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Is Extra Credit a Worthwhile Option?

Among teachers, extra credit work has its supporters and its critics, and there are a large number of "undecideds" as well. (Sounds like a political poll!) The range of viewpoints is understandable because the whats, when, whys and hows of extra-credit assignments really matter. Many instructors can't determine whether extra credit is a benefit or a liability, whether it is a point of contention or a headache. In other words, often it is a controversial practice.

When considering extra credit, think about these questions.

1) Does extra credit urge the students to spend less effort on their main assignments?

2) Are extra credit assignments meaningful or mere busy work?

3) Will extra credit encourage student behaviors that will not serve them well in the real world?

4) Should extra credit opportunities be extended to every student or be offered only to certain students on a case-by-case basis?

5) Can extra credit work contribute to grade inflation?

Teaching on the college level, I find that particular instructors never offer extra credit under any circumstances. (That’s me!) Others embrace it as a way to help students learn the course material or improve an unacceptable test score. A small minority, if pushed, will confess they only offer it when students wear them down until they finally give in to it. Most instructors understand that if there are too many opportunities for extra credit, it could possibly outweigh the required course assignments to the point where a student could pass the class without meeting all the standards. (YIKES!!)

I have always been anti-extra credit, the central reason being that it can inflate grades and allow students to receive grades that truly do not reflect their abilities or understanding of a subject. (Remember, I teach math.)  This is the way I view it.
  • Extra credit reinforces students’ beliefs that they don’t need to work hard because whatever they miss or choose not to do, they can make up with extra credit. 
  • Often, students who ask for extra credit tend to be those who aren’t succeeding or those who hope they won’t have to work hard because some easy extra credit opportunities will be available to them. 
  • It is an unintended chance to make up for low scores on earlier exams or missed assignments. (I would NEVER create extra credit assignments at the end of a grading period for students who needed a boost in their grades.) 
  • Time spent on extra credit means less time spent on regular assignments. 
  • Extra credit (especially if it is easy) lowers academic standards for everyone in the class. 
  • It is basically unfair to students who work hard and get it done the first time or turned in when it is due. 
  • Extra credit means more work for me in that it has to be graded! 
So after all of my rambling about extra credit work, my question to you is:

"What are your thoughts (pros and cons) about extra credit?" 
Leave a comment to participate in the discussion.


Drill or Practice? They Are NOT the Same!


When I was a kid, one of the things I dreaded most was going to the dentist. Even though we were poor, my Mom took my brother and me every six months for a check-up.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have fluoridated water or toothpaste that enhanced our breath, made our teeth whiter, or prevented cavities.  I remember sitting in the waiting room hearing the drill buzzing, humming, and droning while the patient whined or moaned.  Needless to say, I did not find it a pleasant experience.

I am troubled that, as math teachers, we have carried over this idea of drill into the classroom. Math has become a “drill and kill” activity instead of a “drill and thrill” endeavor.  Because of timed tests or practicing math the same way over and over, many students whine and moan when it is math time.  So how can we get student to those “necessary” skills without continually resorting to monotonous drill?

First we must understand the difference between drill and practice.  In math drill refers to repetitive, non-problematic exercises which are designed to improve skills (memorizing basic math facts) or procedures the student already has acquired. It provides:

1)   Increased proficiency with one strategy to a predetermined level of mastery. To be important to learners, the skills built through drill must become the building blocks for more meaningful learning. Used in small doses, drill can be effective and valuable.

2)   A focus on a singular procedure executed the same way as opposed to understanding.  (i.e. lots of similar problems on many worksheets)  I have often wondered why some math teachers assign more than 15 homework problems.  For the student who understands the process, they only need 10-15 problems to demonstrate that.  For students who have no idea what they are doing, they get to practice incorrectly more than 15 times!

Unfortunately, drill also provides:


  3) A false appearance of understanding.  Because a student can add 50 problems in one minute does not mean s/he understands the idea of grouping sets.

 4) A rule orientated view of math.  There is only one way to work a problem, and the reason why is not important!  (Just invert and multiply but never ask the reason why.)

5)   A fear, avoidance, and a general dislike of mathematics. A constant use of math drills often leaves students uninterested.

On the other hand, practice is a series of different problem-based tasks or experiences, learned over numerous class periods, each addressing the same basic ideas. (ex. different ways to multiply)  It provides:

1)   Increased opportunity to develop concepts and make connections to other mathematical ideas.  (i.e. A fraction is a decimal is a percent is a ratio.)

2)   A focus on providing and developing alternative strategies.  My philosophy, which hangs in my classroom, is: “It is better to solve one problem five ways than to solve five problems the same way.”  (George Polya)

3)   A variety of ways to review a math concept.  (ex. games, crosswords, puzzles, group work)

4)   A chance for all students to understand math and to ask why. (Why do we invert and multiply when dividing fractions?) 

5)   An opportunity for all students to participate and explain how they arrived at the answer. Some may draw a picture, others may rely on a number line, or a few may use manipulatives. Good practice provides feedback to the students, and explains ways to get the correct answer.

Let’s look at it this way. A good baseball coach may have his players swing again and again in the batting cage. This drill will help, but by itself it will not make a strong baseball player whereas practicing hitting a ball with a pitcher requires reacting to the different pitches with thought, flexibility, and skill.
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I am of the opinion that drill should not be omitted from the math classroom altogether.  Basic math skills should be automatic because being fluent in the basics makes advanced math easier to grasp.  There is a place for drill; however, its use should be kept to situations where the teacher is certain that is the most appropriate form of instruction.  Even though practice is essential, for math it isn't enough. If understanding doesn't come, practice and drill will only leave a student with disjointed skills. If we want to produce strong mathematicians, we must focus on the BIG conceptual ideas through practice in problem-based lessons. We must present ideas in as many forms as we can so that students will go beyond rote drill to insight.

If you are interested in sharing this with your staff, colleagues or parents, check out the power point entitled: Drill vs. Practice

Math Vocabulary Practice

I have discovered teaching the language of math is significant to teaching math concepts and procedures. Students need to use correct mathematics terminology as vocabulary knowledge provides students with a mathematics foundation they can apply and build on whether they are in or out of the classroom. It really is all about the word, the right words! Since mathematical language is used and understood around the world, conventional mathematics vocabulary gives our students the means of communicating those concepts universally.

With that said, I have discovered that my college students hate learning, reviewing or even practicing math vocabulary. I always begin the semester with a Mathematical Language Activity (see below) in which the students write two paragraphs about how they feel about the math language. You'd be surprised at how much I learn!


Even though my students have vocabulary assignments, and we play vocabulary games, especially before a test, many times they do it begrudgingly. Knowing that most of them like word puzzles, I created several math vocabulary crosswords to use in my classroom. The purpose of these puzzles is to have my students practice, review, recognize and use correct geometric vocabulary. I've made all of the crosswords free-form puzzles with the clues written in the form of definitions. 

Often, I create two different puzzles for the same math vocabulary. The first puzzle is easier as it contains a word bank while the second puzzle does not. Since both puzzles are laid out differently, I can use one as a review and the second one as a homework assignment or maybe even as a quiz.

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My newest crossword is on circles. Both puzzles feature 18 terms associated with circles. The words showcased in both puzzles are arc, area, chord, circle, circumference, degrees, diameter, equidistant, perimeter, pi, radii, radius, secant, semicircle, tangent and two. 

Also available are crosswords on polygons (includes 16 geometric shapes with an emphasis on quadrilaterals and triangles), plain geometry (features 25 different geometry terms with an emphasis on points, lines, and angles), and solid geometry (emphasizes polyhedrons, circles, and formulas for area, surface area, and volume).

To keep my old gray matter working, I do the paper crossword every Sunday. To many of our students, math is like a puzzle, but maybe they can learn to love figuring out the puzzle by doing these crosswords. Why not give one a try in your classroom?

Yes or No? Stay or Go? Solving for "x" in a linear equation.


When my basic college algebra classes begin solving equations containing one unknown, I tell them, they are inquisitive detectives looking for the unknown. My students' greatest difficulty is deciding what stays and what goes in an equation. In other words, which term should be cleared by using the inverse operation and which term should stay where it is?

I  start by referring to the written equation as a teeter-totter or a see-saw which must always stay balanced. In other words, the equal sign is the pivotal point and both sides of that = sign must be the same.  We also discuss the importance of the"Whatsoever thou doest to one side of the equation, we must doest to the other". (Out of necessity, I admit that I was with Moses when he received the Ten Commandments, but it "fell upon me" to convey The First Commandment of Solving Equations to future mathematicians.)

One Unknown
We begin with very simple equations such as: x + 9 = 12. Here's the rub; a few of my students know the answer and do not want to show any of their work. Maybe some of you have this type of student as well. Since, after 40+ years, I am still unable to grade what is in their minds, I insist that all steps are written down. I explain that it's like riding a tricycle to ride a bicycle to ride a unicycle.

First, I instruct the students to look at the equation and determine which terms are out of place. (Side note: Because my students are easily confused, at the present, we keep all of the unknowns on the left side and all of the numbers on the right side of the equal sign.) Let's go back to our sample of x + 9 = 12. Because the x is already on the left side of the equation, the students write a "Y" over it for the word, "Yes". The 9 is on the wrong side of the equal sign, so the students write a "N" over it for "No".  Finally, they write a "Y" over the 12 since it is the correct place. They now have exactly what they want, a Y and N on the right side and a Y on the left side. They now must clear anything that has a "N" over it.  The students recognize they if they use the inverse operation of addition, they can clear the 9. They therefore subtract 9 from each side of the equation resulting in an answer of 3.

Many algebra teachers will have the students write the step x + 0 = 9.  You may wish to include this step in the process, but since my college students readily see that +9 and -9 make zero, they put an X over the two opposites to show that they cancel each other out or when added together, they equal zero.

What if the equation is: 3 = y - 4? This always freaks my students out; yet, if they do the yes/no process, they will discover that they have two "no's" and one "yes", not a yes, no = yes.  This means they can rewrite the equation as y - 4 = 3 to get a yes, no = yes. The problem can now easily be solved like the one above.

Unknown on both sides
of the equation
The next step is what to do when an unknown appears on both sides of the equal sign.   Usually, my students are sure they are incapable of solving such a difficult problem, but let's use the yes/no method and see what it looks like. 

Notice in the sample on the left that we have a yes, no = no, yes. We start by clearing the "N" on the left hand side of the equation by using the inverse of -9. We then go to the right side and clear the y by using the inverse operation of addition. (Yes, I am aware both can be cleared at the same time, but again simple and methodical is what is best for my mathphobics.) We then divide each side by 4 resulting in the answer of 3. When the problem is completed, my students are amazed and proud that they could solve such a long equation. (You might notice in the illustration, a dotted line is drawn vertically where the equal sign is. This helps my visual students to separate the two sides of the equation.)

If any of you try this approach with your students or have a different method, I would love to hear from you. Just leave a comment and a short statement of how this process worked for you or what process you use that is even better. That way, we can learn from each other.

I have made math tutorials for the college where I teach, and one of them goes through this process in detail. If you are interested and would like to hear me sing as well, go to:  Yes/No