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Extra credit and real-world preparedness

September 19, 2014

Extra Credit Meme

It happens every term…I am asked to provide opportunities for extra credit…and every term I’m a bit baffled but never undecided as to what I should do about such requests.

While there are many reasons students feel compelled to ask for extra credit, the result is an ethical question that every prof will face. Guaranteed.

As conditions in higher ed change around the U.S., many changes occurring on the state level (e.g., Ohio) may cause faculty to feel squeezed between students and institutions. Here in Ohio, higher ed institutions are feeling squeezed by new state funding based upon course completion. With student success at the forefront for every professor in every institution in every state, the multi-directional squeeze is probably not a new experience, yet, the squeeze may be becoming a bit more intense. I feel this is a good opportunity to re/examine the conditions in higher ed contributing to increased pressures on the front lines of teaching and learning and how those multi-directional pressures shape outcomes. Thus far, good communication on all fronts has resolved any issues, however, the inherent feeling of pressure remains.

Good design is everything.

Good course design incorporates frequent student assessment and feedback mechanisms. As my design and teaching processes have matured, I have developed additional formative assessment opportunities in addition to often-used summative assessments. Assessment, in a general sense, is a big deal in higher ed because outcomes directly affect institutional funding and accreditation. Well-designed, varying types of assessment can give insight to “How are we doing?” and “How do we measure up?” If someone were to argue that extra credit appears to be necessary, I would respectfully submit that there is a problem with the design, delivery or student preparedness for the course. (Identify root causes!) Effective course design and delivery does not necessitate extra credit because performance targets are appropriate and achievable.

Why do students ask for extra credit?

Sometimes students say they are “too busy” with their lives or work to spend adequate time on their courses. Sometimes students simply don’t do the “regular credit” work. Sometimes students have had multiple past experiences with leniency or inconsistency and may expect that same leniency in every course going forward. Sometimes students are struggling with the material. Any of these situations present an opportunity to ask important questions:

  1. Is the rigor of the course appropriate and supported by design and delivery methods?
  2. Do pre-requisites, registration controls and advising position students for success?
  3. Are clear expectations/requirements regularly communicated?
  4. Are policies (including grading) consistently and fairly enforced?
  5. Has course design and delivery been informed by workplace trends and scholarly research?
  6. At any time, can students quickly determine where they stand?
  7. Is extra assistance available?
  8. Have professors done everything in their power to facilitate student ownership of their success?
  9. How are all of these things measured?
  10. Would all of these things withstand a court challenge?

I could discuss societal influences that may feed extra credit expectations. However; that is another topic for another day. Instead, here is a list of general reasons why I feel extra credit flies directly in the face of student preparedness for success in the workplace.

There are no extra credit opportunities in the workplace.

Imagine an employee asking for extra credit, for whatever reason…would that blow your mind? Sure, employers have some leeway for being accommodating and understanding, however, I’m talking about a substantive adjustment in performance measures. Personally, I can’t get past the concept to realistically picture the scene. Standards for performance cannot [legally] be different for one employee vs. other employees. I can’t even imagine what extra credit in the workplace might look like…ok, let’s continue.

Past experiences shape future expectations.

My job is to prepare today’s students for the workplace. If I give extra credit, I am sending the message that accountability does not matter – here, there or anywhere. I would effectively be conveying to students that they should expect similar treatment in the future in whatever they endeavor to accomplish. Effectively I would be setting them up for failure because they may expect employers to compromise performance expectations similarly. None of this is good – for anybody.

Opportunities to improve performance are available.

Feedback and suggestions for improvement of work performance should happen regularly and often. Sure, it could be that Sally Smith’s performance review didn’t measure up to her hopes, but at least Sally should have ideas as to how she can improve. A performance snapshot in time is not an absolute evaluation of overall performance. Behavioral patterns over several snapshots in time are trends. Performance counseling should never be a surprise, and regular coaching should have happened along the way. Otherwise, performance reviews become spurious, time-wasting, busywork items. I don’t know about you, but I hate the notion of busywork, in any context.

There are no do-overs in the workplace.

At the end of the day, the organization’s employees can either do the job well or they can’t. The organization’s focus on the bottom line might seem to be a bit dehumanizing, however, honesty is warranted within the context of this discussion.

Accountability drives quality and value.  

If I don’t hold Joe Student accountable via an accurate assessment of performance based upon evidence presented, the grade or degree will not reflect the student’s demonstration of competencies. Lack of accountability here would constitute a lie. 

Students earn grades and employees earn paychecks.

Let me be clear: students earn grades and degrees. Watering down requirements, in any way, can – and should – reflect negatively upon me, my program and my institution. Philosophically, wishy-washy academic performance standards (e.g., extra credit) constitute a type of ethical misrepresentation to my profession and stakeholders (e.g., students and potential employers). Without accountability and consistency I would be stating – as fact – that a student has demonstrated competency in a particular area when they have not. (yikes!) For the sake of credibility there should never be a question as to whether or not a student earned said degree or whether said degree holds the value expected. Quality in accountability and performance measurements dispel any questions as to whether or not students were expected to do the same as their peers.

What this post is NOT about:

Condemnation and blame. I would like to believe profs who offer extra credit have the best [albeit misguided] intentions. I’m not condemning going the extra mile to work with students to help them improve, in fact; that’s my mission. Such efforts are part of what I consider to be a requirement of my job. Similarly, I’m not advocating dictatorial and harsh employers who hold employees to ridiculous and unattainable standards without mercy. That sort of thing can cause lots of employee relations problems and can land employers in court, as it should.

What this post IS about:

This is college, and it matters.

It’s important to stress that the pathway from higher ed to the workforce is paved with important prior experiences which ultimately shape student attitudes into employee attitudes. I don’t strive to be unduly difficult as an educator, yet, my experience from the employer side serves as a reminder that my classrooms are de facto incubators for future employees. Fairness, consistency, feedback and frequent communication in the workplace and the classroom are non-negotiable. Every student and employee are entitled to their opinion, and they may not like it when an employer or professor has to communicate that they are not meeting performance standards. That’s OK, but the world is what it is.

I believe that the concept of extra credit does a disservice to those who have worked hard to meet performance metrics amid common life challenges. Not everyone will earn nor are they entitled to an A. I’m pretty sure my transcripts accurately reflect the effort I applied in most courses I had taken at every stage of my life. Occasionally I encountered a random lack of fairness (it happens) but it didn’t stop me from trying harder next time. My general academic performance expectations have mirrored how I view performance expectations in the workplace. Brutal honesty with oneself is necessary to improve and grow (and yes, sometimes that honesty can hurt a little). It’s just part of one’s process. As a lifelong non-traditional student, I understand the extreme difficulty of balancing home, family, work and academic pursuits, and it’s no different for me as a professor. As a student, however, I reminded myself often that it was my choice and privilege to pursue my education for a better future and that my experience would largely be what I made of it.

Work ethic matters. Integrity matters. Fairness matters. Opportunities to improve and grow for a better tomorrow matter. Most importantly, honesty – for the sake over everyone – matters.

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