Grading Contract Journey Part I: First-Year Writing
Learning it's about more than just the contract.
If you are among the grading contract curious, perhaps you can learn from my experience and missteps along the way.
This is the story of my journey in my first-year writing course where I only managed to get part of the way to my goal.
Next time I’ll do the same for my introductory fiction writing course which was the occasion of my final breakthrough.
Finally, I’ll try to pull it all together into something resembling advice as you undertake your own journeys.
THE ORIGINAL FRAMEWORK
My desire to experiment with grading contracts came out of my dissatisfaction with what I was seeing in the classroom.
Prior to the contract, in my first-year writing course, assignments were designed around the “skills” of academic writing that I wanted students to acquire -- such as summarizing and responding to arguments, analyzing audience, identifying logical fallacies, etc. -- culminating in a researched essay that was meant to incorporate all of these skills into a single piece of writing.
The assignment sequence was scaffolded in a way that assumed students could make use of the skills learned on one assignment on the next, and so on, and so on.
But this transfer in between assignments was not happening.
Students who seemed to well grasp the fundamental building blocks of argument summary and response in early assignments would abandon those techniques almost entirely in the final researched essay.
Rather than achieving synthesis, students seemed to regress to earlier patterns of writing for “school,” producing informational reports rather than arguments, or patch writing, hopping from source to source with reasonable individual summaries, but without any connective tissue of argument between them.
I tried numerous interventions in both assignment design and teaching techniques, but nothing proved satisfactory in terms of inducing students to think and work as writers, to apply their past experience to something new and less familiar.
I began to believe that I was essentially measuring students’ abilities to mimic certain forms of academic writing. On the less sophisticated assignments (summary/response) the mimicry was often sufficiently accomplished to make me think the underlying skills of critical thinking and writing were being learned.
But with the more complicated work of synthesis, the students who did well were the ones who would’ve done well the moment they entered the class. Sure, students were showing some marginal improvements – How could they not, as much as I was making them read and write? – but I didn’t see them leaving the course as self-regulating, adaptable writers as I wished.
CHANGING THE FRAME
I’d long preached the importance of process to my first-year writing students, requiring drafts and reflections on all assignments. I trusted that the proof of good process would be in the pudding of the final artifact.
However, In focusing on teaching writing skills and the knowledge surrounding these things, no matter how much I valued drafts and revision in the contract, I was still privileging the outcome as measured by the quality of that final artifact, the essay itself.
If I wanted students to focus on the process, I needed a system that privileged the process and deemphasized the product.
I researched grading contracts and figured I had nothing to lose.
I took my existing course and created a grading contract that rewarded student labor that was part of the writing process (drafts, revision, peer response, reflection, etc…).
Unfortunately, this resulted in an over-engineered scale that deducted points for failure to engage in class-related labor and added points back in for either extra writing or scoring “above proficient” on the end product. As this accounting indicates, I was pleased with some of the effects, but overall, I was giving myself an incomplete.
CHANGING THE QUESTION
If I wanted to use a contract that privileged process, I would have to make process much more central to how students were asked to engage with their writing. It wasn’t enough to say that “drafts are important” and therefore require and give credit for drafts.
Rather than asking what writers know, I began thinking about how writers behave, and what attitudes they hold.
Writing requires curiosity, it requires comfort with ambiguity, recognizing that a piece of writing is a series of choices, often made with the audience’s needs, attitudes, and knowledge in mind.
Writing requires a willingness to risk and fail and learn from those failures. Above all, writing requires a desire to communicate and be understood.
It was this last part where I was falling most short. Even though I allowed and encouraged students to write on subjects of their own interest, it all still felt like writing for school, and writing for school isn’t something that matters, other than as a vehicle for grades and achievement.
For a contract to work, I needed to structure the course around the behaviors of writers. If I could get students to think and behave as writers, I hoped their writing would improve.
More importantly, if successful, they would be armed with something that would allow them to continue to improve once the class was over and have a process that could adapt to future writing needs.
Rather than requiring students to write drafts to get credit because they feared losing points on my contract, I needed to design assignments where students felt the necessity of planning and drafting for themselves while showing them effective tools for that planning and drafting.
I didn’t need to teach skills so much as create an atmosphere where students could develop those attitudes and behaviors we associate with good writing while being ready to inject the knowledge and information to help them through the process on a just-in-time basis.
Mostly, I wanted students to see writing not as a school subject – a course many of them actively loathe – but as an indispensible tool when it comes to be effectual in the world at large, not just in academics.
I’ve lost the year I first put this in my syllabus: “Writing is the way we make sense of the world.” I put it in because I believe it. I was going to try to live up to my own ideal.
THE NEW FRAMEWORK
After that first semester of layering a contract on top of the existing course, I moved from assigning essays to assigning “writing-related problems.” (I wrote about that here.)
While I was still assigning the same types of essays, all assignments were posed as questions. Rather than calling the first assignment a “review,” I said. “Should your audience buy/listen to/see/experience…X?” with “X” being anything of their choice, an album, a movie, a television show, an app, a pair of shoes, etc…
The change from traditional assignment (write a review) to “writing-related problem” may seem subtle, but to me, it enabled an important shift to a fully process-based approach, a process driven by the students themselves working individually and collaboratively. Unlike the past, I would not tell them anything about what makes a good review. They would have to do that work themselves.
For the review, they had to identify the genre, the audience needs, the necessary information, the mode of argument and persuasion, and then craft a piece of writing that satisfied the core question.
This immediately led to less going through the motions – students writing a draft because the teacher said to write a draft – and more behavior that looked like how writers behave, finding a subject, getting curious, developing ideas and focus, finding illustrative examples, etc…
Peer response was much more effective in that I simply had to ask students to evaluate each others’ work by judging whether or not the writing answered the question, and if not, what more was needed?
I would intervene with tips and techniques and tools, but after giving students the problem, it was largely up to them to solve it.
Another example: instead of teaching a rhetorical analysis – as I did every semester – by telling students the component parts of a rhetorical analysis and helping them work through those parts, I instead posed a writing-related problem that could only be solved through a process of rhetorical analysis. In that case I asked them, “Why is X funny?” with “X” being any humorous text.
Students had to first figure out what I was asking them to do before they could even begin to do it. To succeed, they had to go deep with the writing process.
Now, it’s important to note that this did not always result in improved student-generated artifacts. Missteps were still made. I was asking them to do something difficult and the results often fell short.
But by removing the grade from the end product, I was able to focus both students’ and my attention on the process, and we would often see where the flaws could be located in some earlier part of the process.
By emphasizing writing as problem solving, students had almost no choice but to start thinking in ways writers do.
Falling short is inevitable in writing. The goal was to help students recognize on their own when they fell short, and arm them with an approach that would help them get further next time.
Even as I instituted the framework of “writing-related problems” I clung to a “proficiency” scale to put a “grade” on the final product. I couldn’t let go of that aspect of my discretion and authority. I thought I was doing the students a favor.
But while I’d cracked the process problem, I was mixing my messages. I was de-emphasizing exploration and risk taking because no matter how much I talked about writing-related problems, or real-world audiences, at the end of the journey was the teacher.
I vowed to fix this problem when using a contract in my fiction writing course.
More on that next time.
 (Though if I teach it again, I know exactly what I would change to finish the journey.)
 A little more detail using one example. For the rhetorical analysis, they were asked to use a text that they found humorous while answering the questions like, “Why is this funny?” and “Who is this funny to?” Answering the questions would result in their analysis. I remember one student whose final product just didn’t gel around any kind of focused idea, something the student recognized in their own reflection that was tied to the assignment. When we talked about it, the student said that deep down, they actually didn’t find their own text all that funny, they just knew other people thought so. In this case, we see that the substandard end product was a result of that initial choice, to write about something with which the student didn’t actually connect. It was hard for that student to be curious about something they didn’t find funny themselves. Any other “problems” with the final product can be directly traced to that initial suspect choice.
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