The case for extra credit at the college level

In discussions of pedagogical practices at the university level the issue of extra credit can be a contentious one. Sooner or later one is bound to hear some stern-toned iteration of the statement “I don’t believe in extra credit.” Somehow this statement has always brought to my mind the mental image of a puffed-up politician, declaring his intention to be “tough on crime” once he assumes office. One is never really sure about the specifics of what he means, but could still be moved to rally behind him by the sheer force of confidence with which he expresses his “tough” (i.e. anti-“soft”) stance. But even if the anti-extra credit statement is issued in one such self-assured tone, accompanied by a hostile, arms-crossed posture, it would be unfair to dismiss some of the anti-extra credit camp’s arguments. We should expect our students to work hard, do their best, behave professionally, and not try to invoke the pity of professors to make up for their own mistakes. They are in training to be career-holding adults after all, and the so-called real world is a difficult place. What we shouldn’t do, though, is let our fear of being or appearing “soft” make us expect our students to be just like us.

Some of the students who come to us will be just like us. As a self-professed nerd I like to say to my family and to others outside the academy, as a way of explaining what the culture of the academy is like, that you could think of most academics as the nerdiest of the nerds you knew in high school. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way. Academics love learning. We work hard to pay attention to what our mentors have to say, we constantly seek out new information, strive to be as productive as possible, and consider self-improvement a favorite pastime. Many of our students share these traits and, as a member of the human species, it’s natural to feel greater affinity for those most like us.

But many of our students won’t be like us. Many take our classes only because they have to, are much more interested in the college party scene than productivity, and genuinely believe other aspects of life should come before learning. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to instill the qualities of responsibility, attentiveness, and accountability in our students that we know they’ll need as they move forward in life. Of course we should. We should demand they achieve a certain level of proficiency in the content and methodology of our given fields as well. But since one of our basic responsibilities as educators is to ensure we serve all of our students, we must strive to move beyond our natural-born affinity for students like us and recognize the different interests, goals, backgrounds, and challenges our students come to us with. Consider some of the below recent data.

[R]ich kids without a college degree are 2.5 times more likely to end up rich than poor kids who graduate from college.

[O]nly 34 percent of high-achieving, low-income [what I like to call our “walk on water”] students attend a selective college versus 78 percent for high-achieving, high-income students.

The average Black student attends a school where the percentage of low-income students is 59 percent. The average White student attends a school where the percentage of low-income students is 32 percent.

The average high school graduation rate for Black students is 62 percent, compared to 81 percent for White students.

Low-income students are less likely to graduate from high school than more affluent students, less likely to enroll in college after high school and less likely to graduate from college after enrolling. Only about 1 out of 10 Americans whose parents were in the lowest income quartile held four-year college degrees by age 24 in 2011; the comparable share for people from the highest quartile was about 7 in 10.

Just 29 percent of the poorest students ever enroll, and only 9 percent ever finish.

These are just a few examples of the challenges and realities our students face. Yes, some students might choose to use extra credit to pad their already amazing midterm score, or, as an excuse not to study as hard for the final exam. But extra credit can also provide disadvantaged students the opportunity to repair the damage that late-night family emergency did to their attendance score, give them some breathing room for those two part-time jobs they have to work after they leave your class, or let them know you recognize that it might have been difficult for them to pay attention to your lecture while their brother, mother, or aunt is struggling with substance addiction. Maybe students with an anxiety disorder will take advantage of your extra credit to show you that although their disorder often inhibits them from speaking up a lot in class discussions, they really can work hard and are just as intelligent as their peers.

Perhaps you won’t decide to offer extra credit to your students for any of these reasons but instead as an acknowledgement that you, as their instructor, don’t always communicate everything perfectly, that you sometimes make mistakes, have bad days, and get distracted too. Awareness and recognition of your students as people who are often much different from you won’t make you “soft.” It will make you a better educator. When thinking about how to best serve your students consider the case for extra credit carefully.

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