We have two more weeks of classes and a week of finals to go, and this past week I had several students come to my office to go through their grades and figure out what they have to do to get the grade they want to get. Personally, I would rather they start out the semester thinking about this, but I know that doesn't happen and so it is around this point of the term that we work through this. In many cases this conversation at some point gets around to "Do you offer extra credit in this course?"
Let us go to the other side of the orange slippery slide of confusion for a discussion of this rather simple question.
When I started teaching the simple answer was "no." And I still hesitate about that.
One of the reasons I would hesitate to offer extra credit was that when I was young it was something that was a private arrangement for particular favoured students. Those of us who worked through the semester and struggled to maintain an A and do our best work throughout would be equaled at the end by a slacker, but charming, student who convinced the teacher that cleaning the office or doing something for the football team or some such thing would end up with nearly the same grade. I really hated this way of doing things. My mother always told me I had too highly developed a sense of fairness, but this never seemed fair to me, and thus it was really "wrong." Everyone needed to follow the same rules.
Of course, this applying the same rules to everyone and making them clear from the beginning is an important aspect of constructing a syllabus. I try to make the instructions/rules/requirements for the class clearly set out in the syllabus so that everyone knows at the beginning of the semester what they will have to do to succeed. I do set out opportunities for belly flops, or at least ways to offset the face plants that come when my students try something they have never tried before. I give them multiple pop quizzes over the semester to encourage them to study regularly, and drop the two lowest marks. In one class I take the top three of four tests, hopefully offsetting test anxiety. In another I periodically give them across the board full points as long as they participated in group projects. In other words, if they do the work, and try to succeed even outside their comfort zones, I will give them an opportunity to do well in the class.
In only one class this semester am I giving the students the possibility of extra credit. That is accomplished with an assignment that is above and beyond what can be done in town. We do not have a museum available in town and while I can pretty well assume that my students will at least be somewhat familiar with Renaissance and later aesthetics, I can't do the same for non-western visual material. I cannot take them to a museum to show them such stuff, so I instead reward them for going to a museum with a significant non-western collection (I recommend a few in state and a few out of state for them to choose from, but the closest are some 3 hours drive away). I give them a set of questions to answer by writing a short essay. This is not an automatic full set of points, but as they are putting the effort into this, I do tend to grade pretty generously. But the experience of seeing material similar to what we are studying in class, and very dissimilar to what they normally see in museums around here, is what I am rewarding them for. And it is a pretty good reward -- the points make up about 4% of the final class mark, so the points they earn can very easily make the difference between a B or an A, or a C and a B. Every time I teach the class I get a submission from a student or two who has a straight A going into the last exam. This doesn't bother me as an example of brown-nosing or grade-grubbing, but rather a situation where a good student is always trying to figure out more and get more out of a class.
Of course it is easier if one of the museums is in a student's home town, but there are always students the people in the class can go home with for the weekend. And there is a train to one city and a (relatively cheap) flight to the other main one in my state, so public transportation is possible. I understand that not everyone could do the assignment, but it is not necessary to get an A in the class.
What I don't want is for students to do something outside of the scope of the class and be rewarded with class credit for it. Then the learning aspect of the class is lost. Giving extra credit for meeting with visiting prospective students, or volunteering at a food bank might be relevant to some classes, but I don't think they would be right for me to give credit for in an art or history class. Perhaps for public relations, or sociology classes they would be ideal. But they should be also a thing students do because they want to do good things for the university or for the broader community in general.
What has been your experience with extra credit? Do you assign it or make it available? Do you value it as a second chance opportunity, or do you grind your teeth to stubs when a student asks that inevitable question?