Avoid ‘Grading Jail’ through Course Writing Contracts

contract_formWe’ve written quite a bit about grading at ProfHacker, and specifically about grading student writing. Effectively assessing student writing and mentoring student writers is one of the great challenges of academic life. For many college instructors, helping our students write better is one of our top priorities—in a recent AAC&U survey, more employers said that colleges should play more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing” than any other skill. At the same time, assessing writing is incredibly time consuming. Professors facing stacks of 35 (or 70, or 115) papers can’t help but calculate the many hours of their lives those papers represent. In a popular post last year, Nels asked “Are You Locked in Grading Jail?” That post was followed by two more: Nels’ “Breaking Out of Grading Jail” and Billie’s The Comforts of Grading Jail.” We’ve also offered tips for responding more efficiently to student writing: George described “Using Text-Expansion Software to Respond to Student Writing,” for example, while Billie wrote about responding to student writing through audio.

In my Literary Theory and Writing class this semester, I decided to avoid the stacks of papers altogether. I’m doing this partly by requiring my students to draft, revise, and submit their papers through Google Docs—so there won’t be physical stacks of paper. However, I also plan to avoid mental stacks of student writing. To that end, I asked each student to draw up an individual writing contract (for more on contractual approaches to grading or assignments, see Billie’s “Using Grading Contracts” and Jeffrey’s “Student Contracts for Digital Projects.”). I’ve tried this approach before in upper-level courses with great success.

So how do writing contracts work? In the syllabus I outline the six major assignments that students must complete during the semester. Then I ask students to create a plan for how they will fulfill those assignments, and when they will turn each assignment in. I do provide a few guidelines. Students must, for example, turn in at least three assignments before spring break, and they must turn in their last assignment while there are still two weeks left in the semester, so they can revise for their final portolios. I ask them to consider their larger schedules when planning—not to plan a major writing assignment in my class at the same time they’ll be studying for a major exam in another class. They turn in their contract proposals, which I review. If they look reasonable, I approve the contracts. If I spot a potential stumbling block in a particular proposal, I discuss it with the student, we revise the contract, and then I approve it. Once a contract is approved, it is binding—I treat the students’ deadlines as binding in the same way I would deadlines I establish.

What are the benefits to such an approach? Students benefit in two important ways:

  1. They have a sense of ownership over their writing schedule. Rather than writing to an arbitrary schedule set by the instructor, they’re writing to a schedule they designed.
  2. They can make that writing schedule fit with their lives. Students have different obligations at different times of the semester. Some have particularly intensive classes. Others will start working on a play or musical production. Professors often forget that our classes are single pieces of much larger academic lives. Writing contracts allow students to plan for those realities and concentrate on papers when they have time to do so—which hopefully results in stronger papers for the instructor to assess.

For instructors, writing contracts have one major benefit. Rather than facing a massive stack of papers several times through the semester, papers tend to trickle in a few at a time. If you can stay on top of things, you can devote a small chunk of time each day to grading and commenting, rather devoting entire days to the process. For me, this plan saves time and my sanity. I can focus easily on those few papers each day in a way I can’t when I get half-way through a giant stack. Grading this way probably means, in sum, the same amount of work as grading stacks, but it feels like much less. What’s more, I’m certain that my students get more quality attention from me when I look at a few papers a day than they do when I look through an entire class in one stretch.

There are certainly drawbacks to a contractual approach to student writing. I wouldn’t try this approach in a freshman class, for instance, because freshmen don’t yet have a strong sense of how a college semester works. I don’t think their planning would be effective for them or for me. What’s more, writing contracts don’t really serve a developmental writing schedule. If you hope for students to build particular skills with each assignment, it might not make sense to give them control of when those assignments are due. Even with upperclassmen, some students won’t think through their contract proposals as carefully as they should. I will inevitably see some students in my office petitioning to change their deadlines, and I will need to manage those petitions. Making a contractual system work also requires discipline on the part of the instructor; were I to let papers sit for too long, I would soon accumulate a stack just as intimidating as I would if the entire class had the same due date. This system only reduces instructor stress if I return papers on a rolling basis, just as I receive them.

Overall, however, I expect this semester to work well, as have my previous classes based on writing contracts. I’ve already received and responded to the first few papers submitted based on students’ contracts, and I felt none of the anxiety that inevitably accompanies class-wide due dates. I feel that I can offer more individualized attention to each paper, as well—I already feel that I’m getting to know my student writers individually, because their papers aren’t all blurred together in one hazy memory of a day in “grading jail.” Have you tried novel approaches to student writing schedules? How have these impacted your classes (or your sanity)? Tell us about it in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user The Intrepid Traveler.]

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