The Oxymoron of Extra Credit

The nimiety of excuses that students offer to ask for extra credit near the end of a semester is truly remarkable. Regardless of the pretense, why ask for extra credit when the regular credit was not even attempted? Truly, extra credit is for the student who has completed all of the regular credit, and who wants to apply and synthesize what he’s learned in a challenging extracurricular way. This extension of curriculum aspect is why students never complete “extra” credit — because they can’t!

Why Schools Should Use Mercy Grades

As you probably know, a growing trend in schools is the “mercy” grade. A “mercy” grade is a minimum numerical grade allowed to be recorded for a student. The rationale for the “mercy” grade is to give students a fighting chance should they decide to get serious. Also, the minimum grade in college is an F. If a high school gave letter grades, no one would know the difference between a 0 and a 69. In college, the average of an A, a B, and an F is a C. But in high school, the average of a 95, an 90 and a 5 is 60, or an F.

Presently, I do not record a grade below 50. This is part of my school’s Fair Grading Policy. But I have not seen that it has an effect one way or the other. In fact, I am a staunch proponent of the minimum grade.

The rationale is clear, but for many years I was that guy… “Yeah, but…” I teach math, and I used to believe that the grade was the grade was the grade. So a few years ago, I decided to do a little action research. I recorded no grade less than 60 on any task for an entire year, even my AP class.. Can you guess what happened? I experienced the same proportion of failure as every year previous, about 10%.

I found that most of the students who would have failed with a “true” grade failed with “mercy” grades. However, I also found that the “mercy” grade does help one or two students in my classroom.  In other words, “giving” a 60 only prevented failure for one or two students, but it did keep them in the game, and that is what the policy is designed to do. When someone decides to hunker down, they can still pass for the year.

Best of all, when it’s time to meet with parent(s), the minimum score policy helps them understand that you are on the same team as their child, that you want what is best.

Anyone else experimenting with minimum grading?

Why I Do Not Use “Extra” Credit

If you ask most students, extra credit typically involves the completion of some task-laden activity to pay penance for low grades. In that context, extra credit is at best an oxymoron, at worst an academic travesty.


From an academic standpoint, extra credit should not be expected of students who have not done the regular credit. (That’s why I accept late work.) A person cannot eat an extra helping of potatoes prior to finishing a first helping, right? Rather, extra credit should be for students who have done all the regular credit and want to learn more. Extra credit, though not typically viewed as such, is actually an enrichment activity.

How About a Do-Over Instead?

When a student “needs” an extra credit word search to pass a course, I prefer to let them have a “do-over” on the regular credit. Many students will decline once they realize work is involved, but that’s ok.

Academically, the do-over is a far better option. Does it really matter if a student takes two or even three tries to demonstrate mastery of a topic? Last I heard, lawyers have as many chances as needed to pass the bar exam, and I know of many teachers who had to take their PRAXIS exams more than once. These people are not half lawyers and half teachers. So why should a student get half credit for two attempts at demonstrating proficiency at a skill? The goal is to learn the skill, not to punish latent learning, right? This is why I think extra credit is punitive and useless.

Mind you, I am not suggesting giving the student the same exact assessment or assignment. A similar task that assesses the same topic can be created for do-overs. I have at least three forms of every test that I use in my sequentials. For some topics, I have even more. Naturally, this is more work on my part, but it is truly what is in the best interest of the student.

What’s the Catch?

The one Caveat I insist on is that I will not do a re-assessment without re-teaching. This means that a handful of students will have to seek re-instruction on their valuable time. Only after I have worked 1-on-1 can I be sure that a students is ready for a do-over.

Some teachers may be asking, what about those incorrigibles who abuse a do-over policy? What about them? You might argue they are metacognitively astute. In any event, life always seems to sniff out the slackers (and life will give them a second chance). In the meantime, I will keep doing what I know is best for those who are working at the learning process.

Where do you stand on extra credit and do-overs?