I hate messages like this:
Dear Dr. Z,Would you consider coming to class on time? Or coming to my office hour for assistance? You were half an hour late to the last two class sessions and you have never sought help during the hour I'm in my office right after class.
I am wondering if there are any extra credit or make up exam I can do to improve my grade to an A? This is very important to me to get an A at this class, please let me know.
Actually, I didn't say that to her. I tried to be more subtle:
Thanks for your message. There is very little extra credit in a calculus class like ours. (I give a few extra points to students who put solutions up on the board.) A good grade depends mostly on doing well on exams. You should focus on being prepared for those. It would also be a good idea to earn all the points possible on quizzes, even though they're not worth as much as exams, so attending class regularly and on time (so you don't miss the ones at the beginning of the period) is also a priority.As you may have noted from my response, the “I need an A” message arrived the day before an exam. That's never a good sign. It smacks of grasping for straws after a frustrating study session.
The main reason I don't give much extra credit or make-up work is because an A should reflect mastery of the subject, not the amount of extra work one does.
Be ready for tomorrow's exam and do the best you can. You are doing rather well in the class and can be confident of at least a B for the course. An A is more difficult, but within reach if you earn excellent scores on the remaining two chapter tests and the final.
I tried to be reasonably encouraging. The student has been earning a middling B in the course, but after looking over the most recent exam I can see why her concerns are mounting. She may be one of those “one-shot” students—those who cram facts and examples into their heads just before a test and lose it all the moment they walk out the door afterward. That is, of course, the kiss of death in a math course, or any other course where cumulative knowledge is at a premium. Today's exam was about optimization techniques, but it requires everything the students learned in preparation for the exam on differentiation methods. While she passed the differentiation exam (squeaking out a B with a score of 80%), since then she's gotten a little unclear on the power and product rules. This is not good. Her B is weakening and can't withstand a continued slide in her performance.
You'll note that I also gently prodded my student about coming to school on time, since she has missed quizzes that were held at the start of class. The day after I sent her the gentle reminder, she strolled in thirty minutes late. Apparently she did not feel any need to attend the in-class review session that I conducted just before administering the exam. The preliminary indications suggest her need was greater than she realized.
A colleague and I discussed the situation in which my student finds herself. My colleague suggested that the “extra credit” approach might have worked for her in the past, especially in classes other than math. If it's worked before, one can hardly blame her for trying again. I just regret that she's seized on it as a panacea for her predicament.
But what does “extra credit” signify? Bonus points might increase a student's grade, but they say nothing about whether a student actually learned anything. I suppose I could devise extra-credit projects that would entail solving actual mathematical problems, but that's what homework is for. If you're still unclear on the concept after doing the homework, then it's time to see the teacher (I should think). Or raise questions during the homework review session in class (which the student in question never does).
The clear impression I received from my student (and others like her in past years) is that “extra credit” is the magical solution that permits any diligent student to rack up the points necessary for a target grade—entirely independent of mastery or comprehension. Understanding stuff is challenging, but earning a grade via the extra-credit route merely requires a willingness to grind away at point-earning projects. Frankly, I think grades earned that way are bogus grades. They may look great on a transcript, but they mislead you about the student's accomplishments. They mislead the student, too. Witness the example of my student, who struggles with the product rule for derivatives yet thinks she could reasonably hope for an A in calculus.
I'm afraid one of her biggest lessons this summer session will not be mathematical.
Update: The exam results are in. My “needs an A” student managed a score of only 64%. Her course average drops from a lower-middle B to a high C. The trend line is not encouraging. The evidence now suggests she would have to work diligently to demonstrate that she is a good calculus student—let alone excellent.