When points and learning diverge, we get jewels like…
6. Extra Credit
Two things that annoy me more than anything else: 1) Those chairs with the uselessly small and unnecessarily tilted desks attached, and 2) students asking for “extra credit.”
What is it, exactly, that students are asking for when they ask for extra credit in a points system? Does it come from a desire for deeper understanding? Or a desire to further demonstrate mastery? No, in many, or most (or all?) cases, it is a way for students to get better grades without mastering a) the content or b) the grading game.
I don’t blame students for it. It is a natural consequence of a points-based system. When you’re allowed to dock points for neatness, timeliness, and conformity, it is not too much of a stretch to give extra points for Kleenex, crossword puzzles, and ability to hold one’s bladder. Even “challenging” extra credit benefits students of different abilities unequally.
7. Fake Curving (known alias: Point Pixie Dust)
What I mean by “fake curving” is what students mean when they ask “are you going to curve this test?”: Are you going to give us free points? Usually, this means adding the difference between the highest grade in the class and 100% to each student’s score. A main problem with this simplistic (or even more sophisticated) attempt to make grades look better is that it completely detaches the learning from the grade. It eliminates any incentive for students to remediate lapses in understanding. Students under this system need only to aspire to score higher than peers, rather than fully master the material. Our focus should be on helping our students learn, not helping our students get pretty grades.
To a large extent, fake curving is our way of correcting for teaching a topic poorly. But we’re not only sending the wrong message to students, but we miss out on real (gag) teachable moments:
- If a question is bad (or fails to address the topic you intended to assess), throw it out. Don’t give it free points. You can even fix the question, and present it as a post-test assessment or class discussion. (Sidenote: Misfit questions are great for clickers!)
- If the whole class struggles with a topic or test, address the problems directly in class. Then, give them an opportunity to reassess. One of the big takeaways from Brookhart’s book on feedback is that feedback without an opportunity to remedy is useless.