No matter how well a semester seemed to go, I trust I am not alone in feeling at least a little dread when opening the end-of-semester student evaluations.
If pricked, I indeed bleed.
But the evaluations for last semester revealed something very heartening: In my fourth semester of experimenting, my grading contract finally worked fully as intended.
Some of the reviews:
“This class was graded using a grading contract instead of normal letter grades per assignment. I liked this much better because it allowed for more freedom and room for growth and development during the assignments; I wasn't so focused on getting an A, I was focused on getting the most out of each assignment and enjoying the writing process.”
“Professor Warner and I disagreed about feedback because he believed that in some cases writing shouldn't receive feedback so that we learn to judge our own stories. This was a difficult thing for me to come to terms with, but in the end I felt that I had developed as a writer and gotten more conscious of my own work.”
“More teachers should grade like Warner.”
Hooray and huzzah!
WHAT I DID
For the past four semesters I have been experimenting with the use of grading contracts in my writing courses.
My goal was to put my money where my pedagogical philosophy is. My belief is that the best way to improve as a writer is to read and to write as much as possible.
More is better.
Yes, the writing should be purposeful and students must be engaged by the act, but more, more, more, more.
WHY I DID IT
Over time, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the ways in which school has been separated from learning. Students often see the purpose of school as to do well in school, which is not necessarily the same thing as learning.
For example, an important aspect in the development of a writer is reaching beyond one’s capability and failing to achieve their original vision, but in that failure, learning something for the next attempt.
But my traditional grading system – putting a letter grade on the end product – worked against this goal. I’ve preached and teached writing process for a long time, believing that the proof of good process would be in the pudding of the end result.
This can be true, but it is not always true.
Spending so much time adjudicating and justifying the grade also made it harder to intervene with feedback that would help students reflect on and improve their own processes.
I wanted to spend less time explaining why they earned a particular grade and more time helping them engage with the process itself. I wanted them to become self-regulating, rather than feeling as though they had to defer to me to see how they’d “done.”
WHAT I DID PART II ELECTRIC BOOGALOO
I started my experiment by developing a system that privileged process by giving credit to things like completing drafts and reflections, as well as for those students who did additional “bonus” writing assignments (more is better).
At the same time, however, I retained a limited element of discretion over the “quality” of their work, reducing the grade categories to “proficient,” “above proficient,” and “below proficient” with “proficient” essentially being what used to be a “B.” Earning proficiency had no grade impact. Above proficient earned additional points while below proficient resulted in loss of points.
In the grand scheme of things the proficiency ratings had very little weight. Even with universal scores of “below proficient” (rare, but possible) a student could earn a B in the class provided they did all of the drafts, reflections, etc…along with a little extra work.
THAT WORKED, SORT OF
I wrote about the results of my initial experiment previously.
I was especially pleased with how I was indeed able to refocus my feedback to the writing process by worrying less about justifying the grade. I was encouraged.
But there was a problem…
WHAT I DID PART III, THE ONE WITH MR. T IN IT
By retaining the “proficiency” ratings, I was still sending mixed messages to students. On the one hand I was saying, “Don’t worry about the grade, just write.” But with the other hand, I still had a thumb up/thumb down/thumb sideways scale waiting for them.
Students are well-conditioned to believe in and trust the teacher’s authority, so I still had students focused not on process or learning, but that judgment at the end. They appreciated some aspects of the contract, particularly that it offered different routes to a particular grade, and learning was in the equation, but grades were still their primary focus.
SON OF WHAT I DID
After three semesters of experiments, I ditched any discretionary grading. No letter grades, no proficiency scale. I would give feedback, but no grades, nada, nothing. My feedback would always come coupled with individual and group reflection. It would be a semester-long conversation about writing in which we were all participants.
Student grades would be entirely a factor of how much work they completed in the course. (The full contract can be seen here.)
WHY I THINK IT WORKED THIS TIME
It worked because I finally walked my talk. I put students in charge of their learning.
Removing the anxiety of grades and grading opened room for experimentation and risk, which resulted in more writing and even – if this is a concern – better writing. The student stories were, on the whole, as good or better than when I was grading the quality of the stories.
Hindsight tells me I should have seen this coming. A student that feels freer and more empowered will work harder. They will work for themselves rather than a grade or a teacher.
This is what some students said on the “learning” portion of the student evaluations.
“I have learned so much in this class and it made me want to continue my journey with writing.”
“Learning was a pleasure.”
“Really brought out my inner writer.”
“I feel as though I really did grow as a writer.”
“I am a much better writer than I used to be, and I have a lot more respect for the act of writing.”
“I learned a lot in this class and am much more interested in writing now.”
WHAT I’M THINKING NOW
As the semester progressed, I felt myself fading further and further into the background of the course. I was present and part of the ongoing conversation, but that presence felt less and less important. I had the image of having created a playground (or maybe a “workground”) that the students had populated and were using for themselves.
We had some workshop discussions where I realized I was largely unnecessary, and the students were doing fine all by themselves.
I’m thinking about the journey to that moment and what it means going forward. In Part II, I’ll offer some food for thought to help those who are grading contract curious work through their own process for their own courses.
 I’m aware that the past tense of “teach” is “taught,” but think how much better this sounds. This is an illustration of the kind of “risk” I wanted to encourage in students, to get them to see writing and language as expressive, and every type of writing as an attempt to connect with an audience and that sometimes it's okay to take a chance in the interest of style, or even just for their own amusement, as the case is here.