Credit Where Credit Is Due

Like many people who teach undergraduate students, I get a visceral reaction when one of them asks for “extra credit”  opportunities. It’s always a student who won’t even do the bare minimum of what’s assigned in the syllabus. Recently I noticed I was getting the same reaction to colleagues who were encouraging me to me to award students extra credit for attending the lectures of invited speakers. I believed that students should be intrinsically motivated to go to these talks and that rewarding attendance communicated the message that they could safely pay less attention to the real work of reading and writing in my courses. So my usual response, whether spoken aloud or not, was no, this is not going to result in extra credit.

Then I realized that my reaction was the product of an emotional attachment to what I believed the world should be rather than the world that actually exists. I and my course are not what’s most important in my students’ lives, no matter how much I think they should be. And most people retain very little of what they encountered as undergraduates anyway.

Who better for students to learn from than people who are actual practitioners of what I and others teach? Many of my students were trained throughout elementary and high school to think that learning entails nothing but writing definitions on worksheets handed out by a teacher. They need to see the real world applications and consequences of the ideas that they are presented with in the classroom. And if a lecture is a waste of their time because the speaker is an idiot, they need to be able to explain why.

In future semesters, my syllabi will include assignments in which students write about the connections between what they are doing in my courses and what they hear at lectures outside of class. Given the number of speakers who come to campus every semester, it should not be too difficult for students to find two or three lectures to attend. For students who work or have other commitments in the evenings, I can just add some additional reading and writing assignments and include them when calculating grades. Everyone will be doing more work and, I hope, taking more responsibility for their own learning.

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