A Failed Extra Credit Offer

I recently offered my Algebra 1 students an extra credit opportunity worth five percentage points towards their grade, which I mentioned I would do when the marking period started six weeks ago.

My intent with the extra credit offer was twofold: 1) to give them an opportunity to explore mathematics in the world around them, hopefully improving their beliefs and attitudes towards it and 2) to give them a chance to advance one letter grade.  While I did not expect many students to take me up on the offer, that only one student did so surprised me.  One fourth of the class, or nine students, could have benefited from it.

Last week, I handed a copy of the offer to each student the day before their end of marking period final exam.  One student jumped at it that day, handing me a one and a half page essay as she left class.  She apparently was so caught up in the offer that she opted to write the essay in class instead of paying attention to the review.  Not one other student approached me about the offer, to learn more, to ask for an extension, or to let me know they were going to work on it.

Earlier today, I discussed my surprise with my newly returned cooperating teacher (“CT”).  She said students probably did not understand my offer could improve their grades.  As an example, she said if I approached students about it this week, and explained it to them one on one, they would likely say they did not know it would have helped their grade.  My eyes widened at my CT’s comment.  In response, I let her know that I told students about the offer at least three different times on as many days and in varying levels of detail.  Each time I made it clear this was a great chance to move up one letter grade, and that it is a rare opportunity to do so since very few teachers offered this much extra credit.  I gave examples where students with a 58%, 68%, 78%, or 88% score, who received extra credit of just 2%, could move up to the next letter grade.

My CT said she did not doubt me but said they still likely did not get it.  She also said they probably were overwhelmed by the amount of text on my handout describing the offer.  Listening to all of this was tough, and it showed on my face.  I considered many things when crafting the offer, before making the offer, and when pitching it.  I even anticipated aspects of what my CT pointed out, which is why I mentioned the offer multiple times to students, verbally and in writing.  The version projected on the SMART Board, and reviewed in detail with the class, was in color no less, differentiating the requirement text, mostly in black, the example questions in blue, and the deadline info in red, apparently to no avail.  My CT could sense my consternation, but seemed to misinterpret it as not wanting to hear her comments, which was not the case.  I simply was at a loss about how to get students’ attention if my approach did not work.  Since I could not tell easily if students did not get it, or simply chose not to do it, I was perplexed about what I could do better.  She suggested speaking with the students who I felt could benefit from the extra credit one on one, which I wanted to do but just managing the students through any day consumes all of my attention and time, leaving none for individual discussion other than the day’s lesson topic.

Before we ended the conversation, she mentioned that she would ask students who could have benefited from the extra credit why they did not do it.  Most of the students who could have benefited have her later in the day for an AVID class (AVID: Advancement Via Individual Determination).  I plan to do the same, however, with our annual high stakes standardized testing this week, I will wait a bit.

While driving home from my ed program earlier this evening, I reflected upon the conversation with my CT, wondering if she was not giving the students enough credit, looking at them in a deficit perspective, or if I simply was overly optimistic and had too high expectations for students, or simply that my methods were ineffective.  I still do not know but will continue to ponder it.  For this situation extends beyond extra credit to any longer term assignment I might make.  I do not want to have to discuss one on one with every student for every assignment like this going forward.  I also wonder if speaking with students one on one would have changed the outcome.  Or perhaps I needed to pester individual students daily, which is the model my CT employs.  Yet, that is not my preferred style, so I hope I find a way that is more effective over time.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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13 Responses to A Failed Extra Credit Offer

  1. Dan says:

    Quick thought: If you find this exercise useful, why not have all students do it? Why should only those motivated to increase their grade 2 points experience this assignment? Wouldn’t someone with a 57, 67, 72, 81, or 100 benefit too?


    • Good point, Dan, and I agree. I have other reflection assignments in any marking period worth 15% of their grade. SInce only one student took me up here, on one question, I now have a reservoir of questions to select from!


  2. Very interesting! I liked the questions for the math students, and as a teacher I would keep them for future use. These are important questions for making personal connections to math and the real world. Could be used on a weekly basis, for improving communication and research skills, and to develop your community of learners.

    If you use the assignment for extra credit, you might consider the opinion of an English teacher to see how they would present it? Students have trouble putting the activity in context, since it’s not a typical – though it is very valuable – math assignment. Supply the marking scheme up-front, so the students know the target they’re trying to hit.

    Around here (in Ontario) we would probably model the activity as a whole group on week 1, then on week 2 we might give the students more independence but still guide with feedback, then on week 3 release the students to independence.

    Oh, and marks are not really a good motivator except for students with really good marks, so that might explain why a lot of students won’t do squat to improve grades, but they’ll sometimes move worlds if they’re motivated through other means.

    Good luck!


    • Any ideas as to the “other means” Mike? Especially a variety of them for diverse student populations? I teach in an underprivileged community with over 60% low income and 97% students of color. I did not expect many to take up the offer, but the one that did brought her grade from a D to a C-. She has external pressure on her to do so, otherwise, I agree she likely would not have done it.


  3. Karen says:

    I’ve noticed that students don’t seem to be as enticed by extra credit opportunities as I would have expected. I don’t know how to motivate them to do extra work if they aren’t willing to internalize the need for help themselves. I’m working on that one myself. I like your idea and think the questions are definitely ones worth exploring. Maybe you can break the questions down into weekly assignments and do a class discussion? Participation points could be awarded, including extra points for obviously researched answers.


    • I really like the idea of tying responses into a whole class discussion. It fits well with an inspirational experience from yesterday in my practicum class where a PhD candidate at my ed school brought in her entire class of high school juniors and they shared various assignments and whole class discussions with my student teacher cohort. While the students were from a charter school, and hence, less representative of public school student malaise (i.e., not a simple random sample), their stories reflect the challenges of their community and more importantly their efforts to make sense of their world through their studies, which is a main thrust of their teacher / PhD candidate. It was an emotional experience to listen to and to observe these students’ voices. It gives me hope for the future of these students, and our society. Now, if only our educational system will stop trying to force everyone into the same mold.


  4. Paula Coyner says:

    I think you did an outstanding job of offering students the opportunity to go above and beyond on their own time with an assignement that would benefit them. I think your CT was off base in her comments. Students need to take responsiblity for their own learning and for their own grades. You made the offer – they didn’t take you up on it. It’s sort of like in my work when I offer someone a bonus to handle a project that will have to be done on their own time as a way to make some extra money – I rarely have anyone take me up on it.


  5. eo says:

    Yeah, forget extra credit except for makeup for tests where someone did poorly and they come to you with a request. But any of those topics would be great extra credit if the student was motivated.

    This would be a great assignment if it was required and if you could take class time to share the reports.

    What I notice here is that you are buying in to the idea that grades are important. For 95% of kids that can only be true if their parents have abused them around the issue.


    • Hi eo. See my reply to Karen’s comment, above, re: this being a required assignment and sharing – great minds think alike!

      On importance of grades, that’s something for me to ponder…they have always been important to me, and they are for a subset of students…and they are overweighted and overrated IMO…however, they also exclude so many so I want students to have the option to improve theirs if they want to…getting them to want to, or understand why they might need to is another story…


  6. Jack Dieckmann says:

    Hello Dave – I applaud this effort. I am continually perplexed as to why struggling students do not take these extra chances to earn a few more points. I have been tinkering with this kind of assignments in the past few weeks. I’ve been showing some “extreme sports” youtube videos in the warm up and asking students to identify to variables that are related: For extreme surfing, they might say: “the stronger the winder, the bigger the waves…” We have had a lot of fun with this. But, I’ve done it now about 8 times, with the math goal of building intuition around functional relationships. Then, in an unrelated quiz, I included a cute picture of a little girl listening to headphones (something calming). For extra credit, students could describe a plausible relationship from the picture. Some of the ideas were: “the faster the music, the faster her foot taps,” or “the louder the music, the more damage to her ears,” and “the more studying she does, the more she will learn.” (I guess this is what studying looks like to them!). In any event, we started it in class, made it a fun but short escape from the doldrums of the usual equations, and then gave them a chance to get creative. I sweetened the pot and said that I would be looking for the best one in several categories, to be determined at some future point. I think this some resonance with the goals of your report.


  7. Cal says:

    Hi, Dave–haven’t read your blog for a while. Sorry to be late to the game.

    First, I think your CT was not completely off base. I would have just included one question–how do you see math being used around you? In general, you tend to put more text than needed on your stuff, I’ve noticed (because I’m guilty of the same thing). Don’t overwhelm them with questions.

    Second, while I wouldn’t have gone around to the students one on one, I would definitely have targeted a few students who I thought I could have pushed into doing it and asked them, while helping them with other math, if they were planning on the extra credit assignment, and make it clear what it would do to their grade. I’d make it this ongoing schtick “Done your extra credit yet? No? Come on, do I have to tell you again how it would help your grade?” and so on.

    I don’t agree with the way she presented it–as if its failure was your fault. I agree with most of the commenters that the kids just don’t do extra credit.

    In general, however, let me push back on the whole idea of extra credit. At the beginning of the year, I often get students asking me “How can I get a better grade?” and I say “Do better on tests.” Their faces usually fall, but it’s amazing how they start to get the idea and work harder on tests, dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing the answer but moving forward and doing their best on a test by estimating, showing what they know. Many students who normally get As in other classes where homework and extra credit count end up extremely proud of their B in my class, because they worked it up from a C. And I often get students telling me they ended up learning more math this way.

    So while you’re having an issue with kids not doing the work at all, I submit it’s actually better than having kids push you for ways to artificially enhance their grade (and yeah, I view extra credit as artificial).

    Oh, and hi, Jack! Let’s get together for coffee next week if you’re free (and reading this).


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