# Is there any research on the value of extra credit in the college mathematics classroom?

After teaching mathematics for a year, where in each class I had opportunities for my students to earn extra credit, I am reflecting on whether this has any value.

The reason why I am questioning this is that most of the students that do the extra credit are students that have good study skills, work hard, and are excelling in the class. I think extra credit is a good opportunity for students to try harder problems, but I also gave extra credit with the hope that the weaker students have other opportunities to show their understanding of the material.

Maybe I have to reevaluate my motivation for providing extra credit, but I wanted to know if there was evidence or reasearch on whether or not providing extra credit is valuable in an undergraduate mathematics class.

To differentiate my question from the post, Is extra credit appropriate?, I want to know if there is any research on this.

• Also, I am worried that extra credit may be unfair, as expressed in this post: smallpondscience.com/2013/08/29/… Commented May 27, 2016 at 18:13
• I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't much actual research on this. See tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10511970.2015.1122690 for related difficulties with respect to assessing "gamification", which one could consider as similar in effect to extra credit. Commented May 31, 2016 at 17:10
• However, there are a number of articles discussing giving various kinds of reading assignments or other "flipping" assignments, some of which may be assessed in an extra credit fashion, and I believe there is some evidence that these lead to some gains. Of course, usually such things are "mandatory" in some sense, though that can be a fairly vague sense. Commented May 31, 2016 at 17:12
• The problem with answering the question "Is extra credit valuable?" is that you first have to define how you are measuring "value". Obviously people who earn extra credit may get higher grades -- is that your criterion for "value"? If not, then what is the thing you are trying to increase, and how is it different from what you are measuring when you give a grade to a student? Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 17:53

Marian Minar kind of beat me to it -- I don't know how much research is done specifically on extra credit but there is a huge body of literature on motivation, and I think that's at the heart of the question (Which I think of as, "Is extra credit valuable in the sense of getting students to engage with their work?").

According to self-determination theory motivation can be thought of in terms of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, that is, motivation based on a self-determined value inherent in the task itself versus motivation based on a value outside the task; and in terms of autonomous versus controlled motivation, that is, motivation that is determined by the person versus that which is determined by another.

Autonomous motivation contains all of what we classify as intrinsic motivation, as well as extrinsic motivation that has "buy-in" from the person. For example, a student who studies hard for a calculus test because she finds calculus really fascinating or because she simply enjoys the process of practicing math problems is intrinsically (therefore autonomously) motivated. A student who studies hard for a calculus test, not because he enjoys calculus but because he has a dream of being an engineer and realizes that doing well in calculus is important for becoming a successful engineer, is extrinsically but autonomously motivated.

By contrast, a student who studies for a calculus test only for a grade (in which he places no intrinsic value) or because failing a test would cause feelings of shame or uselessness, is experiencing controlled motivation -- any motivation that occurs is there on someone else's terms.

As far as extra credit goes -- does extra credit motivate students? If so is this autonomous motivation or controlled? This, I don't know, and I don't have any research references handy -- but it would be interesting to find out, and this is what you'd search for.

Speaking of which, a quick ERIC search for peer-reviewed articles with "extra credit" in either the title or abstract brings up 95 results. Just skimming these, the theme for many of them seems to be that students were given some interesting activity, often involving active learning, to do as extra credit and it seemed to improve learning. If those results hold up, I think the learning gains would be more attributable to the active learning than they would be to the fact that they are extra credit. In other words, maybe what people are doing for extra credit ought to be the normal assignments and activities in the class!

References:

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. The American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. http://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68

• There are some references to the work of TM Amabile in the linked wikipage on Self-determination theory -- I would definitely recommend [to anyone interested...] checking out more of her work as it relates to motivators in the study of creativity ... Commented Jun 17, 2016 at 23:30

Your question opens up the field of motivation in education, on which much research has been performed. In my opinion, "extra credit" is an extrinsic motivation tool and I refer you to the work of Jere Brophy to find out how to appropriately use it. Contrast this with intrinsic motivation in your search. Unfortunately, you may find that having one policy for "improving the grade" of students will have a limited effect: you should be ready to give students several options depending on your assessment of their skills. Full disclosure: I am a high school teacher. However, the research done on theory of motivation applies to adult learners as well.