I used to give out extra credit. Not just at the beginning of my career, but right up through last year. I just thought it’s something that teachers do, even though I knew better, and even though it never really accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish. So finally, this year, I told my students that I was done. Those awesome challenge problems? No longer for extra credit. Attending a Stanford Public Math Lecture? No more extra credit for that. Predictably, students told me how unfair this was, how stupid this was, what could I be thinking?
When we let a kid do bonus points to fix their grade instead of relearning and fixing what they didn’t master in the first place. pic.twitter.com/HvC35uC3gy
— Brad Weinstein (@WeinsteinEdu) January 7, 2017
Inspired by a tweet (shown above) by Brad Weinstein, I decided it was long past time to blog about this decision to tell others exactly what I told my students. So here it is…
What do we, as teachers, give extra credit for? To reward students for awesome and interesting things that they do that may not directly be a part of what we are normally grading them on. In other words, we are bringing up a student’s grade, not because they understand the thing that the class is all about, but because they did something outside of the class expectations. And if you have spent time in a classroom with extra credit, perhaps you’ve seen what I’ve seen. The students who do the extra credit tend to fall into one of two categories:
- High achieving students who wants to bring their 99% up to 100% (because they are hypercompetitive or tie their own self worth to their grade).
- Students who have not been doing classwork or homework and now realize that their D+ will get them in trouble with their parents and they want an easy way to at least get a C-.
So what is the result when a student does a ton of extra credit to bring their grade up by 3, 5, even 10 or 15 points? Their report card becomes a lie – or at least misrepresents their accomplishements. In theory, to me, a student who receives a C in, say, a Geometry class is a student who has demonstrated that they have a moderate understanding of the material presented, who may have never successfully and independently completed a proof but who gets the basic relationships between different shapes and figures, who has some grasp of parallel lines, congruent triangles, and how to find areas from formulas (even if they don’t memorize much and retain much in the way of details afterward). The main takeaway is that the student should have reached a certain conceptual understanding of geometry and spatial mathematics that will be useful in future math classes.
But what happens with a student who had a D, extra credit brings them up to a C, and certain assumptions are made about their conceptual understanding of geometry. This does them a disservice when they go to future classes, when their Algebra 2 or PreCalculus teacher get an invalid impression of their skillset in Geometry. This kind of grade inflation drives teachers crazy as well.
And what is it that we want students to get out of these extra credit assignments, anyway? The fascination and joy that can be found in mathematics, and the beauty, creativity, and surprises that arise in a really interesting problem. I want my students to get that, make no mistake, and I can incorporate a lot of that into my classes. When something comes up that doesn’t directly apply to a class, I can still bring it to my students because it is absolutely worthwhile for them to be exposed to all of this rich mathematics that doesn’t show up in a syllabus or in a typical high school textbook. Plus, when students see me get really excited about a math problem, it gets them excited, and that happens a whole lot more when investigating graph theory or topology than when solving linear systems by graphing or entering data into a table in my calculator to find a logistic regression function.
Plus, I want to reward students for their contributions to a positive math culture, especially by taking risks, by sharing their mistakes, by (respectfully and kindly) pointing out mistakes of others (including/especially me), by working well as a team, by helping their peers, and by bringing to class math that they find in the real world. So, to reward students for those contributions to our math world without artifically inflating their grades, I offer students points. To a degree they are subjective, which means that at times I will give a well meaning student the benefit of the doubt. It won’t affect their grade, just their current point total.
I announced at the beginning of the year that there will be individual prizes for the students with the most points at the end of the semester, and a class prize for the class whose students have as a whole earned the most points (representing a very positive math culture in a class). While there are some students who still grumble about not having extra credit anymore, many students are fairly invested in the idea of extra points. The semester ends this coming Friday, we have finals next week, and the following week, students will receive their prizes. The class prize will probably be a lunch – something simple, anyway, and food is always popular. The individual students will come with me to attend a showing of Hidden Figures.
One of the first big opportunities for students to receive extra points next month will be by attending the Stanford Public Math Lecture by Ingrid Daubechies on Mathematicians, Art Historians, and Conservators. These public lectures are a real treat, and often very accessible to high school students. The best part is, whether through a movie or a public lecture, students get a chance to learn more about, and be inspired by, real mathematicians. Isn’t that worth more than all the extra credit in the world?