If I Knew Then What I Know Now: Grading Contract Advice
Hindsight is 20/20, but sometimes you just have to deal with things being blurry for awhile.
FIRST, THE DISCLAIMERS
1. It’s important to view the use of a contract as an experiment, and experiments rarely go as planned, and almost certainly will require multiple iterations to arrive at something that feels like success.
2. When experimenting, be flexible and transparent with students. Tell them it’s an experiment, and if things are happening that seem counterproductive, be open to adjustment mid-semester. Yes, it’s a “contract,” but contracts can be amended through mutual agreement. If you have to make a change, talk it through with students and solicit their ideas before making the decision. After making the decision, explain why you’ve made that choice. You’ll never please everyone, but students appreciate transparency.
3. Before experimenting, make sure you have administrative support for your experiment. In my case, when I started, I was in a full-time visiting position, renewable after yearly review at the discretion of the department chair who expressed support for a handful of us (including some tenured folks) who were curious about the use of contracts. As with students, transparency with those above is advisable. If the culture or situation seems less hospitable and you fear for your position, use all caution necessary.
4. As a corollary to #3, if assessment of end-of-semester artifacts is important to your position/program/department, this sort of contract may not work. When students are incentivized to take risks, failures are inevitable. You may have students who learned a lot, but also finish the semester with an end product that, from the outside, looks like a disaster.
5. Every instructor, every course, every school is different. There is no off-the-shelf solution.
NOW, THE ADVICE
1. First, do nothing. As you start to think about de-grading and/or a grading contract, take a full semester while you run your course as is, and while doing so, reflect on what you think might be happening if you changed to a grading contract. Think of it as a shadow course in your mind.
2. Rather than worrying about what you want your students to “know,” consider how you want your students to be thinking, and the attitudes towards the subject you want them to hold by the end of the course. In my writing course, I want students to get curious on a topic of their own interest. I also want them to experience doubt and disorientation about their approach that they have to work through in order to bring the piece of writing to fruition. I want them to fail and be able to reflect on and learn from that failure.
3. In short, my goal is to get them behaving like writers. What’s your version of that same idea for your course and discipline?
4. Recognize that the course itself may need significant redesigning to make it contract-friendly.
5. Also recognize that it will be impossible to do all the redesigning necessary in one fell swoop.
6. All grading systems are “unfair” because all grading systems privilege something at the expense of something else. Let yours privilege what you believe to be most important.
Remember that privileging one thing means de-emphasizing something else. By privileging the amount of student labor as reflected in the process over the grade on the end product, the grades in the course do not reflect a ranking of the writing abilities of the students at the end of the semester. Some very good writers get not as good grades because they haven’t done as much work.
My system does not provide a ranking of how “good” each student is at writing at the end of the semester. It indicates how much work they’ve done, and hopefully, how much they’ve learned.
7. If you embrace a contract that privileges the amount of student labor, make sure they’re doing things. Reward actual work, not just showing up. At first, I included attendance itself as part of the labor, but I now make sure every class period has specific, purposeful labor associated with that attendance. Sometimes that labor is done between class periods and worked with in class, aka homework. Other times, the labor happens in class. Either way, what I am “counting” is the labor itself.
8. Finally, trust students.
In my experience, students are very much interested in learning stuff. Unfortunately, many of them come to college saying, “I love learning; I hate school.” If you make clear that learning (as opposed to grades and “achievement”) is most important, they will tell you what they need to make that happen.
For me, it is this collaboration that has ultimately proven to be the most enjoyable part of my grading contract journey.
If anyone has questions or desires clarification, I’m happy to respond in the comments.
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