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Making the Pitch for Contract Grading

By Annette Finley-Croswhite, Jay O'Toole, Kole Matheson, and Kevin DePew

Contract grading is becoming more and more popular with faculty throughout academia. What is contract grading? In short, it is a system of assessing student work that separates workload, evaluation and grades.

Student labor generally includes homework, in-class work and discussion (or discussion posts), individual or group projects as well as drafts and revisions, and perhaps extracurricular assignments such as attending a guest lecture offered by the University. Students can review the course syllabus and assignments and determine how they will fare in the class by understanding that their grade is tied to their labor. They then agree to complete the work based on the grade they seek.

In this way, as long as assignments are finished on time, students have an excellent sense throughout the semester of how they are doing in the course and are not surprised by an unexpected grade at the end. Because the contract is fixed, faculty are also less likely to change assignments during the semester (as sometimes happens), so students are less frustrated. Another positive aspect: In the trauma-filled pandemic space we inhabit in our classrooms today, contract grading can be viewed as an essential pedagogy to reduce the stress and anxiety associated with passing a class, while increasing avenues to learn.

A critical attribute of contract grading is that because the grade is based on student labor, in most instances writing quality is not evaluated, since it is understood that grading writing can be highly subjective and based on pre-determined and biased views that privilege certain kinds of writing. This does not mean that writing is not discussed, as numerous opportunities can be made available to improve student writing. In fact, many faculty and students observe that efforts to improve writing via contract grading are increased because students must respond to instructor feedback to complete assignments, and they have more room to experiment without fear of a "bad grade." Moreover, using traditional grading methods, faculty often spend the bulk of their time telling students what is wrong with their work. With contract grading, however, higher levels of communication can occur between instructor and student, as can a stronger relationship of trust.

The Center for Faculty Development will hold a workshop on contract grading on Nov. 9 from noon to 1 p.m. with ODU faculty Jay O'Toole, Kole Matheson, Kevin DePew, Ann Kumm and Megan Nutzman. Connect here:

Join Zoom Meeting | Meeting ID: 967 8191 3273 | Passcode: 699781

Below, three faculty members offer their experiences with and insight into contract grading.

Jay O'Toole

Assistant professor, Department of Management

This semester I took a substantial leap in my professional development as an educator. After years of applying grading rubrics to assess both the content and quality of my students' writing, I invited my students to engage directly and meaningfully in creating a classroom culture of support and compassion focused on their learning and development by applying principles of antiracist writing assessment ecologies (Inoue, 2015) and grading contracts (Inoue, 2019). This pedagogical shift meant I had to relinquish some of my control - an uncomfortable proposition - and it also meant I had to make a commitment to be actively involved in my students' writing process instead of simply the arbiter of their writing products.

As one student noted, "Much like in the real world, it was an agreement made by a collective of adults after discussion and open conversation. I like to think that people in this class are going to internalize this as they move on from ODU. I hope it'll allow for us all to be more open minded individuals who know that their opinions matter just as much as the next person and that compromise and understanding isn't too hard to achieve after all." In debriefing the negotiation of our contract that outlines the responsibilities of students and the professor for our writing engagements, many students appreciated how the contract emphasized transparency and feedback rather than a top-down, single source of evaluation and judgment. Halfway through the semester, I have witnessed an increase in my students' confidence in writing and can see demonstrable improvements in my students' business writing unlike anything from prior years. I could not be happier with the pedagogical shift I made.

Kole Matheson
Lecturer, Department of English

The why of contract grading: I implement contract grading in pursuit of equity. When assessing student writing, I realize that my implicit and explicit biases can skew students' grades. What makes "good" writing remains subjective, as variable readers and readings lead to variable judgments. Furthermore, these subjective judgments are not transparent practices for our students, leaving them to wonder, "Why did my teacher give me this grade on my essay?" By contrast, contract grading improves transparency and objectivity. When students meet the terms of the contract, their grades are guaranteed. This, I hope, demystifies the assessment process, which allows students to focus on meeting disciplinary expectations, rather than worrying, "How will my teacher grade my essay?"

A student's response: When I introduced this semester's grading contract, one student said, "Let me just say I love the way you grade!"

My advice for teachers interested in contract grading: Any assignment might be graded according to a contracted agreement between teachers and students. Start by isolating manageable goals for students to demonstrate that reflect disciplinary expectations or course learning outcomes. Then, teach students how to meet these expectations, offering feedback as the assignment process unfolds. Once students have met these goals, correlate their work with a contracted grade. In this way, teaching and assessment become complementary if not simultaneous. This can also alleviate some of the grading workload for the teacher once assignments are submitted. As assessment is embedded in the instructional process, teachers have already encountered, and by consequence "graded," student work prior to the final deadline.

Kevin DePew

Associate professor, Department of English

In my online writing class, students submit weekly entries. My contract grading approach - MICE - describes each weekly entry as Missing, Incomplete, Complete or Extra. A student's work is marked as missing if the student fails to submit the work before the instructor is finished reviewing all of that entry for the entire class. Complete work means that the student's entry meets all of the entry's labor criteria. For example, an entry might ask a student to compose 350-500 words, cite the readings to apply the course concept (e.g., audience, genre) to their own experiences, and compare how the course concepts are applied in some example texts. If a student does all of that labor, the student receives Complete work credit with feedback describing the quality of that labor and what that student can work on to improve the quality of that labor. However, if the student does not write 350 words, does not cite the course reading, or does not make the required comparison, then the student will receive Incomplete credit for the entry and will be given explicit instruction on what to do to revise the entry for Complete credit - which they have until the end of the semester to do. Extra work credit is earned when the student 1) responds to the questions I pose in the marginal comments, 2) responds to my end comments email, 3) poses questions to their peers in their peer's workbook, or 4) responds to questions posed by their peers. Using any combination of these four methods, students have to compose an extra 250 words a week and record it in the Extra Work Journal to earn Extra work credit.

The MICE approach to grading leverages the affordances of Google Documents to enact the value of some antiracist and social constructivist theories. Because all students start the course with a B and know that this is the grade they will earn if they complete all of their work, they do not have to be anxious that any unequal previous experiences will prevent them from passing the class. Although students' grades will be reduced if they do not complete their work (and there are social inequities that make it easier for some students to complete work and more difficult for others), they understand what work needs to be accomplished in order to consider the course passed; this gives the students more agency in determining the trajectory of their evaluation. While my formative marginal and end feedback may be based upon how I idiosyncratically imagine their future audiences, their grade is not dependent upon meeting those expectations. Students are also not penalized for taking risks beyond their current knowledge; not meeting the instructor's expectations in these moments results in the beginning of a conversation that students can benefit from if they choose to engage with it.

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