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In the past term, my teaching evaluations were full of complaints that I assign too much homework. To solve this, I've scaled back the assigned workload and threw several assignments into extra credit. This seems to make many student happy:

  • Students just passing through complete the basic coursework and meeting the course objectives, without feeling the course is harder than other courses.
  • Students who enter the course finding the material is too difficult can complete the extra work to offset their poor mid-term exam grade while getting additional practice for the final.
  • Students eager to learn the material are happy with the extra work and feel they can get more out of the course.

In the next term, I hope to offer much more extra credit, equal to 20-30 hours of work, to meet the needs of those top 20% eager learners.

  • All of the work aligns with the course objectives.
  • The point values are kept low, to discourage students from skipping regular work.

I have never seen a course instructor ever give more than a little amount of extra credit. Is there any reason why it would be a poor choice to offer a great deal?

  • 3
    We had a slightly different method for a lot of our courses at my undergrad. Let's say there were 12 assignments, one per week. The professor would take the top 10 scores and either drop the last two or add them as extra credit. So theoretically, you could get 120/100. This allowed people who crushed homework to basically skip the last two if they wished, or pad a weaker exam score, without presenting the extra credit work as "not important." – Compass Sep 29 '14 at 17:51
  • you will make them even happier if you make your grading scheme flexible enough to emphasize the students' strengths, e.g. (to illustrate) break down grades into "effort" and "results" component with the larger of the two grades receiving a weight of 0.6 and the lower 0.4. Give extra credit to students who turned in more assignments (irrespective of quality) and put that under "effort", keep only the best 8 of 12 grades (say), in exams always give 3 questions to choose from, etc. The students who put in neither effort nor talent will fail your course, which is what you want. – PatrickT Nov 27 '15 at 16:39
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I think the answer to your question is "No one knows, but you are about to find out." The only thing that can be guaranteed is that there will be some unexpected consequences, because the nature of human interaction--and the diversity of things like motivation and preparation--is such that it's too complex a system for us to know what the introduction of a novel approach is going to do.

You are attempting to transfer power to the students which is traditionally vested almost exclusively in the instructor. I feel that this is a good thing, but that it is difficult to predict what people will do when given power that they previously did not have.

To give you an example (which I don't think will happen in your case, but there could be some analogous effect), I know of an instructor that tried dispensing with grade pressure altogether by announcing on the first day that everyone in the class had an A for the course [the highest rating possible, for those not familiar with common practice in the US]. The consequence that surprised him was that at the end of (or perhaps during as well, I don't remember) the course, students expressed resentment toward the policy. The realities of time pressures put on them by other courses meant that they ended up spending little to no time on the gradeless class, because they knew ultimately that it would not affect their record. The resentment came from the fact that they wanted to learn the material, but with nothing to force them to spend time on it, they ended up not giving it any time but instead allowing the other demands on their time to crowd it out completely.

In my opinion, I think you've covered your bases as well as you can (in particular, it's not a wild shot in the dark, but a further change to a previous, successful modification), and all there is for you to do is observe the effects and see what student feedback is. The most interesting question in my mind is whether the most talented students will do as well (in terms of "total learning outcome") under this system as they did under your original one. For similar reasons as the example I gave, they may just make a decision not to put as much effort in because of time pressures from other classes.

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I can't speak for your institution, students, or department, so take this with the usual grain of salt.

At a highly competitive and stressful institution like Columbia, many courses are graded on curves based on the final overall grade. Particularly as a result, anything offered as extra credit becomes de facto mandatory. When the extra credit simply gets added into the numerator of the grade it's pretty irrelevant whether those 15 extra points came from a "midterm" or "extra credit."

I suppose there MIGHT be ways of constructing a syllabus such that the extra credit was less distortionary, but I can't come up with one.

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    anything offered as extra credit becomes de facto mandatory — That depends on how extra credit is rewarded. I always use overall scores without extra credit to set the curve, and then compare scores with extra credit to that curve to determine letter grades. That way, your extra credit can only help you, and it doesn't affect anyone else's course grade at all. – JeffE Sep 30 '14 at 4:52
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There are a couple of points in your question that I don't quite understand:

  • You're proposing to offer "much more extra credit" but "keep the point values low": don't those two things work against each other? In my experience, students don't do much extra credit when they do not in fact feel that it will lead to a higher course grade.

  • You speak of using extra credit to offset poor midterm grades and also speak of meeting the needs of the "top 20% eager learners". Those are different pools of students.

In my own experience, the second bullet point is a major point of tension for extra credit. Students would like extra credit to be routine work that they can do to improve their grade, possibly even to offset more challenging or time-consuming course tasks at which they didn't excel. But instructors usually see extra credit as a way to reach the "eager learners" at the top of the class and end up giving extra credit that is harder than the normal material. For instance, when I teach freshman calculus if I assign extra credit it's usually the less routine and more theoretical problems. Most students (correctly!) perceive that just doing the standard work would be a more efficient route to a good grade.

I have never seen a course instructor ever give more than a little amount of extra credit. Is there any reason why it would be a poor choice to offer a great deal?

I think that most instructors feel that students who get bad grades on exams and then make it up with ancillary work should not get similar final grades to students who do well on exams. In other words, since many (most, maybe; certainly not all) courses have "mastering the material, as shown in exam performance" as the primary goal, giving too much extra credit works against this goal. Most extra credit is a kind of "homework": I hope that people know that in 2014 it is all but prohibitively difficult to ensure that homework is being done by the student. In an earlier question you asked about assigning Amazon Mechanical Turk-type questions to the students as extra credit. That very terminology raises the objection: maybe the students will use the MTurk website to get others to do their work for them!

But there is no absolute right or wrong answer here: you do get to decide what works best for you. Honestly, I think you're essentially proposing "rebranding" some of the course work as extra credit in an attempt to make the students more excited about it. Could that work? Yes, it could! You are certainly entitled to give it a try. However, since most students do substantial amounts of extra credit only when they are trying to increase their grade, if you repackage too much "normal credit" into "extra credit", then you risk decreasing the amount of work done by the typical student in your course. So you should analyze the incentives carefully.

Finally, speaking of the mind games that get played out in a classroom:

In the past term, my teaching evaluations were full of complaints that I assign too much homework.

This need not imply that you are assigning too much homework!

  • +1 for "This need not imply that you are assigning too much homework!" I tell my students, "two hours outside class for every classroom hour." Every several terms, I have a class keep a homework journal, for credit, to check on how I'm doing. – Bob Brown Sep 30 '14 at 2:56
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Extra credit work is good for telling you how much ground a student has covered. That's usually to the advantage of the learning process.

The one advantage that "tests" have over extra credit is that tests measure proficiency. That is how fast a student can produce the work within a short period of time. Some employers prefer to judge their employees on this basis. If the students can earn extra credit just by putting in time, the extra knowledge could come at the expense of proficiency.

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