Sunday, February 22, 2015

Extra Credit

So apparently a University of Wisconsin (Whitewater) English professor offered her students extra credit for going to a protest against Scott Walker's budget cuts (Apparently the credit was offered either for participation or "observing" but I wonder what her reaction would be to a student supporting Walker).

Okay. This whole thing sums up several of my objections to extra credit right there. First off: it's not directly related to the class material. It's apparently the professor's own opinions coming out there. I don't want to be accused of "undue influence," so I'd never offer extra credit for something remotely political or social-activism focused. (For example: I might support the service of the local Ministerial Alliance, but I would not grant students extra credit for volunteering to help with a food bank they run, or something similar. I might PUBLICIZE it - but I would be more prone to OUTSIDE of class, less it look like I was trying to hint "do this and it will positively affect your grade.")

But even beyond that - going to a rally for extra credit? What the heck is that?

Back in the day when I was in college, the way extra credit worked was this: Sometimes professors put harder or more challenging problems on an exam (or offered them as homework). It was optional for you to do them and it was more work over and above what you were already doing. (For example: you could NOT get credit for extra credit exam questions if you left other questions blank). They were also HARDER, for example, a trickier enzyme-kinetics question than the standard ones we'd seen. Or a challenging essay that got us to synthesize a couple different topics we'd covered. (And of course, in those pre-widespread-world-wide-web days, a take-home extra credit homework could not simply be Googled).

The idea was, if you wanted to work harder and do more, great - you could earn a few more points. Generally it was the "best and brightest" who took the stuff on, and mostly what it did for those who chose to do it, was to put a solid lock on their having an "A" in the class. (Or at least that was my experience). Extra credit was NOT a substitute for other work, in fact, some professors had a policy that if you hadn't turned in even one piece of the regular work, you could NOT get extra credit.

I suppose some might argue that's elitist - that it was the students who were already good students that had the best shot at extra credit, or that the people who already worked hard got it. But you know what? That's kind of how it should work. The person who works hard should see a reward for that hard work.

I think one of the changes we've seen in the 20 or so years since I've been an undergrad is a rise of "the people who are hardworking and smart don't particularly deserve any perks, rather, we should make it so those at the bottom cannot fail."

It seems to me now that a lot of people who grant extra credit do it so people DON'T fail* - so they can salvage their grade and get away with not doing all the work in the class.

(*It's possible this is a cultural difference between colleges. I went to a highly-selective "Public Ivy," and I teach at a small regional state school that is not particularly selective).

But there's an expectation on the part of the students that bugs me - the few times I've put tougher questions on the exam as "extra credit," a few people have implied it's "unfair" because not everyone can answer them.

Wait, what? It's not fair that some people might earn a few more points because they worked harder or were smarter to begin with? Well, no, it's not fair, in the sense of "equal outcomes for everyone." But there are equal opportunities: you all get the same question. You all had the same chance to study for the exam. You all heard the same material in class. You all had the chance to take advantage of my MANY officer hours per week to get help. But some of you chose not to do that. So you don't get the same outcome as those who did. Frankly, that's how life SHOULD work - those who put in more effort get more out of it.

The other thing I see is a rise of wanting extra credit to make up for previous failures. Like, "Can I write a paper to earn back points?" No. Why should I make more work for myself reading and grading something because you couldn't be bothered to come to all the labs or do all the homework?
(I will work with people with legitimate excuses, and I do have one "free" lab built in to most of my classes, so people who are out sick one week won't be hurt).

But almost invariably, at the end of the semester, I get someone who is all sad coming to me because they missed four or five labs, and did poorly on a couple exams, and is in danger of failing, and wants me to make a special assignment just for them so they will pass. And I ask them why they didn't come in seeking help earlier? And no one has ever had a good answer for that.

I also know people who hand out extra credit like it was candy at Hallowe'en. Go to this talk, get extra credit. Go do this volunteer opportunity, get extra credit. And granted - it's good for the students to hear some of the talks on campus or do things for the community - but they should be doing that anyway, and if something like, I don't know, going to see plays, is so important to the grade of a class, it should be worked into the syllabus, for example, see and write a one-page commentary on one of the three or four plays that is performed on campus each semester and that's worth 10 points of participation or somesuch.

The problem with the "candy" extra credit is that people come to EXPECT it. And then people like me, who don't do extra credit (at least not in the Brave New World way of "show up, go from a D to a C") are the bad meanies who don't want students to succeed.

And that's even beyond the whole political thing of sending students to a political rally.

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