About Sarah Sorge

A high school science teacher, Sarah Sorge has taught in private, charter, and public schools in grades 7-12. Her areas of interest include neuroscience, education, and problem-based science instruction. Recently, Sarah was awarded the distinction of New York State Master Teacher.

The Conundrum of Extra CreditEvery classroom teacher has encountered the inevitable question from a student or parent, “Do you offer extra credit?”  The reasons can be myriad:  the student was out of school due to illness and his/her grades suffered for it.  The parents may want the student to gain additional mastery of the material.  More often than not, I encounter requests for extra credit from a student who is in one of two positions:  1) he/she is failing despite putting forth effort and is desperate to yank up the course grade, or 2) the student did not do much or any work during the marking period and he/she is making a last-ditch effort to try and pass.  What is a teacher to do?

Thankfully, my school has an absolute no extra credit rule; the most I can give is a bonus question or two on a test and some teachers utilize homework passes if a student receives a certain benchmark grade on a test.  However, to say that the teacher has to assign additional work for additional credit upon request is written down in the student and parent handbook as a black-and-white “no.”  This was not a unilateral decision made by administration; instead, the faculty convened as a group during one of our meetings and decided this as a group.  Administration supported this decision for several reasons, and while I agree with it wholeheartedly this article is not a persuasive essay on the bane of extra credit.  Instead, I intend on outlining the pro’s and con’s of this educational option in the event that a teacher reading this has the singular choice on what to do in the classroom regarding his/her policy on extra credit.  Ask any teacher and each will have their own opinions regarding extra credit and what this reflects on the student.

All teachers have clearly been on the other side of the “big desk” as students, therefore each of us has at one time or another asked for extra credit, or at least participated in such an opportunity.  I remember one particular extra credit opportunity I took advantage of in grade school in which I used clay to create the types of Roman columns and explain their origins.  It was fun, but I truly did not need the extra points on my grade.  I would imagine that you could remember a particular extra credit incident (paper mache volcanoes included), and it some cases it might have saved you from an otherwise failing grade.  However, should it be something you offer given the choice?

Let’s take a moment and look at the positives of extra credit.  First, it motivates students to handle new knowledge on their own terms.  We have heard of differentiated instruction, but admittedly we have to forgo that concept in order to place more emphasis on standardized test preparation.  However, extra credit opportunities offer students the chance to tackle new material or synthesize multiple concepts in creative ways.  For some students, this may be the best way to “show what you know” outside of a test placed on their desks.  This can ultimately help bolster poor test scores and provide some students with specials needs or test anxieties a sort of saving grace.  If executed properly, some students will learn far more from extra credit and show greater content mastery than a momentary test.  Everyone can have a bad test day; therefore many teachers feel extra credit opportunities are a fair way to allow students the chance to make up for a poor grade.  Ultimately, some teachers claim that extra credit boosts a student’s self-confidence and work ethic since they are able to show off their work to peers.  The student has the chance to shine as a ‘master’ of their own topics and ideas.  There are many times students can and will surprise their teachers with passion, ingenuity, and creativity within the context of extra credit.  It can be a motivating factor for students who would otherwise not be willing to try.

On the flip side of the coin, extra credit can be a major hassle to the teacher who has to grade it.  Think of it this way: say you have a class of thirty students and you offer an extra credit assignment because many of them did poorly on a test.  You feel it would be beneficial to assess their mastery in a reasonably creative way without necessarily retesting the material.  This sounds like a wonderful idea in theory, but how can you know for certain that a student did the work on their own and it was not done by a peer or a parent?  Some teachers will say, “I will only allow the student to work on it during class, then.”  I would argue at that point that you are losing instruction time for new material and, for all intents and purposes, you will need to purchase the materials for the assignment since you cannot count on the student bringing materials from home to complete it.  Teachers who live in high poverty areas can attest that sometimes it is difficult enough to have students come in with the bare essentials for class let alone ask parents to buy poster-board and glue to make an extra credit project.  Beyond the material needs, extra credit is often a privilege that can be abused.  For example, there are students who will put forth minimal effort during the marking period and then ultimately take advantage of extra credit opportunities their teachers provide in order to bring their grades up.  Is this an accurate reflection of scholastic mastery, or of scholastic desperation? Also, extra credit work can keep a child from focusing on current work and instead focus their energy on extraneous assignments.

Even if my school did not outright ban extra credit, I would personally not offer it in my classroom aside from the occasional questions on tests and quizzes that students can take advantage of in the moment, if they so choose.  I have had several parents and students ask me if extra credit was offered; unfortunately the majority of the time it was because a student did not do well during the marking period and was facing a poor grade on his/her report card.  It was more disappointing, in one particular instance, that the student only wanted to do extra credit in order to bring his grade up so he could play a sport he loved that spring.  I have also had to turn away students who were academically struggling despite their best efforts and all they needed was the little extra nudge an extra credit project or report would provide.  I had to turn them away per school policy, but I did not see the fairness or justice for that student.

In the end, many teachers are stuck with the conundrum of whether extra credit should be offered or not, and it’s up to the school or the teacher as to what that answer would be.  What have you decided?  I would love to hear feedback and thoughts in the comments.

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