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The Laws of Extra Credit

Jordan Catapano


At the end of the grading period, students often ask, “Is there anything I can do for extra credit?” They are interested in bumping their grade up a little bit, getting it just a little higher than they have with just the regular credit that they’ve earned. Should you allow students to do this? Is extra credit helpful to students’ overall learning, or is it just a ploy for students to artificially inflate their grades?

Extra credit is not innately harmful or superficial. If you’re considering incorporating extra credit opportunities into your classroom, make sure you follow these simple Laws of Extra Credit to maximize the impact that it can have.

Law #1: Extra Credit Must Truly Be “Extra”

This first law of extra credit means that students cannot earn additional points if they have failed to complete the regular assignments and tests. Extra credit is not something that should be applied to cover the “zeroes” for ignoring previous work. Just like one applies a painting to decorate a wall, one applies extra credit to decorate a score. If there’s no existing wall, no painting can hang on it – and the same goes for extra credit. It cannot exist unless all regular credit is completed. When students complete extra credit work, they cannot have those points apply to their grade before all “zeroes” have been properly made up.

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Law #2: Extra Credit Must Relate to the Academic Goals of the Course

The whole idea of extra credit is that if students are willing to do extra work related to the academic course goals, then they may be awarded additional points. This means that students may not earn points for arbitrary tasks such as bringing in Kleenex or winning a game. A student’s grade is meant to represent their academic achievement, so to add extra credit values that contradict the normal coursework score would misrepresent their academic achievement total. Extra credit that requires students perform additional academic work also means that students are encouraged to further study and practice the course’s skills beyond what the normal workload calls for.

Law #3: Extra Credit Cannot Misrepresent a Student’s Academic Ability

While extra credit should certainly boost a student’s score, it cannot compound the score so much that it entirely misrepresents the student’s ability level. This means that there needs to be a limit to how much extra credit can be earned. If a student currently has a C in class, it would be misleading to award that student an A-, because he or she turned in loads of extra credit the last week of the semester. The student likely wouldn’t have achieved anywhere near an A- level, but the extra credit would obscure their actual academic ability. Grades can be improved, but only within a small range that still remains a true representation of their achievement capabilities.

Law #4: Extra Credit Must be Based on Merit, Not on Completion

Although it may be tempting to simply award a “completion” grade to any voluntary extra credit work, teachers must assess students’ extra credit work just as rigorously as they assess regular course work. The objective of extra credit is to encourage growth in knowledge and ability beyond the normal coursework. So if teachers hold extra credit to a lower standard, then they are only encouraging students to “just turn in something” to boost a grade rather than more conscientiously increasing their abilities.

Law #5: Extra Credit is Plan B; Plan A is Revision

Extra credit is a positive, viable option in many circumstances. However, before you offer students an opportunity to earn it, have you considered allowing them to revise their regular coursework for a higher grade? The process of revision can be an extremely beneficial tool that teaches students to reflect on their progress and abilities and take steps to strengthen it. Revision also encourages students to meet with their teachers for conferences to receive highly beneficial one-on-one attention. So instead of creating new opportunities, consider how you can help reinforce the skills and outcomes of previous ones.

Extra credit is a potentially powerful tool teachers can utilize to encourage further student growth beyond the regular assignment load. It can also be a disaster that misleadingly inflates student grades without regard to sincere academic achievement reporting. If you follow the above stated Laws of Extra Credit, then you’re on the right path to ensuring that your students will benefit a great deal of these additional opportunities you grant them!

Which Laws would you add to this list? Which ones are here that you’d take out? Tell us about how you use extra credit effectively in your classroom!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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