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I have seen the glories of using a grading contract in my first-year writing course and I am never going back to my previous ways.

Hallelujah! Amen! Pass the beans.

My motives for giving the grading contract a try were multi-fold.

1. When utilizing numerical grades, I’ve grown more and more dismayed over how much of my evaluation time is spent justifying that number. In analyzing my own comments, nearly 80% of my words were spent explaining what was “wrong” with the student’s work. Even when I would consciously try to focus on “process” and provide forward-looking comments, I just ended up writing more and longer commentary that seemed even less useful to students who are thoroughly conditioned to only care about that number anyway.

When I transitioned to an exclusive teaching diet of first-year writing last year and grading became an even larger portion of my work, I couldn’t ignore this problem any longer. What I was doing was not sustainable either in terms of time or spirit.

2. Contract grading seemed like a potentially useful tool in combating student anxiety over grades by putting control of the grade firmly in students’ hands.

3. I like to fiddle with my teaching, particularly when I’m limited to a single course. Without experimenting, I’d get bored, and a bored instructor is a sure-fire recipe for unengaged students, which results in an unhappy instructor, and then we watch the vicious circle turn.

The results…

It worked.

Or rather…it’s working.

The most immediate and striking change was in my comments. Because I’ve reduced my grading scale to “Proficient,” “Above Proficient,” and “Below Proficient”[1] much more of my commentary can go to diagnosing the problem in the student’s writing process and focusing the commentary where it might be most helpful.

For example, in an early assignment that involves summarizing an article's argument, many of the “Below Proficient” efforts evidence more problems with effective reading, rather than effective writing. Sure, summaries lacked focus, were poorly organized, and had messy sentences, but the roots of these problems were clearly found in insufficient engagement with and understanding of the source text. Rather than explaining all those problems, I could zero in on that flawed reading process, and direct the student to our earlier work with understanding and breaking down arguments.

When it comes to reducing anxiety, the anecdotal reports from students were promising as well. While there was an adjustment period, students seemed to appreciate that the contract privileges their labor as much (or more than) the discrete grade at the end of each assignment. This seemed particularly true for students who considered themselves marginal writers and expected low grades on the assignments themselves. While they often still rated “Below Proficient,” (at least early in the semester), the grading contract provided a path to achievement – by doing additional writing – that many were willing to follow. This also had the not inconsequential effect of having students write more, and with more enthusiasm[2] throughout the semester.[3]

I discovered some additional, hidden benefits to using a grading contract.

1. This sounds obvious, but for each assignment, it forced me to decide what matters. With writing, it’s tempting to say everything, and when I have the full range of numerical grades to consider, to some degree everything does matter, but when it comes to helping student writers develop, I’ve long known that limiting what they’re focusing on at any given time is a more effective approach. By establishing a level of “proficiency,” I was forced to define the two or three most important criteria to that determination. By defining that criteria, I gave students a clearer target to aim for.

2. The grading contract brought my teaching practice into better alignment with my values.

At the top of my teaching philosophy is to help foster the practice of student choice and agency. Writing is exactly that, making choices, and I believe students write better when they have the maximum latitude to make these choices.

I also believe that one of the chief sources of student anxiety is the lack of freedom of choice they perceive when it comes to their own educations. For the current generation of students, school has been a gauntlet with a series of challenges overseen by a “Big Boss,” video game style. There is either failure or success, with little room in between, success is largely a function of conforming to the values of the system (many of which are opaque and approached tactically), and each success is unrelated to whatever comes next.

By largely removing the grade from my judgment, I’m forcing students to make choices about what matters to them and why. For their entire lives they’ve been told that grades “matter.” Each of those little choices – doing the draft, coming to class, etc… - requires students to confront and put into practice their own values.

With the contract, they get to decide to what extent this is true for them. If one of the things that students learn from using the grading contract is that they value sleeping in several times a semester rather than attending class (and earning a higher grade), I’m happy to help them achieve that self-knowledge.

3. I’ve moved myself further from the center of the course.

In preparing for this experiment, I wrote about how this change was forcing me to confront my ego and how much control I perceived myself having over student learning. To a large degree, I’ve bought into the myth that my students’ grades were largely a reflection of how effective I am as an instructor.

But in the context of my main goals for students – leaving the course armed with a flexible, constantly developing writing process adaptable to audience and occasion – the discrete grades on individual assignments, or even aggregated into and end-of-semester grade, are pretty lousy proxies.

I’ve always told students that they will continue to develop as writers throughout their entire lives, which means their growth as writers shouldn’t be centered around me as the instructor, but writing as a practice and a discipline.

Ultimately, if students learn something, it has to be on their own initiatives, rather than with me acting as a kind of academic “Sherpa.” I believe using a grading contract helps put them in charge of that journey.

[1] Proficient = B (what would’ve gotten an 84 or higher previously), Above Proficient = A- (90) or higher, and Below Proficient = anything below 84.

[2] I think most writing teachers have experienced a student who figured out their “slot” and stuck to that groove all semester, rarely stretching or engaging. This seemed somewhat mitigated by the contract.

[3] Someone is going to ask me how the grade distribution compared to previous semesters, and the answer is that it’s almost exactly the same. There are a few A- grades that would likely have been more like a B+ if judged solely on the “quality” of the graded assignments, but those students, being diligent, did extra work to raise the score. There were also slightly fewer B- (as opposed to B) grades, for similar reasons. Students below the proficient threshold seized opportunities to do additional work to raise their grades. In the end, I’m happy to trade a slightly higher grade distribution for more work from students.

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