How I Contract Grade

A few days ago on social media, I linked to this article on ungrading (unfortunately now behind a paywall) and reflected on my own turn away from conventional grading in the past few years. To summarize that thread, I noted that the article shows that grading is

not doing what we thought it was doing & has negative effects we probably don’t want…it’s been 2 years since I issued a grade—since then my students have been assessing themselves based on a contract grading system—Their effort has not diminished, their projects continue to be exemplary, and their self-assessments are (nearly all) eminently fair. The most typical adjustment I have to make is to give them more credit than they give themselves. Have I had a few problem students in this time? Of course, one or two. But I would have had one or two (or five or six or seven) problem cases were I grading over this same span.

I ended that thread by declaring “I will not be going back to conventional grading, and I’m happy to share ideas (and even contract grading spreadsheets) if others are interested in learning more about one take on alternative models.” A few folks did ask to see my spreadsheets, and so I sent an example from my Technologies of Text class (sans student names or records, of course).

Reflecting on this spreadsheet, however, I realized how much it reflects the ways I’ve chosen to implement contract grading, and how opaque it might be for anyone not using my system. So I thought I should write a longer post explaining how I use a spreadsheet like this one to record a class’ work. I do not think this is the only or best way to implement contract grading, and I would be thrilled to hear from others with more refined or effective systems, but I hope this post will allow me to also explain some of the mental shifts that were required for me as I moved toward this form of evaluation, and may be helpful to others considering similar shifts.

I will not outline here the reasons I moved to contract grading, or reproduce the ways I explain it to students. You can find my philosophy—largely adapted from others’ sage models—as I explain it to students on my syllabuses:

It’s important to note that at the end of the semester, students do receive a grade based on the final contract assessment they submit to me. I would estimate that in 80%+ of cases, they earn precisely the grade they contracted for, while in a few cases students accurately assess their work at a level different from their original contract, in a few cases I adjust a student’s grade up a half grade to recognize superior work, and in a very few cases I have to work with the student to address a larger disparity between promised and actual work. I should emphasize the rareness of the last category: there have been two such cases in the seven classes in which I’ve used contract or consultative grading. Note that the spreadsheet I shared has three tabs for the grade levels (A, B, C) and that each tab lists only the assignments required for that grade. Students are added to the tab that corresponds to their contracted grade, so that only the pertinent assignments are tracked for each student.

The most challenging thing for both me and my students to really grasp about contract grading has been this: when students’ final grade is based on requirements being met to a satisfactory level, it does not make sense to record grades for individual assignments, because there is no math to be done to produce the final grade. It literally does not matter whether an individual paper is an A, B, or C: it only matters whether it passes muster or does not. This has ramifications I did not anticipate. For example, when they write their contracts, students are asked to outline consequences for what will happen when deadlines are missed or work is inadequate. They often default to point penalties (“for each day late 5 points will be deducted”), but points are really a meaningless metric in this system.

As I’ve gotten more comfortable with contract grading, I’ve staged early in-class conversations about what meaningful consequences might look like for students, in order to head off too much back-and-forth about points and grade deductions. Some students’ solutions have been clever and strangely workable: one student, for instance, decided that for every class period an assignment was late, he would bring doughnuts to the class. He only did this twice before he started turning in every assignment right on time. I’m not suggesting this kind of consequence as the best model in most cases, but I have found it productive to consider with students about what meaningful consequences might look like to them, rather than to me, and in general students have been thoughtful in constructing contracts that will motivate them do to good work.

Practically, my spreadsheet simply records dates and checkmarks, depending on the assignment category. For ongoing, smaller assignments—such as the weekly lab reports in Technologies of Text—I simply enter the date that each student submitted their first, second, third, etc. report, up to the number required for their contracted grade. For larger assignments, such as students’ unessay projects, there are three columns: one for the date by which the student agreed to complete the assignment, one for the date the assignment was first submitted, and the last for the date the student and I agreed the project is satisfactory. I use dates in these columns, but I could imagine a system that uses progress words—e.g. Incomplete (I), Unsatisfactory (U), Satisfactory (S)—or perhaps one that tabulates contract completion somehow.

Central to this spreadsheet and the contract grading system it represents are mentorship, revision, and consultation. It is simply not true that a contract system results in mediocre work. When students submit incomplete, undeveloped, or inadequate work, I send them feedback and request a revision. That’s as true for the small weekly assignments as it is for the larger projects. If a student submits an underdeveloped lab report, for instance, I will mark it with a date followed by an “I” in the spreadsheet (for “in-progress,” in my mind) and send them a brief email with advice for improving the report. I realize that might sound like a lot of work; in some ways, it would be easier to just give that weekly assignment a “75%” and move on. However, I have found that such interventions are not often required for low-stakes assignments, as a couple of comments along these lines usually get students on track. Because my goal in these comments is to mentor rather than defend a grade issued, my comments can be quite brief and to the point, focused on how they need to develop rather than attempting to comprehensively account for all aspects of the report they submitted. Most importantly, however, this system gives me the chance to mentor students in small as well as large ways, making it easier to have developmental conversations around more intensive assignments.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the audience for this spreadsheet is only me. I periodically ask students to submit contract assessments during the semester: three times in first- and second-year classes, where students might need more help structuring their work over the semester, and twice (roughly: midterm and final) in upper-level classes. In these assessments, students are asked to consult their contracts, review what they promised to complete and when, and then outline where they have and haven’t met the requirements of their contracts. If they have failed to meet any elements of their contract in mid-term assessments, they have to either outline a plan to get back on track or they can request a contract adjustment, which can be an adjustment up or down (and I’ve had both). On the whole, students are fair in these assessments, perhaps to a fault, as they can be harder on themselves than I would be. When I review these self-assessments I spot check them against my spreadsheet to ensure neither they nor I are missing anything major. The spreadsheet has also helped me spot students who are falling behind so that I can reach out to them for intervention during the semester.

I’ll end by briefly addressing a few of the biggest questions I often hear from colleagues when we talk about contract grading. First, “isn’t this a lot more work than conventional grading?” My honest answer to this question: it was at first, and it’s not now. Another honest answer: it is more work early in each semester, and it’s a lot less work as the semester progresses. It did take me awhile to get used to contract grading, which has a different structure and rhythm from conventional grading. In those first semesters, when I was developing the language and forms required to implement contract grading, I did spend extra time on evaluation. However, now that I have a handle on how it works, that investment has paid off. In each semester, contract grading does take longer to establish: it requires time to explain the system to students, develop their contracts, and give developmental feedback on their initial assignments. However, once students understand how contract grading and instructor feedback will work in the class, the time requirements strangely diminish as the semester progresses.

Even students’ larger assignments require a very different kind of investment. The kinds of commentary I send students feels strangely less time-intensive and simultaneously more meaningful, as I can focus on the most essential elements of each project rather than attempting to send each student comprehensive commentary. Rhetoric and composition scholars have long known that more extensive commentary on student writing does not translate to better outcomes for students, a reality I’ve tried to recognize even prior to contract grading, but contract grading does free me up to act on this reality even more fully. In terms of time commitment, I now consider contract grading more beneficial to both students and instructor.

In concluding, I feel like I must circle back to the most common anxiety I hear from other instructors, that contract grading will lead to mediocre work: students doing just enough to skate by but not pushing to excel. I can only speak from one pedagogical and institutional situation, but in my experience—which is reinforced by nearly everything I’ve read from other instructors using similar systems—the opposite is true. Contract grading paradoxically reduces the stakes for some assignments while heightening students’ ownership of others. For example, I think contract grading helps my humanities students be less anxious about the coding labs in Technologies of Text, as they know they have flexibility in what they submit and that they will have the opportunity to revise their reports from those labs. In another course context, it might be important that students write code that validates—though I don’t think that means an alternative grading model wouldn’t work in such a course—but the most important outcome for me in this course is that students feel free to experiment and perhaps even fail. The flexibility of our course contract facilitates this kind of experimentation.

In addition to their flexibility, however, course contracts ask students to take ownership of their work over the semester, and this sense of personal responsibility seems to carry into the work they submit, particularly their larger projects. In my thread on contract, grading, I claimed that student’s projects in these classes have been on the whole exemplary, and that has been true nearly across the board. Students’ work has not suffered, and the unessay and other projects they have submitted in contract-graded courses has on average met or surpassed those submitted in previous versions of the same classes graded in more conventional ways. To brag on my current semester students just a bit, I think these final book projects or these unessay projects are typical examples of the work students invest into these classes.

I’m not sure how to end this post, other than to volunteer to talk more with anyone interested in learning more about my experiences with contract grading. I am not exaggerating when I say it’s been transformative to my own teaching, and I think to students’ experiences in my classes. I want to recognize, too, that I occupy a privileged place in the academy that enables me to experiment in ways that might be harder for others who have to account for their teaching in ways I do not. Please reach out if I can be helpful thinking about how to implement some of these ideas in less-flexible situations. I don’t think contract is the only solution for everyone, but I do think we should be having a more robust conversation about student evaluation. If nothing else, we could be more thoughtful about fostering systems that are more attuned to the levels, stakes, and outcomes of different courses and programs, rather than assuming one evaluation system works in every pedagogical context.