Making Your Own Grade II: Contract Grading in the 21st Century

photo by masshighered via flickr

The central feature of contract grading is the contract: a clear and detailed set of guidelines that stipulate exactly what a student needs to do in order to earn each possible grade. In a regular grading situation, such guidelines might rely heavily on a one-time performance or a somewhat opaque set of expectations: to get an A, you must score above 90% on the exam, or write an “excellent” paper. Contract grading tends to replace one-shot opportunities for success with multiple opportunities. Often, this means placing less emphasis on qualitative evaluation, so that the final grade reflects effort made rather than excellence achieved. Individual assignments must meet a minimum set of standards but are otherwise ungraded, and the raw number of requirements completed is what determines a student’s course grade. In other versions, students participate in defining course standards and requirements, co-writing the course contract with the instructor.

Gerald Herman, a professor of History at Northeastern University who first started using contract grading during its heyday in the 1970s, has perfected a system that allows him to give students in large courses a tailored learning experience. In Professor Herman’s system, individual assignments do receive qualitative grades, but students have the opportunity to complete as many or as few assignments as they choose. (Options include papers of varying length, take-home exams, and oral reports.) Each assignment is worth a certain number of points. An A for the course is 9 points, which you can earn by acing a few major assignments, but you can also earn an A by doing solid work on all of the assignments. Professor Herman points out that the students end up doing more work with this system, since the regular deadlines prompt them to turn in work throughout the term, instead of focusing all of their efforts on one final paper or exam.

“If someone’s really plugging away at it, you can reward them,” Professor Herman notes, but in our conversation it became clear that students’ control over their grade destiny is, in his view, mostly a happy side effect. What’s really important to him is that the system gives students the flexibility to pursue the kind of work they find most interesting, tailoring the course to their needs. In a smaller course, Professor Herman explains, he would get to know each of students individually and be able to help them find the kind of work they were most passionate about; contract grading allows him to bring that level of personalization to a large lecture course. In addition to a choice of assignments, each assignment has a choice of topics—there are options between questions, and more options within each question—and students tend to select the assignments where they have the most freedom of choice.

All these choices bring responsibility. In implementing a contract grading system, Professor Herman notes, “the major thing you have to impress on students is that first you’re treating them as adults and, secondly, the deadlines are real.” A student who gets a zero on an early assignment still has plenty of time to get it together and earn a good grade, but “some students get very poor grades in the course, which always astonishes me because it’s something they’ve made a decision about.” Even though they’ve been given plenty of options, there are students who still wait until the last of the possible deadlines. “I’ll get 100 of the 3-point essays on the last day”—the course includes two optional essays, worth 3 points each—“and most of them are garbage: I give out more half, quarter, zero points on these last minute  papers than I give out the rest of the term.”

Some students abuse the system, but far fewer than you might think. For one thing, Professor Herman has calibrated it over the years so that it’s almost impossible to earn an A simply by turning in a great volume of mediocre work. Every now and then a student manages it, but, as Professor Herman puts it, “two students isn’t worth changing the whole system over. For students who perform that way, the A they get from me won’t get them very far elsewhere.” Similarly, there are a handful of students who finish the course early, accumulating 9 points with a few exemplary assignments and then ditching the remaining lectures.

Far more frequent than course-ditchers or undeserved A’s, however, are the students who turn in all of the assignments, continuing to submit fantastic work long after they’ve crossed the 9-point threshold. Students who earn an A two-thirds of the way through the term usually do so because they’re interested in the subject, and for that reason they keep coming, and they take advantage of the opportunity to do extra thinking and writing.

Contract grading, in its most radical forms, can feel extreme. Ungraded assignments can have fantastic results for the quality of students’ work, but they call into question the course’s rigor from a credentialing standpoint. (See this 1990 article by Jerry Farber for an interesting perspective on the dilemmas of a credit/no credit system; in this 1973 article on non-judgmental pedagogy, Barrett John Mandel comments that he has found ungraded papers to be “more interesting to read” and “more personally worth my while”; and, while we’re on the subject of further reading, I highly recommend Peter Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment.”)

Professor Herman’s system seems to have the best of both worlds: student autonomy without loss of rigor, and a way to reward effort that doesn’t just credit “seat time.” I first learned about it from a friend who was working as an academic adviser at Northeastern. Her advisees loved the system: if they bombed an assignment, they got a second chance; if they were diligent but not outstanding students, they could have the satisfaction of seeing their hard work rewarded. Have you ever had a student who missed the boat on a first paper but then really figured it out and was doing fantastic work by the end of the course? Under most grade-distribution systems, you would either have to reflect that initial stumble in the student’s final grade, or exercise some leeway to reward “improvement.” The former option can feel like punishing a student for learning; the latter option makes it difficult for a student to accurately predict his or her final grade. The opportunity to complete additional assignments makes improvement quantifiable, and gives students the autonomy to raise their own grades.

This post was written by Odile Harter.

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