students on challenging material, without actually making the exam easy? That is, how do you set a challenging exam, without having the students *perceive* it as challenging? (I mean, without the students perceiving it as overly challenging, to the point where they’re intimidated and start to panic or whatever) My prof had a great solution, at least it worked for us. He allowed you to use one “miracle” per exam, without penalty. I think his inspiration may have been that famous Sydney Harris cartoon of a mathematician writing a complicated proof on a blackboard, where step 2 of the proof is “Then a miracle occurs”. If on an exam you ran into a sticking point–you needed to conduct a single chemical step such as removing a hydroxide group, but didn’t know a reaction that would do it–you were allowed to write “then a miracle occurs”, and continue with your synthesis.

    This had a big confidence-boosting effect for my classmates and I. “If I get stuck, I can just use my miracle!” Of course, we never thought about what might happen if we needed two miracles, or a whole bunch of miracles. That is, by allowing us one miracle per exam, the prof was making a challenging exam only very slightly less challenging–but to us it *felt* like he’d made the exam *much* less challenging. Indeed, I suspect we’d have felt that way even if we’d thought things through and realized that having a single miracle wasn’t actually going to make much of a difference to our performance on the exam. But if instead of allowing us a miracle, the prof had just said “I know you find this material very challenging, so to make you feel better I’m going to make the exam very slightly less challenging”, I doubt we’d have felt reassured at all.

    One can of course achieve a similar effect in other ways. Dropping each student’s worst mark from a series of assignments when calculating the final grade is a common one. It doesn’t actually make much difference if there are many assignments, but feels like it does. And of course, another is offering a bit of “extra credit” to anyone who wants it.

    All of this is kind of an aside to the main point of your post. I agree that it’s unfair to only offer extra credit to certain students and not to others, for any reason. Our university has rules against it, and I’m sure many other universities do too.

  2. Can you clarify one small thing Terry? You wrote: “Even if the possibility or certainty of extra credit is placed in the syllabus at the start of the semester, that doesn’t make it fair to everybody in the course.” You say that’s unfair because some students may have more out-of-class commitments than others (jobs, etc.), and so may not all be able to take advantage of opportunities for extra credit. But yet I’m guessing if some student came to you and said “I failed to turn in last week’s assignment because I was busy with work, can you give me an extension or just not include that assignment in my final grade?”, you’d say no. And not because you can’t verify the excuse, but because it would be unfair to the other students to accept that excuse. Everybody has out of class commitments. Everybody has other things going on their lives that affects their ability to complete the course, even if the course doesn’t include any “extra credit” in any form. But as a prof, you can’t equalize all that. All you can do is say on the syllabus, “Here’s what you’ll have to do in order to complete this course.” And then it’s up to the students to decide whether they can do what’s required.

    I guess I’m wondering if you could just clarify a little what you see as fair or unfair in terms of what allowances one makes or doesn’t make for the fact that some students have more out-of-class commitments than others. I’m curious what you think about this issue since lately it seems like the same issue has come up increasingly often in my own teaching. Purely anecdotally, it seems to be increasingly common for students to come to me asking for accommodations for out-of-class commitments. Not just asking for extra credit or extensions on assignments, but things like asking permission to skip or substitute for required courses.

  3. Though I recognize that my students often have important commitments outside their coursework, that doesn’t mean that I’m any less demanding in terms of effort. On average, I build a course expecting a minimum of 3 hours of work outside of class for every hour inside class. And I expect that as much for a full-time employed person with small kids as I do for a traditional student who lives in a dorm and has no job.

    I try to minimize students asking for these kinds of accommodations for three reasons. First of all, it doesn’t make my job easier to have to deal with these requests. Second, I’m not in a position to judge whether an accommodation is worthy, because I’m not going to work to verify claims and some students will be dishonest.

    Third – and this is the most important one to me – is that it is incredibly unfair because many of our students will never request an accommodation when they really, really need one and deserve one. Others will ask for them at the drop of a hat, but at my university it’s my experience that our students who are in the most challenging circumstances are very reluctant to be an imposition or to think that they are special enough to deserve a break. I had two students give birth during the semester a few years back, and they only missed one week of class — and didn’t even ask for any accommodation. I had another student whose parent suddenly died in a tragic accident, and I didn’t hear about it for a few weeks later when I asked the student if everything was okay. This student kept attending class the whole time!

    So I try to build the class so that there’s flexibility for everybody, and some people will have more need to use this flexibility than others. If the rules have inherent flexibility, then we don’t have to grant exceptions.

    I actually addressed this, in part, with my post on grading schemes earlier this week.

    If a student does has some conflict involving scheduling that seems legitimate to me, then I’m usually quick to grant some kind of accommodation. (I just try to prevent these requests from happening, for the reasons above.) That accommodation, though, will never result in less work for the student. I ask at the beginning of the semester if anybody has any plane tickets, weddings, or major travel scheduled that would require them to miss an exam listed on the syllabus. Nobody raises their hand, and then I can tell them now they know the exam dates and they should plan on not missing them.

    Years ago, I once had a student who told me that a friend out of the blue offered a free trip to China for 10 days with just a couple days notice. How awesome is that? This would involve missing the lab section that I was teaching, which included a lab exam worth 15% of the grade. Not so awesome? What did I do. I didn’t grant an exception, and asked her whether she thought a trip to China was more important than getting an A instead of a B in lab. Clearly, any reasonable person would prioritize the China trip, especially for an 20-year old who hasn’t travelled much. And that’s the call that she made. When she got back, I decided to drop her lowest score, which was a zero because she was in China. And then I dropped everyone else’s lowest score. From then on, I decided that everyone benefits when flexibility is built in so that attendance every single day is not a high stakes affair. I didn’t want to punish a student for taking advantage of what was an amazing opportunity for her, and I didn’t want to be unfair to the other students in the class who were not able to go to China and were just doing their work. So, everybody gets a freebie. You can spend it on a trip to China, on a ski trip, on a day at the beach, or on a personal tragedy, though I hope the latter never occurs. Of course, if you don’t need the freebie and you are able to take every test, then that’s a slight edge. But everyone is playing under the same rules and I think that’s as fair as possible that one can be, considering that people have unfair or unequal circumstances from the start of the class.

    For things like skipping or substituting prereqs, well, that decision should be purely academic. If it is a truly exigent circumstance about whether a person can graduate or not, and there’s a pesky useless class in the way, then that gets floated up to the chair, and I don’t have to deal with that. We can’t bend the rules too much for people with challenging personal stories, because that’s the case for so many of our students. And, that’s why the 6-year graduation rate for students who initially declare their major in biology is so low that I shouldn’t even write it here.

  4. Wow, you had me at ‘our university has rules against it.’ Really? That’s awesome! I’ve never heard of such a thing in any US university. I’m curious how widespread this is?!

  5. To clarify, they’re not rules specifically against extra credit. But we do have to specify in the syllabus exactly how the course mark will be determined. What the assignments are (e.g., how many labs, how many exams and when, how many quizzes, etc.), what each assignment is worth, etc. And how final numerical marks will be converted to letter grades (e.g., >90%=A, etc.) I believe we also have to specify things like “your lowest mark on the labs will be dropped”, etc. And the syllabus is regarded as a “binding contract” with the students (though of course I doubt you could actually sue a prof in civil court for breaking it). So it would be against the rules to offer a student, or even the entire class, an opportunity for extra credit that wasn’t in the syllabus, unless the whole class consented.

    I have no idea how common these sorts of rules are. But I’d be surprised if Calgary is unique in having rules obliging the syllabus to specify, in great detail, exactly how the course mark will be calculated.

  6. Thanks Terry, this clarifies things and it all seems perfectly reasonable to me. It’s more or less how I and probably many others operate.

  7. I’m used to people all over the place, in an ad-hoc fashion, saying, “I’ll give an extra five points to anybody who attends this seminar and signs the sign-in sheet” or “You all tanked this exam so I’ll give you the chance to correct your mistakes to make up half of the missing points.” This is the kind of stuff I’m talking about.

  8. Another problem I have with extra credit is when they ask for the credit after or at the end of the course. I’ve had some students drop/withdraw from my courses because they realized they weren’t going to get a grade they’d be happy with.
    Those students have left, there’s no opportunity for them to even address another student getting an extra credit assignment, or to do the assignment if it’s offered ‘to the whole class’.

  9. “Years ago, I once had a student who told me that a friend out of the blue offered a free trip to China for 10 days with just a couple days notice. How awesome is that? This would involve missing the lab section that I was teaching, which included a lab exam worth 15% of the grade. Not so awesome? What did I do. I didn’t grant an exception, and asked her whether she thought a trip to China was more important than getting an A instead of a B in lab. Clearly, any reasonable person would prioritize the China trip, especially for an 20-year old who hasn’t travelled much.”

    All I got to say is ouch. Due to my upbringing I, as a young’un, prioritized the educational institutes first. So in this instance I would have been willing to ask for an exception, but if denied I would have missed out on the trip. Of course I also needed an A average in my core classes to maintain my full scholarship, so that would definitely been part of it. But a bigger part is I was brought up to believe that nothing short of an A is acceptable. Heck I was grounded for an entire summer for getting a ‘C-‘ as a final grade once(in spelling, I really am poor at that. Thank goodness for computers and spell checkers. Now I just need a grammar checker :D).

  10. Great story I heard:

    Whenever a student would come to professor’s office to dispute / ask for a change in grade, first thing out of the prof’s mouth would be, “Did you do the extra credit assignments?”

    If the student said, “Yes,” the prof would say, “I am so sorry, but even with the EXTRA credit, you still didn’t cut it.”

    If the student said, “No,” the prof would say, “I am so sorry! Your fate was in your hands! IF ONLY you’d done the extra credit…”

    Heads I win, tails you lose. Extra credit is for suckers.

  11. Extra credit can also be really frustrating to students who are doing well in the class. I once finished a course with 125% (all of the extra credit was on quizzes and tests). But I had the same grade as people who’d just gotten 90%. Later on, I was competing with those students for departmental scholarships on the basis of our grades.

  12. Yeah…college was hard enough for me, for various reasons, that I was generally quite happy with a B. But pre-college, I was brought up to believe that if I didn’t get As I was failing. I was the kid who went home with a 97% average in 5th grade math and had my mom demand to know what kind of careless slacker I was being when out of her sight that I could possibly have managed to lose three points off my average. If I had gone to a gentler college and/or not run into chronic health issues, that sort of expectation might well have stayed – as it was, even when I was struggling to pass (and eventually had a breakdown one semester), I kept being told that I was perfectly smart enough to get straight As and was only struggling so much because I was a lazy spoiled rich kid who didn’t value my education.

    If, as an undergrad, I’d been offered a trip to China in the middle of the semester and it would have meant losing 15% of my grade in a class, there’s no way I would have taken it. It would have killed my family relationships – been a major blow to my already-rocky-by-that-point relationship with my mom (which, FWIW, was repaired as soon as I graduated) and she probably would have driven my dad up the wall trying to get him to take her side against me. She would likely have pulled her contribution to my tuition and living expenses. There were many, many people at my college who had similar family situations, some in worse situations (my sophomore year, a freshman on my hall tried to kill herself because of parental anger about her grades, and I knew a few people who were actually disowned by parents who were unhappy about their academic performance).

    I like the flexibility-for-everybody policy better.🙂 It seems pretty fair.

  13. In high school, I took all opportunities for extra credit which I was able to do. Even if I was an A student it was a hedge against some potential failure going forward. In college, no extra credit was really given except in the form of an additional question on an exam which didn’t count against you if you were wrong, but was a hedge for an earlier test trangression. That seemed fair, as it was all based on the same material presented and studied, but was challenging nevertheless.

    What wasn’t fair in college was even though there wasn’t technically extra credit involved in outside of class activities, those students who attended such things regularly seemed to get other opportunities given to them by profs which were not presented to the class as a whole that I was not able to take advantage of. I was lucky to be able to be in class at all due to work obligations I needed to have to attend college in the first place.

  14. Hi Mark,
    I think some people might consider “extra credit as a carrot” to be a good thing, i.e. a wise idea. Some instructors I know basically “bin” students based on whether they are motivated or not. Then they think they can supply an external motivator and manipulate those people for their own good. People have told me that manipulation is basically their job.

  15. I use a student response system (Top Hat) that allows me to present pop quiz items as I lecture. Each question is worth 2 extra credit points, one for a response, another for the correct answer. I usually present a few questions each lecture, and I provide immediate feedback about the correct answer. Since the “extra credit” is available to all in attendance, I don’t think that this approach is inherently unfair. At the end of the semester, I generate an index based on two factors: percent correct and percent of questions answered. Thus if a student answers 80% of the questions and gets 80% correct, the index would be 0.8 X 0.8 = o.64. Accordingly, the number of extra credit points added would be 64% of some fixed value, say 50 points. I would then add these 32 points to whatever the total number of points they had otherwise earned. Any thoughts on this approach, as fair or not? I can say that the attention to what is being discussed is much keener, in part because students realize that a pop quiz item may be just around the corner. The immediate feedback from students also allows me to redirect the lecture if a goodly number of students miss a question. I’ve had numerous teachable moments when only a few students got an answer right!

  16. I’m not sure if you’re asking about the point of my comment, or the point of the post.

    The point of my comment in response to your comment, is that what you describe is not extra credit. If it’s available to all students, during normal class time, that’s just regular points. If you wish you can call it “extra credit” and give it extra point value over what you set as the maximum number of points for the course. But doing that is just funny math, so that a student can earn more than 100% I don’t care whether anybody’s scale goes over 100% or not.

    The point of the post is that extra credit (as defined in the post) is unfair. Extra credit is “when students are given a chance to earn extra points by doing some stuff that is outside the typical curriculum of a course, or is scheduled outside class hours, or is connected to performance on an assignment in the middle of the semester.” That provides unequal access to opportunities to students and that is unfair. That is the point of the post.

    If you just want to give students quizzes in class and make them happier about it by calling it extra credit when everybody does it as a part of the regular course, then that’s cool with me.

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