Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Fun with extra credit (but is it fair?)

Janet at Adventures in Ethics and Science asks: Is Extra Credit Fair? I’m going to answer here, rather than comment on her blog, because the answer is going to be a bit long.

Well, actually, the answer could be short: I don’t think that extra credit is fair unless all students are given the same opportunity, and I don’t think that an instructor should be expected to do additional grading at the end of a semester. That’s what I consistently tell students who ask to do extra credit to save their grades at the end of a semester.

However, I do think that extra credit can be used in ways that are fair to the students and the instructor. Sometimes I even include extra credit in the syllabus; other times I take advantage of opportunities that arise during the semester. All of the exercises have a few things in common: 1) they involve thinking about the class material, but in an unusual way, and 2) they sound fun to me. (Oh, and all students are given the opportunity to do the extra credit work, and I announce the opportunities well in advance, both during class and on the class web page.)

Example #1: Where on (Google) Earth?

I give weekly quizzes in my intro Earth Systems Science class. I don’t want to let students make up the quizzes late, mostly because I want to be able to grade the quizzes and give them back as soon as possible. But I know that Life Happens, and sometimes it happens on a Friday, and I don’t want to have to judge whether a student was genuinely ill or whether a death in the family has actually occurred or whether other horrific things have happened. I don’t want to be insensitive, but I also don’t want students to take advantage of my empathy. And I have a terrible internal lie detector, and I don’t want to have to rely on it.

So I don’t let students make up quizzes. But I do give them opportunities to replace their grade. I’ve done a variety of different things in the past, but this year I’m stealing an idea from the geoblogosphere and giving them “Where on (Google) Earth" challenges. Every Wednesday, I put up a new Google Earth image, and students have a week to e-mail me with 1) the location and 2) information about the geology of the area. I grade the answers on the same scale as the quizzes (4 points for either the location or the geology; 5 points for both; 3 points for an incorrect guess - it's possible to get anything from 0 to 5 on the quizzes, but I decided to be more lenient with the EC), and when the end of the semester rolls around, I’ll replace the low quiz grades with higher WoGE grades.

I’m hoping that the process of looking at Google Earth will help the students visualize things we discuss in class. (Later on, the students will need to use some geologic thinking to narrow down locations. So far, I’ve just been using locations in the news, because I didn’t feel like giving images of giant mine pits for the minerals week.) And maybe, just maybe, the students will get curious about what they see, and want to know more.

So far, about a quarter of the students have been participating. When I give the first exam, I’ll see if students who have been doing the challenges also do better on some questions. (I’m guessing that Google Earth might help them think about things like the locations of different types of plate boundaries, or where different types of volcanoes would be found. But we’ll see if that’s the case.)

Example 2: Bad geology movies.

During previous semesters, I’ve given a different quiz-make-up option. I had a list of bad geoscience movies (The Core, Dante’s Peak, Volcano, The Day After Tomorrow...), and I let students critique them for extra credit. Students could watch as many of the movies as they liked, and then needed to give me a one-page write-up about the geology in the movie (good and bad). No discussion of acting allowed... just critiques of the geology.

It was fun, but I was getting tired of seeing the same discussions every semester. Plus I wanted to be able to mock the movies in class myself. And the extra grading was a fair amount of work for me.

I don’t know if the students got much out of the exercise. (A number of them thought it was fun, though, which is worth something.)

Example 3: Halloween costumes.

Occasionally I will spontaneously agree to a student-suggested extra credit assignment. For instance, one year I had a midterm exam scheduled for Halloween. A few weeks before the exam, I started reminding students of the date, and was greeted by howls of dismay. I just cackled evilly in response. (I mean... it was Halloween. What did they expect? Glinda the Good?) But then one of the students asked: “If we wear costumes, can we have extra credit?”

I thought about it for a moment, and agreed, with one caveat: the costumes had to have something to do with geology, and the students would have to explain them to me.

I didn’t think anybody would take the challenge. I mean, it’s kind of embarrassing to walk around campus dressed as the San Andreas Fault all day, even on Halloween. But about a quarter of the class showed up in costume. And some of the costumes were fantastic. (There was one really spectacular fault... his costume was so heavy that he could barely walk with it on. And the San Andreas kids did a very nice earthquake demonstration.) My favorite costume, though, may have been the kid who explained how his ripped jeans represented mechanical weathering. It was just a brilliant way of showing me that he understood the concept.

The grades on that exam were higher than usual... even before taking the extra credit into account. So I think that the assignment was worth it – it got the students to think about the exam material in a creative way, and somehow that helped more than the usual cramming would have.

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