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Using Grading Contracts

contractAs someone who has been teaching writing at the university level for 12 years, I have had my fair share of grade complaints at the end of a term. “Why didn’t I get the ‘A’? I worked ‘really hard’ all semester.” “Why do you count a ‘B’ as an 85? My other professor counts it as an ’86′ and if you did that, I could get the ‘A’.” “How many points is a tardy worth?” “Yea, I missed our conference and I was absent three weeks, but I did all the work. Why is my grade not an ‘A’?” Of course answers to those never-ending questions are often in the syllabus, but the questions come anyway. Maybe these questions come because I teach writing and writing, unlike many other disciplines, is so “subjective.” [Note that none of the above questions concerned writing, the focus of the course.]

Over the past few years, colleagues have begun to use “grading contracts” in their classes. Part of this decision is to alleviate those end-of-term questions, but more importantly, faculty are using grading contracts because these contracts can facilitate better teaching and better learning.

I have been skeptical about these contracts.

A grading contract is an agreement the students enter into with the professor that states that if students meet certain criteria, they will earn a certain grade. (Sounds like a syllabus, doesn’t it?) Where the grading contract differs from a syllabus is in the detail. A syllabus is a general document that concerns an entire course, including individual instructor and university policies. A grading contract is different in that it focuses on the content of the course and how that course (or each individual assignment) is evaluated and “graded.” If a student meets specific criteria set forth in the contract, that student will earn an “A” or a “B” or “C” (or whatever grade) in the course.

A grading contract is easier to understand if we see one. An excellent example comes from Peter Elbow, Emeritus Professor of English at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Jane Danielewicz, Associate Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In their 2009 College Composition and Communications article, Elbow and Danielewicz outline how they have used contracts in writing classes (CCC: 60.2 (2009): 244+). This is what a student would need to do in order to earn a “B” in one of their writing courses:

  1. attend class regularly—not missing more than a week’s worth of classes;
  2. meet due dates and writing criteria for all major assignments;
  3. participate in all in-class exercises and activities;
  4. complete all informal, low stakes writing assignments (e.g. journal writing or discussion-board writing);
  5. give thoughtful peer feedback during class workshops and work faithfully with your group on other collaborative tasks (e.g., sharing papers, commenting on drafts, peer editing, on-line discussion boards, answering peer questions);
  6. sustain effort and investment on each draft of all papers;
  7. make substantive revisions when the assignment is to revise—extending or changing the thinking or organization—not just editing or touching up;
  8. copy-edit all final revisions of main assignments until they conform to the conventions of edited, revised English;
  9. attend conferences with the teacher to discuss drafts;
  10. submit your mid term and final portfolio.

If a student does all 10 of these items, according to Elbow and Danielewicz, that student earns a “B” in the course. The “A” in the course is reserved for students who complete these items but who also produce “exceptional” writing.

And there’s the problem for me: How can a student define “exceptional” writing? How does the faculty member define it? How can a contract help a student know how to achieve the “exceptional”? Additionally, in looking at the 10 items above, how do faculty evaluate “thoughtful peer feedback” or “sustained effort” on draft writing? For me, many of these items are still subjective, and because they are subjective, are open to grade complaints. Elbow and Danielewicz explore the idea that many of the listed items encourage students to “go through the motions” of getting an assignment completed, or in other words, the contract focuses more on the process of writing and not the final product of writing.

Overall, there are advantages and disadvantages to contract grading. Advantages might include students taking a more active role in their learning processes, it can help students manage their time more effectively, and it can help them understand that earning an “A” requires more than a minimum of effort. In other words, if students are driven by earning a particular grade, they will do what’s required to earn that grade…they just need to know—in very concrete terms—what those requirements include. A grading contract can do this.

On the other hand, grading contracts have disadvantages. They can be more work for the already overworked instructor (particularly in a writing class). Contracts can take away some (but not all) of the subjectivity of evaluating student work, and contracts do not allow for much flexibility in the way students create work or how the instructor can evaluate that work.

Grading contracts are an interesting idea that I have yet to implement with much success. The contract can remove some of those end-of-term questions, but the ideas of subjectivity and the cultural importance of grades still remain. I’m not sure how a contract can take away the stigma of a “B” when a student sees her/his identity and worth tied up in that grade.

But let’s hear from you. What have your experiences been like with contract grading? How might contract grading be effective in a discipline outside of writing? How do grading contracts work in large lecture sections? In a science-type course? In an activity-based course? What have been your experiences with contract grading (positive and negative)? Please leave comments below.

(* NOTE: It’s important to recognize that Elbow and Danielewicz go into much greater and eloquent detail about their contract in the CCC article, and my quick gloss here doesn’t do their work justice. I am only using their list of 10 items as an example of what a contract might look like. The entire article is worth the read if you desire more information about grading contracts).

[Image by Flickr user Jon A Ross, and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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