In November 2012, Nicole Varty and I attended an NCTE session on grade contracts. The “progressive” in me wanted to check out alternative approaches to grading that put the emphasis on something other than “points.” The presenters, referencing Elbow and Danielowicz’s “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Teaching and Learning” (2008), spoke about their implementation of grading contracts at a community college out West. I left the session with their visions and recommendations in mind, talking the whole way back to the hotel about why I was sure this would support some of my teaching goals.
Let’s back up a little bit. For the last couple of years, I have been focusing my reading, researching, writing, and reflecting on developing an inquiry-based composition classroom. What I find in the literature and in my pedagogical practice, is that an emphasis on learning behaviors becomes just as important (if not more) than the content discussed in class. It is these behaviors, I might say, that students take with them into subsequent learning and writing contexts. If we can encourage certain behaviors, then, we might change the way our students work with writing and other classroom tasks. We might even change the way they interact with other students.
Click on figure below to enlarge
With this in mind, I introduced my Winter 2012 students to the grade contracts, borrowing heavily from Elbow and Danielowicz and delineating ten points on the grade contract that students had to meet to earn a “B” in the course (grades higher than a “B” could be earned by writing projects that were above “B”-quality, per the rubric). Over the course of the semester, there was sometimes confusion (“How many points do I have?” “I missed this assignment, how much does that change my grade?” “I know I didn’t do the post on time; can I still get an “A” in the class?”), but overall, I felt like the experiment was successful enough for me to try again, with some modifications.
As I prepared for this semester, I had some revisions in mind. Talking with Derek Risse about what kinds of learning behaviors he valued as a then ENG 3010 instructor—and thinking about our continued efforts to “teach for transfer”—I wanted to know what learning behaviors he emphasized in his course, so that I might develop a set of criteria by which to measure students’ engagement and progress in ENG 1020 as they prepared for ENG 3010. From this discussion, I reflected that it would be helpful to delineate specifically what “participate in all in-class exercises and activities” meant, and to extend a clause about giving “thoughtful peer feedback” and working “faithfully” during collaboration into a broader point (“demonstrate reflective and responsible rhetorical choices in developing writing projects, class discussion, public forums, peer feedback, and collaborative writing”) which emphasizes learning and writing strategies central to my researched pedagogy.
Additionally, I wanted to be sure that students really understood the grade contract when they signed it—that they weren’t just turning it in without knowing what it meant, or even without thinking about it too much. To help highlight the grade contracts, I made a tab just for them on my course blog, and posted an annotated version with suggestions for students.
Finally, because students don’t earn points, though they are evaluated on the quality of their posts and projects, after each project was graded, I gave students progress reports, so they could see where they were succeeding and where they needed to focus their attention.
As I head into next semester, I have two revisions in mind:
In very early conferences and reflections, I am going to ask students to select grade contract criteria to focus on—those spaces where they feel they are doing well, and those they feel they need to attend to.
I am going to talk more with students about what it means to exercise “reflective and responsible rhetorical choices”—early and often—and as I write this, I foresee another blog post coming.
If you’d like to talk more with me about how I am using contract grading in my course, and how you might implement it in yours, please come visit. I have found the process rewarding. More homework is completed, attendance is better, and the overall tone of the course is more cooperative. This isn’t just due to the contracts, alone, but they sure seem to have helped.
Adrienne Jankens is a Lecturer teaching ENG 1020. Her research centers on the inquiry environment and the development of particular dispositions and habits of mind amenable to preparation for future learning.