SIP 5.5 Grading Contracts

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

As much as we try to make our instruction student-centered, or to use Maryellen Weimer’s term, learner-centered, we tend to create our assignments and grading schemes free of student input. While this is a common practice, it can leave students feeling disempowered. Grading itself is already fraught with power dynamics, and faculty who work hard to empower students may sometimes feel that the nature of giving assignments and grades undermines the power-sharing they work toward in the classroom.

Take a SIP of This: Using Grading Contracts

At this point in the semester, you are committed to whatever grading scheme you outlined in the syllabus, but if you are like many faculty, you are already thinking about how you might do things differently next semester. Now is the perfect time to consider using grading contracts for your next class!

In the traditional grading system, the instructor formulates assignments and exams and students earn points for attempting those assignments and exams. Grading contracts can take different forms, as described below, but all grading contracts allow students to feel more in control of their grades because they get to make decisions about which assignments, or how many assignments to complete. Additionally, there is compelling evidence that grading contracts may help close the achievement gap between students of color and white students and improve student retention.

There are three primary models of grading contracts to consider:

  1. The most ambitious model involves the students collaborating actively with the instructor to negotiate the course assignments and their weight. This approach is described in detail by management faculty David Kaplan and Monika Renard. In this model, the first few class meetings are devoted to negotiating the course syllabus. The instructor may come in on the first day with ideas and even examples of assignments, but ultimately, the decision about which assignments are offered is made collaboratively by students and instructor.
  2. Another model is to give students a guarantee of a baseline grade, usually a B, if they turn in all assignments and attend a specified percentage of classes, usually 80-90%. In a class designed according to this system, grades of B or lower are based on the quantity of work completed, with the differentiation between As and Bs being determined by quality of work. This approach is described in detail by writing faculty Asao B. Inoue. In this model, the instructor typically creates the assignments and then students can decide how many to complete. This model may work particularly well in fields where research indicates that practice is a key component of learning, such as writing or music performance.
  3. One more way to enact contract grading is for the instructor to outline which work needs to be completed to earn a particular grade; the student then decides how much work they want to put forth. If a student is ok with earning a C, they can then do only the work required for a C. A student who wants an A, on the other hand, will be fully aware from the beginning of the semester how much work that will entail. This model is demonstrated in the syllabus by humanities professor Adeline Koh.

In all of the models, instructors can establish criteria that an assignment must meet in order to be given credit; this can ensure that a student will not earn a B for turning in all the work if it is incomplete, lacks effort, or otherwise does not demonstrate that learning outcomes were met.

It is worth noting that contract grading can work well in concert with portfolio grading. For example, with the second model, in which the grade of B is guaranteed if all the work is done, a student who wants to be considered for an A could be asked to submit a portfolio of their very best work. With the third model, a portfolio could be one of the assignment options for students who want to go for an A.

While the traditional point-based model of grading emphasizes what students “did wrong” to lose points, contract grading, in any form, encourages students and instructors to focus on what went well. For this reason, students are more likely to read instructor comments. Grading is also often perceived by students as less subjective because it doesn’t depend solely on the teacher’s assessment of the student’s work.

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Using Grading Contracts

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