Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading

Steve Volk, March 27, 2016

Benin Plaque, c. 16- 17th century, brass “lost-wax” technique, British Museum Af1898,0115.38

Benin Plaque, c. 16- 17th century, brass “lost-wax” technique, British Museum Af1898,0115.38

Students in museums studies, more so than casual visitors, are frequently confronted with the question of how specific artifacts made their way from their point of origin into the museum where they are displayed for our enjoyment and edification. For some objects, the answer is relatively straightforward: the painting originally in, say, the French royal collection, was purchased by a dealer who sold it to a collector who donated it to the museum. For other artifacts, particularly if the museum in question is the British Museum (the end point of a vast collection of imperial booty), the origins of the artifact is more troubled. The catalog entry for this “Benin Plaque” (left), dating from the 16th-17th centuries, calmly notes that “following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were seized by British force from the royal quarters and various storerooms.”

But as this information doesn’t appear on the object’s label in the gallery, the viewer has little sense of the violent history — the imperial relations — that underwrote the trajectory of the plaque from Benin City to its current abode on Great Russell Street in London. Museologically and culturally speaking, that’s a problem. If museums are to represent (and not simply appropriate) objects from their colonial empires, the history of that displacement must be kept in sight.

This may seem an unusual way to begin an essay on grading, but I thought of the Benin Plaques and their absent labels as I prepared another set of grades for my students. Grading (as I’ve written many times before here and hardly need to remind you) is about as eagerly anticipated by teachers as a colonoscopy (and at least those are served up with propofol.) There are any number of reasons why this is the case, and at least some of the problems of grading do come with relatively straight-forward solutions. If you can’t bear reading the 27th paper on the role of the cottage in Frankenstein, then open your assignments to allow for a greater variety of responses. If the assignment essentially requires that students feed back to you what you’ve given to them, don’t expect to have an enjoyable experience reading them. Try completing your own assignments and if you find them boring or not conducive of learning, change them so that students can use the assignment to demonstrate both mastery and application.

Full Disclosure

Other issues involved in grading are more difficult to resolve, which brings us back to the Benin Plaques. What everyone knows, yet no label discloses, is that grades represent the ultimate power that faculty hold over our students. As much as our professional code of conduct requires – demands – that we grade fairly, objectively, and without regard to extraneous factors, there is no denying that we are humans and that, when it comes to grading, we are both shaped by, and must contend with, a variety of factors that make that difficult, if not impossible. These range from simple tiredness to complex issues of prejudice including racism and sexism. [See, for example, here (the impact of the teacher’s emotional state) and here (the impact of the stereotype threat) as examples.). Perhaps, just as the Benin Plaques should include on their label an indication of the nature of the power that brought them to the British Museum, so too should we include a label on all of our tests and assignments:

Warning: As much as I will try to grade your assignments objectively, fairly, and without prejudice, and as much as I will attempt to forget how annoyed I was with you when you [fill in appropriately]: didn’t do the reading/watched a Beyoncé video on your laptop instead of listening to what I was saying/left the class three times to go to the bathroom, I am only human, so caveat emptor!

When Life Is Young, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

When Life Is Young, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

Grading has a way of reversing the intent of teaching, not only closing off a formative process of dialog and reflection, but often contradicting what we have been insisting all semester: “It’s not about the grade.” Well, what if it is? And how do we tell students with a straight face not to worry so much about their grades when they know (as do we) that when all is said and done, the grade we give them can/will influence whether they get the fellowship they need to pursue their studies. I would venture that, for most of us, the problem is not that we feel pressured to give “C” work an “A” (although grade inflation, particularly at elite institutions, might suggest otherwise), but rather how we maintain a straight face when we suggest there is a clear and obvious difference between a “B” and a “B+,” between a “B+ and an “A-.” Particularly in the humanities and social studies, but likely in the sciences as well, we know full well that extraneous considerations (those extra trips to the bathroom!) can influence our decisions. There’s no way around the fact that a serious evaluation of our students’ work is so much more complex than can be expressed in that single letter, and giving a student a “B+/A-” really doesn’t resolve the problem.

What else is wrong with grades? Let me count the ways! As  Steven Mintz, Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed out,

  • A single, over-all grade conflates elements that need to be disentangled.
  • They tend to overly reward lower-order thinking skills (such as memorization and recall) rather than higher order skills (involving analysis, application, and synthesis).
  • Grades too often fail to accurately reflect student learning or mastery.
  • They are frequently de-motivating and discouraging.

Nor is this a recent finding: studies as early as 1912 questioned the utility (and validity) of grades, and research has fairly consistently underlined some of the main problems in grading practices.

Typical-student, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

“Typical figure, showing tendency of student life,” British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

Does that mean that we should stop giving grades? Very few colleges or universities have abandoned the grading system altogether. Hampshire College, where faculty write narratives of their students’ learning rather than assigning grades, remains the exception. But even there, complex narratives probably won’t work in a class of 80 students, nor is Pass/Fail an option without draw-backs in a world in which grades are the norm. A “Pass” in Organic Chemistry might not help a student when she applies to med school.

Valen E. Johnson, professor and head of the department of statistics at Texas A&M University at College Station argues further that if we didn’t grade, “students probably wouldn’t work as much and wouldn’t do homework and wouldn’t study for exams”? While this is not universally the case, we can (and probably should) admit that we share at least some of the blame for not making learning more intrinsically motivating. But such an observation can only get us so far. Ultimately, we need to think about new ways of grading that can address some of the shortcomings of the current system. That’s where contract grading comes in.

CONTRACT GRADING: THREE OPTIONS

Contract grading, which actually was first used some decades ago, more recently has been gaining traction in higher ed. Briefly, contract grading attempts to reduce the subjectivity of the grading process for faculty and the induced passivity of students within the evaluation system in an attempt to arrive at a more integrative and meaningful process of assessment.

There are a variety of approaches to contract grading, each designed to meet an instructor’s intended outcomes, but all share the fundamental goal of clarifying the grading process for students so that they can make more informed decisions about their actions. While there are a number of different types of contract grading options, I’ve  summarized three different contract-grading approaches here. At the same time, I’d encourage you to talk to your colleagues about how they grade; raise the issue at department meetings: you’d be surprised how many have adopted this method of grading.

Contract grading as a means of negotiating authority

Songs of a Savoyard, British Library HMNTS 11651.k.42

Songs of a Savoyard, British Library HMNTS 11651.k.42

The essential factor in determining a grading approach, at least as I see it, is deciding what you hope the process of grading can achieve in the broadest terms. For some, revealing and addressing the nature of power relations within a classroom environment is the central element that a grading system can address. Ira Shore, for example, has written much about the importance of creating a democratic classroom in which power is both fully disclosed and openly negotiated with students. Similarly, Isabel Moreno Lopez argues that teachers should create a critical classroom in which “authority and responsibilities are shared between teacher and students, empowering all course members to become active, responsible participants of the learning process, not merely passive consumers.” For both, grading is a means by which power can be shared through a collectively negotiated contract co-constructed at the beginning of the semester.

Here, in a condensed version, is how Moreno Lopez describes her contract grading system:

The negotiation process starts at the beginning of the semester when the teacher presents the elements of a contract grading system to the students. In general terms, the grading system is based on the quality and quantity of work students are willing and capable of doing. That is, if a student signs a contract for an “A,” s/he will do more work in the course than the student who contracts for a “C.” The quality of work will also reflect the contracted grade. Students are permitted to rewrite the written assignments as many times as necessary to attain the contracted grade.

At the start of the semester, then, the teacher opens up class-time to discuss both the syllabus and the grading system. Then, s/he asks for questions, amendments, and comments on the original proposal. A debate follows, after which the students sign the contract, as amended by themselves, and keep a copy for their records. During the semester, the negotiation process continues, both in class discussions and in comments in the students’ journals. At the end of the semester, based on the contracts and their performance, students discuss with the teacher their final grades. This grade might be the same they contracted or might have varied depending on their performance and progress.

Moreno Lopez suggests that this negotiated grading system is valuable in two ways: it helps students see learning as a process and not an end, and it “encourages students to be active participants in their own learning process by allowing them to cooperate in what is usually considered the ultimate prerogative of the teacher: the assessment process.”

Shor, Moreno Lopez and others who engage in this form of critical pedagogy identify the classroom as a political arena where differences of power are necessarily, and properly, brought into the center of teaching where they are negotiated. In such a context, struggle and conflict is both inevitable and appropriate insofar as it is a reflection of the larger society, not a “bubble” separate from it.

Non-negotiated contract grading to improve learning

Spectroscope_British Library HMNTS 10027.ee

Spectroscope_British Library HMNTS 10027.ee

The grading contracts used by Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow in their composition courses are similar in some respects, but they are less concerned about using the classroom to negotiate authority than Shor or Moreno Lopez. Instead, they see their goal as creating “a classroom where both teachers and students get to give as much time and attention as possible to writing—not politics and culture. Of course political and cultural issues turn up in student writing, but our tendency is to discuss the effectiveness of the writing more than political and cultural issues themselves (not that one can ever completely separate the two).”

Danielewicz and Elbow present the grading contracts to students at the beginning of the semester rather than co-constructing them with student input. By using contracts, they seek “not only to help students learn more and function better as learners; we also want a grading system that encourages them to be the kind of persons our world needs; furthermore, we want to make our own teaching easier and more satisfying.” And they add, “That’s all.” Indeed, that would be plenty.

Here is a summary of the main elements of the Danielewicz-Elbow grading contract:

  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 their 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 their mid term and final portfolio.

In other words, students get a “B” based solely on what they do, not on any evaluation of their work by the professor. Grades higher than a “B,” however, depend on the teacher’s evaluation of the quality of their writing. They will discuss in class what “exceptionally high quality” writing means, making the criteria as public and concrete as possible, but they don’t give students power over “high-grade” decisions.

Although they don’t evaluate the quality of their students’ writing up to a “B” grade, they also don’t withhold evaluation as they continue to provide students with feedback on the strengths and weaknesses in their work, both drafts and final version. But the evaluation (up to a “B”) is decoupled from grades. “As a result,” they write, “students don’t have to heed any of our judgments or advice when they revise their papers (though they must revise).” They want their students to feel that the evaluations they conduct are “from individual persons: yes, experts about writing, but individuals, nevertheless, who cannot pretend to be wholly impersonal or fair.”

Their article (“A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching”) offers a fascinating discussion of how they came to the various elements of the contract, why, for example, they picked a “B” grade as the base-line mark for their contract (“Our original reasoning was merely timid—crassly negative and pragmatic: we were scared to ‘go all the way.’”), or whether their contract is actually less “fuzzy” than a standard grading system. “How can we defend ambiguous and arguable criteria like ‘conscientious effort,’ ‘thoughtful feedback,’ and ‘conscientious participation?’” they ask. “First, we don’t accuse someone of failing to meet one of these fuzzy criteria (‘no-effort,’ for example), unless the violation is grossly flagrant (e.g. drafts far short of the required length). Secondly, we’ll always take the students word for it.” In terms of a final, summative, grade they are persuaded that their decisions were relatively easy to make. Students who didn’t fulfill the contract (including some who were excellent writers), were disqualified. They then focused more closely on the remaining final portfolios that they found to be particularly strong.

Contract grading to encouraging active learning and community building

"The Life of George Barnwell; or, the London apprentice of the last century," British Library HMNTS 12621.dd.5.

“The Life of George Barnwell; or, the London apprentice of the last century,” British Library HMNTS 12621.dd.5.

The final example of contract-style grading is Asao B. Inoue’s community-based assessment approach. Similar to all contract models, Inoue, a writing instructor at Washington State University, moves away from teacher-centered assessment and evaluation while encouraging students to take more initiative. But, more than in the previous models, Inoue seeks to create a classroom in which “students take control of all writing assignments, their instructions, assessment criteria, and the practices and reflective activities that go along with their writing.” Such an approach, he maintains, “encourages a community of writers that are implicated in each others’ writing and assessment practices, and gets them to critically engage with these practices.”

Inoue’s model underscores the fact that assessment is a vital component in the act of writing. He spends considerable time discussing with students what they want out of their papers and how they should be read and assessed. It is a complex and recursive process that begins when the class collectively creates its first assessment rubric, a set of guidelines that everyone agrees to, and that they will use both as writers and assessors. This first rubric will be revised continually as the class moves from the early stages of writing (paragraph writing) to position papers and final essays.

Any student can suggest a rubric revision or raise a question about the rubric at any time. To test and revise the iterated rubric, class members write two separate paragraphs, each receiving three peer assessments that use the in-process rubric. The class — instructor and students alike — uses what it has learned from the paragraph assessments to revise the rubric, which becomes the new starting point for on-going assignments, and so on. Over a month, each student writes a position paper, receives responses and assessments from the entire class (both on paper and through class discussions), posts a revision of the position paper based on those discussions and input, gets a more formal peer-assessment of the revision by a few colleagues, writes an essay (often based on the position paper), and finally receives a formal peer-evaluation of the essay. The same process is repeated for a second paper. (The process is schematized in the illustration below.)

ChartWhen the students assess each others’ writing, they are not looking to identify an “A” paragraph or an “exemplary,” or “outstanding” one. Rather they use the rubrics to help them identify proficient paragraphs, ones that reach the proficiency markers they set out at the start of the process. If a paragraph hits these markers, then it has done its job.

Here, for example, is what the class came up as a “proficient” paragraph with after their discussions: A proficient and adequate paragraph will . . .

  • Contain a consistent claim
  • Support claim with appropriate evidence (when needed)
  • Elicit thought on the part of the audience
  • Adapt to or consider its audience
  • Use clear and concise language
  • Use appropriate language and grammar
  • Contain three or more sentences

They continue to refine this set of criteria over the course of the semester.

As Inoue explains,

I try simply to provide the structures for my students to create a rubric, re-think it, write from it, use it to assess each other, and, of course, reflect continually upon all these practices. I distribute guidelines, provide due dates, post weekly reflection prompts, and pose additional questions in class that facilitate assessment discussions on student writing. In short, I try to coach them toward sound assessment practices and active learning stances by making them do the hard work of assessment. I encourage them to voice disagreement, show agreement, and elaborate and qualify ideas. I act as a facilitator, questioner, and listener when we talk about each other’s writing. I try to keep us focused on our rubric in our assessment discussions, yet not be a guard to ivory towers… Our class writing isn’t about what I want — it’s about what the class can agree on they want and can justify in some way so that agreements can be made… My students must debate and decide on all the important decisions regarding their writing in the course from start to finish. The class is about them learning not me teaching.

The key to making assessment work pedagogically, according to Inoue, is periodic reflection on the assessment activities. He does it once a week based on open-ended prompts to point the students to the areas he wants them to reflect on. Community-based assessment pedagogy also offers ways to build a pragmatic sense of community that is active and purposeful.

If our purpose, as teachers, in assessing and evaluating student writing is to help students learn — if assessment is inherently a learning practice (which I think it is) — then the teacher shouldn’t control all of the process. And Inoue concludes:

Community-based assessment pedagogy, as described here, boils down to three classroom imperatives: (1) encourage active learning stances by allowing students to assess and evaluate their own and their colleagues’ writing practices, and make these assessments meaningful and purposeful, (2) situate assessment practices within a community of knowledge makers who construct assessment rubrics and define and justify assessment practices, i.e., encourage the class to work for one another as mutual agents working with and for each other’s benefit, writing for each other, and negotiating hard agreements together, and (3) give lots of opportunities to reflect on assessment that speaks to the larger class community, in order to theorize about writing, rhetorical conventions, assessment, and the judging of writing from specific criteria, i.e., what we say about what we are doing (or did) can help us do it better in the future. In my versions of this pedagogy, these imperatives rest on a framework of recursive, repeated writing and assessment activities.


 

As you will have noticed, none of these models makes grading “easy.” Contract grading is not the contemporary equivalent of throwing the papers down the steps and handing out marks depending on where they land. But, by bringing students into the assessment process, contract grading can help make assessment criteria clearer, remove some subjective aspects of grading, bolster student learning, and build community. And, by foregrounding the grading process as reflective of the inherent power of faculty (i.e., we may be their friends, but ultimately we will give them grades), contract grading provides a needed “label” for students and an invitation to faculty to re-imagine classroom practices.


Some additional bibliography:

Elbow, Peter and Jane Danielwicz. “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching.” English Department Faculty Publication Series. Paper 3.

Huot, B. “Toward a new discourse of assessment for the college writing classroom.” College English 65 (2002): 163–180.

Inoue, Asao B. “Community-based Assessment Pedagogy.” Assessing Writing 9 (2005) 208–238.

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Moreno-Lopez, Isabel. “Sharing Power with Students: The Critical Language Classroom.” Radical Pedagogy 7:2 (2005).

Radican, Lynda S. “Contract Grades: An Agreement between Students and Their Teachers.” In Stephen Tchudi, ed. Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997, 285-290.

Shor, Ira. When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Tchudi, Stephen, ed. Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997.

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