Monday, July 13, 2009

The Extra Credit Dilemma

Last Saturday after class, three of my students approached me together to ask whether there was anything they could do to receive extra credit. Their request put me into a little bit of a panic. On the one hand, I've never really allowed extra credit opportunities. I believe that it's unfair to give extra credit because it panders to underperforming students, giving them an opportunity to wheedle an unearned grade out of my class. But on the other hand, these three particular students were fairly good candidates for extra credit. They were pretty hard workers, but they happened to be at an unfortunate disadvantage in my class because they spoke English as a second language.

I've been agonizing over my ESL students all semester long. In a class of 20, one third of my students are ESL speakers. I've never had that many in a single course before. It's been a serious challenge for me, to say the least. Every time I've sat down to grade a major paper, I've been plagued with thoughts about how to treat them equitably. Is it fair to hold them to the same standards as the other students who are native English speakers? If I make them the exception and lower my standards as I grade their drafts, am I cheating the native English speakers who have worked equally hard on their papers?

To date, I've been grading them with the same standards I use with all my students. As justification, I've held the image of my freshman roommate from Hungary in my mind. She had a scholarship and a 4.0---and she worked very hard for it. She studied constantly and didn't have much of a social life. When a major paper was due, she started composing it well in advance, regularly visiting the writing lab and inviting my feedback on her papers. (If I had half her motivation and personal dedication, I probably would have done much better in subjects like Math and Science for which I have absolutely no natural talent.) I figured that if anyone could work hard and thrive academically despite some staunch language barriers, so could my ESL students. And yet, the ex-public school teacher and "good liberal" inside of me doesn't totally buy the everyone-can-pull-themselves-up-by-the-bootstraps schtick. The language barrier is a very real impediment to a student's success and cannot be totally ignored.

So, with all those conflicted thoughts bubbling in the background, today I decided to allow them to write an essay for extra credit. I rather liked the assignment I came up with and I might possibly consider using it again if any students approach me about extra credit in the future. Here's the assignment directions:

English 1010 Extra Credit Essay

The purpose of English 1010 is to teach you how to compose effective written arguments. As the Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing (5th ed.) states:

The study of argumentation involves two components: truth seeking and persuasion. By truth-seeking, we mean a diligent, open-minded, and responsible search for the best course of action or solution to a problem, taking into account all the available information and alternative points of view. By persuasion, we mean the art of making a claim on an issue and justifying it convincingly so that the audience's initial resistance to your position is overcome and they are moved toward your position. (377)

With that in mind, your task is to compose an essay in which you try to convince me (your instructor) why I should give you extra credit for this class. In this essay, you should tell me 1) how much extra credit you would like to receive---would you like 20 points, 40 points, more?---and 2) the reasons why you should receive that amount of extra credit. If I find your argument persuasive, I will award you the extra credit points that you request in your essay. If I do not find your argument persuasive, you may possibly receive no extra points for writing this essay.

In order to write an effective essay, it helps to know a little bit about your audience and which rhetorical appeals he or she will find persuasive. You should assume that I am of the same mindset as Dr. Kurt Wiesenfeld (see the essay entitled "Making the Grade" that I gave out the third week of class). That is to say, you should assume that I feel somewhat opposed to the idea of extra credit because it potentially rewards students for unprofessional behavior and erodes our university's academic standards.

So, based on what you know about me as an instructor, should you appeal to logic (logos)? To emotion (pathos)? To your personal character (ethos)? The choice is yours. (For a helpful review of these three persuasive appeals, see

There is no minimum length for this essay, but your essay should not be any longer than 3 pages, single-spaced in Times New Roman font. Please submit it to me via email on Thursday or earlier. Please remember this essay is purely optional. You do not have to write the essay if you do not choose to.


I'm interested to see how my students respond to this assignment. I figure if they really are able to persuade me to give them extra credit (especially when I'm so resistant to it), they will have met the objectives of my course and they will have earned the extra points fair and square.

If anything interesting comes as a result of this assignment, I'll let you know. :)


Goshert said...


This is a well thought out assignment. I agree with you that it really calls on students (ESL or not) to reflect on course objectives and demonstrate the ways in which they're able to make the intellectual (rather than simply mechanical) moves at the heart of our FYC courses.

While I haven't had too much experience with high concentrations of ESL students in my FYC classes, my inclination has typically been similar to yours, and I hold all students to the same evaluative criteria (just as I do with students who face other challenges in our unique demographic situation, such as young students who are also parents). Certainly though, those criteria are multidimensional, so while some ESL students may be comparatively weak in grammar and mechanics, they may excel in quality of ideas and development of arguments. They thus stand a strong chance of succeeding in my courses, even if over the term their mechanical skills don't entirely reach the level of their college-prepared and native-competent counterparts in the class.

I also think you're right to note that there are substantial resources for all underprepared students on campus, whether ESL or not. I'm not so convinced then that you'd be condemning students to either "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" or fail, since they have the writing lab, ESL tutors, opportunities for peer review and instructor consultation, and so on.

I'll look forward to your reflections of the assignment once you see the results.

Anonymous said...

I like this approach to extra credit. Not only is it course-relevant, and encourages some critical reflection within the classroom, it also goes beyond the classroom: the kind of argumentation you are asking your students to construct is the same kind of thing they need to do in a job interview, a grant application, graduate school application, or in asking for a raise.

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