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Extra Credit: Bonus or Bogus?

In psychology class. Taking the final exam. You see this extra credit question: Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added onto your final paper grade. But there’s a small catch: if more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points.Such was the case for University of Maryland psych students in their recent final. Professor Dylan Selterman was using his take on the “Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons,” which posits the scenario of two separated prisoners who must confess or remain silent upon questioning. If both confess, they receive jail time. If neither confesses, they both receive lesser jail time. If one confesses and the other remains silent, the confessor goes free while the silent prisoner serves an even greater sentence. The students were to use their semester’s learning to work out the better choice.

The news article reported that a student took a picture of the extra credit question which went viral after he posted it on Twitter. The comments in response to this article are fascinating. Some suggest that the professor is “evil” while others laud him as being clever. I saw no responses that called into question the use of extra credit in higher education which initially surprised me and subsequently reminded me of my excessive assessment nerdiness that few of my friends share.

Indeed, I asked some of my educator friends what they thought of this egregious abuse of assessment, and the response was generally in support of a psychology teacher offering extra credit on this test, given that it was in the genre of psychology. Despite my protests that this would not provide an honest reflection of the students’ knowledge or understanding, most suggested that a few extra points didn’t really matter anyway. I conceded that this was probably NOT a test from a competency based grading system, and since we didn’t really know what the learning targets were, that it was impossible to weigh in on the relevance of the extra credit question. But if this is a concept important enough to feature on a test, doesn’t it deserve scoring as an actual test question? And if it is aligned to the learning targets, shouldn’t we offer students the opportunity to explain their thinking rather than let their potential points earned on a test be at the mercy of the level of greed of fellow classmates?

In our work on the Quality Performance Assessment team at CCE, we strive to help educators make sure they are assessing what they intend to assess while ensuring equity for all students. This extra credit example underscores a way educators sometimes miss the mark in task design. While it may seem nit-picky, we want educators to ask these tough questions and push back against “business as usual” when they think of assessment.

The inequity of this particular question aside, if we want tests to provide an accurate assessment of a student’s understanding—and support of standardized tests by parents, tax-payers, and policy makers would suggest this is true—don’t we want those tests—all tests—to be valid and reliable?

Ultimately, Professor Selterman has given this extra credit question a number of times, and only once did any students receive any extra credit. So the points, whether aligned to the learning targets or not, did not come into play. I would offer that this exercise in extra credit probably tells us far more about students’ understanding of how to play the odds, rather than how far they will go in the field of psychology. And, perhaps they receive feedback on their relative strength or ineptitude in game theory. Though I doubt it.