Differentiated “Extra Credit” for Performance Levels

extra-credit-catExtra credit is a thing of the past.

In my class, there is nothing “extra.” There are opportunities, there are consequences, and admittedly, since we live in a world where grades count, there is credit. But nothing extra.

In my early years of teaching, after an assessment,  students were tempted to see what they got, jubilate or lament, and forget the whole thing. Students who succeeded came to class the next day, buoyant. Students who stumbled were demoralized.

This is not how it should be. With the possible exception of the final exam, every student should have the opportunity to see what they did wrong and learn from it.

The problem is that the same students who get As are often the same students who bother to recover credit. Some would come in to recover a single point. And as their teacher, you know this isn’t a good use of their limited time. Meanwhile, the students who stumble can avoid facing their growth areas.

How do you incentivize students who earn Bs and Cs to spend the time revising, while giving students who earned an A an informal nod to save their time and energy for other things?

Differentiated “Extra” Credit

37707671Students who wish to recover points make an appointment do a series of exercises (or answer questions, or read models of excellence) to get their minds in gear. Then we go over the principles they need to express on the assessment.

Students who earned a C or below on the assessment the first time around can earn up to 15% back. A student who earned a B can earn up to 10% back. A student who earned an A  can earn up to 5%.

The actual amount they learn is a function of how much they actually learn in the session(s) with me, factored by how much of it was their initiative.

Students who show initiative will earn the full amount. A student who wheedles for point might only get half the maximum amount.

Sure, not every student is absolutely thrilled, and not every student can go from a C to an A after a half hour meeting. But every student knows that I see growth as being more important that success, and that mistakes are opportunities for learning.

And more than anything else on an exam, that’s what I want to teach.


#FailForward or #NeverSucceed

This post was first featured on the EVERlab blog for Jewish Community High School of the Bay. EVERlab is our new collaborative, design project for helping students integrate their Jewish and General studies.



People told me I was funny.

I would be at conferences, and the caterer would tell the organizer that dinner was delayed for twenty-five minutes, and the organizer would turn to me: make ’em laugh.

I’d tell stories: how I retired, undefeated, from high school wrestling. How I got lost in Disneyland and showed up, an hour later, covered head to toe, in dried-up, crusty grape-beverage.

People would be howling with laughter.

So, the idea came along: why not stand-up comedy.

I prepared an hour’s worth of jokes, musical numbers, and stories, and with a full house, bombed. Badly.

I never did it again.

Working on EVERlab, we are exposed, frequently, to the concept of #FailForward. It’s a fun name for a basic principle: whatever it is, in the beginning, it won’t work. The wheels will fall off, the circuits will melt, and the app will have more bugs than a foodcourt after dark.

Designers know this, and they know that it’s better to allow for failure, notice the failure, name the failure and fix the failure. Designers know that you don’t flop and quit.

EVERlab has had a few amazing #FailForward moments.

FailForward #1: Palette Design


Prototype 1: Looks good, but…




Our goal was to design a hybrid desk/pinboard/presentation kiosk. We imagined slick panels: students would grab them, scribble ideas on them, pin artifacts from their research, and mount on hooks for pitching their creative projects to teams of students. We called the idea “palette” – a double entendre:  the hand-held platform that holds artists’ paint mashed up with the platform that goods are stacked on for ease of movement.


Reality? The first prototype showed up, and it was a #FailForward festival.

For one, the panel was enormous, taller than most 9th graders (so much for portability). It reminded me of that scene in This Is Spinal Tap, where a giant, imposing Stonehenge is designed for a rock concert, but when the prop shows up, instead of 15 feet tall, the stones are 15 inches tall.

But in reverse.

Secondly, while the cork-board cover looked good, by the time the prototype had been delivered, the cork layer had begun to buckle. It was unusable.

#FailForward 2: Things Fall Down

prototype 2




We wanted students to hang their palettes (now redesigned with a slick, white-board covering, and half the size) on the wall, turning the back of the EVERlab into a collective display gallery.


Students and visitors would get a sense of the creativity unfolding, and both the collective and individual enterprise. We ordered hooks with an adhesive back and mounted them on the wall, and a few hours later (with the help of some industrious and generous colleagues) our panels hung, proudly, ready to receive the sketches and scribbles of our students.

Guess what happened? Chicken-Little would have loved it. Within two days:  the panels are falling, the panels are falling!

We set out to research new hooks. Larger hooks. Hooks with screws and hooks with larger adhesive areas and even giant picture frame hooks that required hammering into the wall.


We still don’t have the answer. We’re working on it. It’s the same thing the start-up company says when I write to them, complaining that the device which helps me locate my lost keys is malfunctioning. “We’re working on it.”



Getting better all the time.

On the one hand, it’s enraging. I want things to work. Now.

On the other hand, I know that nothing ever works right the first time. Or second. Or third.

#FailForward isn’t just a design concept – it’s a life philosophy. It’s within anyone who has ever bombed on stage TWICE, picked up the pieces, rewrote the work, rehearsed it, and got out there and knocked ’em dead.

#FailedForward, badly, twice, at the start of his career.


#FailForwarded, badly, TWICE, at the start of his career.

I didn’t have the gumption to #FailForward as a burgeoning commedian, but without that attitude, that world wouldn’t have Trackrs (which still don’t work), EVERlab, palettes, or the finest comedians in the world.

Next time, I’ll try to #FailForward. Otherwise, I know, I’ll #NeverSucceed.

How Not to Waste Your Time: “Always Be Building”

abcYou’ve got to admire successful salespeople. You don’t need to like them, but you’ve got to admire their tenacity. And I’m not talking about the kind of salespeople who hide behind the counter, waiting for you to bring your Cold-Eeze up to the counter (which do work, by the way). Rather, I’m talking about the kind who, from the moment you walk into the shop, the dealership, the office – are selling you something, even if you don’t realize it.

The salesperson’s motto? Anyone who’s seen Glengarry Glen Ross knows it: Always Be Closing.

Not: Always Be Trying to Sell. Not: Always be concerned that the customer is about to bail.

It’s a mentality. At every moment, you are in the process of “sealing the deal.” Even if the customer doesn’t know it.

lessinsAs a teacher, I’m not so much interested in closing (not in this post, anyway). But I am interested in mindsets that allow. me to reach my goals. Given that there never seems to be enough time to do anything when you’re a teacher, how do you actually grow, year to year? How do you make next year better?

It turns out that building for next year is a mindset that needs to be active at all times to be effective. “What you’re doing now is very good. What you’ll be doing next year is great.”

Here’s how to take steps now for next year.


No such thing as a total waste

Some technology seems to be a wash. I once played with a website that allows students to create and vote on debates. Great idea. Too many problems.

But a tool that you don’t want to use is like an investor who doesn’t want to fund your startup. In your mind, don’t hear “no.” Hear: “Not yet.”

After playing with Blendspace.com, for example, I know much more about what students could do with a platform like this. I know the weak spots and the deal breakers. I’ll come back next year, and I’ll see: maybe it’s time to try it again? In that sense, I’ve grown and carved out space for next year.

The catch: you need, well, to catch the tools. Start a file – a note on Evernote, a file in Pocket, whatever platform you like. Call it “Tools to play with next August.” When August comes around, take a break from chasing your kids through the sprinkler to see if any last years rejects have emerged as potential stars.


Fix Your Resources In Real Time

When I first started teaching, I had many manilla folders full of worksheets. And in the middle of class, a student would find a typo – or I realized that a question was misleading or poorly worded. I would mark my own sheet with red in, you know. To fix later.

There was no later. Year two, it was time for that unit again, and my worksheet had the same typo and the same awful question.

Now, all my worksheets are Google Docs. And when a student sees a typo or a realize a question is unclear – projected on the board, in plain view of all my students, I fix it (or make a note to fix it).

I get an improved resource. Student learn that nobody’s perfect the first time, and that quality materials need to be perfected. And then re-perfected.



Develop Your To-do List Skills

Time management gurus often talk about the benefits that come with a trustworthy “inbox” – the “basket” which catches all the stuff your mind needs to deal with, but which shouldn’t or can’t be dealt with right this second.

You’re handing tests back and students are grumbling about how unclear a part of the test was. Or you’re grading projects and it seems like they’re just missing the mark.

Are you going to stop grading (or stop class) and fix the project? If yes, you may have an impulsivity issue.

You need a to-do list which is readily available, syncs across platforms, and is fun.

Example:  you realize, walking to your desk, that something needed fixing in the class resource. You whip out for smartphone and make a to-do item called, “Retool the dinosaur activity.”

Then, when you have ten minutes, go over all the to-do items, clarify each with a few ideas, and drag and drop them to the approximate month, next year, when you will be ready to improve the resource.

Do not: be so sure you will remember, next year.

The Educational-Scaffolding of Rome Wasn’t Built In a Year

While lesson planning is difficult, building a scaffolded unit (each step leading to the next, developing student skills higher and higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy) is really challenging. It’s astoundingly time-consuming. And sometimes, it’s hard to see all the pieces that could be there if you haven’t taught it yet.

Let go, a little. In the first year, the project will be simple. Each year, add more and more complex tasks. Be looking for areas where you assumed students could leap to the next level, and note when they stumble. Create resources for next year’s students to spend less time lost and stumbling, and more time growing and flying.

A few final tips:

  1. Not all of your materials will be useful next year, not because they can’t be improved, but because you change your goals. Changing goals is growth. Growth is good. Those old worksheets are like snake-skin, sloughed off to allow the snake to grow. And no, I am not saying that you are a snake.
  2. Whatever time you spent last year developing the project, spend this year improving it. Show it to a colleague or supervisor for wise and thoughtful changes. Add links to cool websites. Design a video to accompany it.

    Please comment below and share your own tips for “Always Be Building!”