Do you give extra credit in your classes? It should stretch your students.

don't feed the monkeysMy students want extra credit projects. But they also worry that if I offer them they become required. What to do? I think extra credit should be available because it takes advantage of a different kind of student energy. But these projects should truly be extra. This means you should add these points to the grades obtained by regular projects. Do you worry about grade inflation? I don’t. I would love to give all high grades because my students had worked and worked until they deserved them.

Currently I give extra credit for two things: attending a departmental seminar, or other seminar on a topic in the general area of the course, and writing a Wikipedia entry on a female scientist in the area of the course. She should not currently have an entry, or not have a comprehensive entry. I’m about to add another possibility for extra credit: participating in a citizen science project.

To get credit for attending a seminar the student has to write up a brief commentary that gives the speaker’s name, the title of the talk, and its date, place, and time. Then the student should give the main thesis of the talk. The student should say what she did and did not like about the talk content and presentation style. This is due within two days of the talk.

DSC06015Wikipedia articles can be brief, but they should capture the main contributions of the person. Students can look at biographies for living people for examples. These sites are often easily entered by looking at the professor’s web page. It is also a good idea to contact them after you put a draft up, so you can change anything that is inaccurate. It is a way of making a contact with a professor.

I don’t know how many citizen science projects would work. My students could certainly put up bird feeders and start watching them for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. But the project that caught my attention was one on an invasive camel cricket that asks for photographs of the critters in your basement in a specific form. I don’t know if this is feasible, but I bet most students have access to basements. I think they want to know even if there are no crickets.

What all of these assignments have in common is that they are entirely different from things the students do in class. Furthermore, they are all activities that the students could continue after the class ends. I know nearly all of them will only do this for the extra credit. But it might appeal to someone. It might open up learning avenues that are new to them. It will stretch them. They might get in the habit of the extra activity since it is tied to things outside the class. They might even learn some more animal behavior in the process.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Teaching, The joy of teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Do you give extra credit in your classes? It should stretch your students.

  1. I’m on the thoughtful extra credit bandwagon as well. I offer extra credit for developing outreach materials (for instance, a pamphlet, a webpage) that communicates one of the topics of the course to a target audience. I teach on the Evolution of Infectious Diseases, and I’ve had some fantastic and creative projects returned to me. One student portrayed the evolution of antibiotic resistance through intermediate resistance states with the story of the three little pigs (intended as a comic in a parenting magazine). Another encouraged college students to get vaccinated against influenza every year, because of antigenic drift, with a picture of our football team, and asking if the students were “playing defense.” These assignments are above and beyond the coursework, but fit into my overall goal of helping the students translate their science book knowledge to a broader audience.

  2. Just in case your readers wish a counterpoint, published just one week ago:
    http://smallpondscience.com/2013/08/29/extra-credit-is-unfair-to-students/

  3. I don’t agree that extra credit is unfair. I do agree that changes in the syllabus later on is challenging so I don’t do it. My extra credit options are right there in the syllabus, with number of points and everything. I am adding a way to get the points, the citizen science option, because I just thought of it. In future it will be there from the beginning. Something I do not like is the common practice of giving say 3 exams and letting the students drop one. This rewards erratic studying, not the steady student. But I also think it is important to teach to the students we have. My students generally do not have families and do not have full time jobs, though they have plenty of challenging classes, often work study jobs, sports, or volunteer work.

    • The students with extracurricular responsibilities or burdens, such as family obligations or the need to pay bills, are the same ones who are most reluctant to communicate that these commitments might interfere with their education. This type of inequity is most pervasive in institutions where these students are uncommon to rare, and moreover inhibits institutional efforts to be diverse and inclusive.

      When I taught at an institution full of white and wealthy students, I remember once that I had a student complain to me that she was upset because she had to miss out on an extra credit opportunity for another person’s course (an evening lecture). I asked her why she couldn’t make it, and she was hesitant but told me it was because it was an AA meeting. A 20-year old student, with no job and no family nearby. I was lucky that she told me, and she didn’t tell the professor of her course, and she just missed out on the extra credit.

  4. For my students the extra credit is not tied to any one event. There are a series of events listed in advance that they can attend. But what you are talking about is what is fair and that is elusive. If we can get students to attend departmental and other seminars because they get interested and did not know about them, or did not feel included enough to go without the course involvement, then we have done something positive. I suppose you would think it is all right if this were a required part of the course but somehow have a problem with stretching our students with tangential assignments for little credit. I’m mystified. In the example you give it is too bad the woman could not go, but does that make giving the opportunity generally a bad thing? Should we never have enhancement activities because someone might have a job, a meeting, or an athletic event (the latter being by far the most common excuse I’ve heard)?

    • The answers to your questions are found in my post, the link to which I provided. There is some further discussion of this in the comments. I’ll amplify a bit here.

      Enhancement activities are wonderful, of course. However, if there are activities that require attendance outside of scheduled class hours, that are not listed in the catalog description of a course, then it is unfair to offer the potential for more points to some students over others. Whenever the extra credit requires being present at something outside scheduled class hours, there is probably going to be at least one person in the class that has some other commitment.

      If a student has to skip out on a job or a meeting to attend an extra credit event, that is unfair to that student. If a student chooses to not skip work for an extra credit event, that is also unfair to the student.

      I understand the notion that we can use grades as a little carrot to get students to do things that will improve their education that they would otherwise not choose to do. I sympathize with the goal. I would love to have my students involved in service learning, and I would love my students to attend seminars. And many of them do. If I think it should be a required part of the course, then I build it into the required curriculum in a fashion that it’s available to everyone. If I think it should be optional and not required for my students, then there’s no way at all that I’d give extra credit for it. I’d do all kinds of things to motivate my students to go? But give points that affects grades and take the risk (albeit, sometimes a small one) of marginalizing a student who has other commitments? Students sign up for class sign up for a time slot. And with that time slot is a commitment to do additional coursework outside that time slot, but fairness requires that the scheduling of that work is at their discretion.

      Fairness can be elusive, but that’s not a reason to work hard towards that goal.

  5. One of my students suggested a new kind of extra credit, zoo observations. I wrote up an exercise and added it. So now they can attend lectures, do citizen science, write a Wikipedia article on a neglected female behavioral ecologist, or observe animals at the zoo.

    • When I taught behavioral ecology, we also had structured zoo observations in the course. It was a required element and all students had the benefit of the experience.

      • During classtime then, to be consistent with your other comments, I suppose?

      • Actually, in this class, it was scheduled as a part of the laboratory during class hours.

        However, I’d be okay if I scheduled it outside class time during a lecture course, so long as it is in the syllabus and that students have plenty of latitude to schedule it – since zoos are typically open 6-7 days per week, and often with longish hours, then a student should be able to find the time within a window of a couple weeks with advance notice. And I would mention to the class that anybody who knew in advance that such a trip wouldn’t be possible to let me know what time slot would work for them.

  6. Pingback: Extra Credit Quandaries

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