Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on September 4, 2008


typewriter1          In every department at every university in America, there’s a group of really old professors who love to bitch about how worthless their students are these days.  Back when they started teaching in 1964, students took their C-minus grade – and they liked it.  Of course, back when they started teaching in 1964, The Beatles were performing on The Ed Sullivan Show and oil companies paid drivers 34 cents a gallon just to drive their cars.  The point is, times are changing.

          In part, these old guys are right to be pissed off.  Grade inflation in the college sector is real, but the problem of inflated grades has also permeated every level of education, and it’s not going away any time soon.  So, as professors, we’ve got to adapt.  The real issue that our profession’s more senior members are complaining about is this: you, the students, just aren’t leaving the university with as much information in your head as students did back when Lyndon Johnson was President.  In response, they’re still giving out their 1964-style grades to punish you in an attempt to single-handedly correct the consumer driven nature of the modern university, and you keep hammering them for their 50-year old bell curve on end-of-the-semester evaluations.  Look, I understand that almost all of you need a GPA of 3.5 or above to get into some kind of graduate school; but we, your professors, need to feel like you’ve left our classes having actually learned something, and having actually earned your grade.   So, if you are concerned about your grade, here’s what not to do.

          Every semester, during finals week, I’ll get several of these emails:

“Dear Dr. Wizard,

I know that I’m probably going to get a B-minus in this class because I kind of blew off the first paper and my boyfriend broke up with me (or I kind of went out a little too hard) the night before the midterm exam.  But I really need an A so that I can get a 3.8 this semester so that I can get into law school (or medical school).  Is there any way you could give me an A?


Student who should have asked me this question six weeks ago.”

         Bottom line: I’m not going to just give you an A, and neither are (most of) your other professors.  But if you had a problem early in the semester and didn’t do your best on a previous assignment, I’ve got no qualms with letting you do as much extra credit work as it takes to raise your grade to whatever you want it to be.  This, however, comes with two caveats: #1) you must prove that you have legitimately learned something from the extra credit (this is the whole point of education – and it’s a fair compromise between you getting the grade you want and my desire to teach you British modernism), and #2) you must ask early in the semester.  What’s early in the semester?  On a traditional semester calendar – six weeks prior to finals.  This means November 1 in the fall and April 1 in the spring.  The last thing your professors need is extra grading during finals week.

        What will extra credit look like?  It will always be different, but, for example, in my class, I’ll assign you as many oral book reports as I feel are needed to justify the bump in grade you want – on books related to the class that I’ve already read and won’t need to do any extra work to evaluate – and then I’ll quiz you on it/them for twenty minutes until I’m certain you understand the argument.  And while you’ll occasionally run into a professor who just won’t agree with this philosophy, what you need to know is that, for most of the people whom your parents are entrusting with your education, it’s about how you frame the question.  Ask nicely, ask early, and you’ll probably get a chance to earn that grade you want.  Then again, maybe the easiest way is just to study for the midterm in the first place.


3 Responses

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  1. MS said, on September 6, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Well, Dr. Wizard, I was originally concerned about this post, and against the concept of extra credit, until I reached the final paragraph. You write that the student will have to give an oral book report plus endure a 20 minute quiz. Are these one and the same? If so, I’ll start offering extra credit in my courses. I think 20 minutes of sustained questioning in front of 30 classmates not only teaches the student to do the work in the first place (which was my original philosophy) but it also teaches 29 other students supplemental material, and is cheap entertainment for me.

  2. drwizard said, on September 6, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    MS – To answer to your first question: Yes, they are one and the same. I tend to think of the oral book report as a five-minute summary, followed by 15-20 minutes of questions. And you’re right, it’s a good (and personally entertaining) way to bring in supplemental material. For instance, if it’s a course on 19th century British women writeres and we’re reading Jane Eyre, I might have a student deliver a book report on Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic at the beginning of class, then branch off of my individual questioning of that student into a larger class discussion. Everybody wins – and the student earns the opportunity to make up for any prior indiscretions which may have had unfortunate implications for his or her future.

  3. Dramadoctor said, on December 7, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Hi Dr. Wizard, I just discovered your site from a colleague’s recommendation and I enjoy it very much.

    I find myself deeply torn on the extra-credit thing. As the product of an undergraduate tradition that, from my experience, did NOT inflate grades (and this was the early 1990s, so we’re dealing with the Cobain era, not the LBJ era), I entered the professoriate with the deeply-embedded sense that those who earn “A”s distinguish themselves from the pack somehow. (This makes “B” an accomplishment as well, and “C” perfectly satisfactory, in accordance with how the university officially defines the grades.) Quite simply, I had to work my butt off to get the “A”s I received.

    As such, I’ve done semesters in which I have categorically refused to allow extra credit on the principle that the syllabus requirements are numerous enough to counterbalance a poor performance on a single exam or paper. But, in other semesters, I’ve relented, under the philosophy that perhaps extra credit counterbalances pedagogical shortcomings.

    (A recent influential factor to the latter was a pedagogy conference in which a luminary asked us to seriously consider the proposition that lower grades are in great part the result of ineffective pedagogy, instead of being primarily the student’s shortcoming. I am still wrestling with this one and probably will continue to do so for years to come.)

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