Initial thoughts on contract grading

This semester I’ve experimented with a form of contract grading. I’ve used contract grading in summer semesters before—in short, six-week courses—and it’s worked out pretty well. I find that a great advantage of contract grading is that it values proficiency and practice. The major disadvantage, in my eyes at least, is that it de-emphasizes merit and minimizes the amount of feedback I can give on any single assignment.

Because the emphasis is on students getting a lot of practice writing, the classes have a lot of assignments. For example, my two sections of 3880 have 41 potential assignments in one class and 40 in the other (students negotiated their grading contracts a little differently). Let’s just call it 40 … that’s 40 assignments across 50 students, which means the possibility of 2000 assignments to track in a semester—and this doesn’t count assignments that students don’t pass initially and then subsequently revise. (No wonder I’m tired.) All told, out of the 40 assignments I mentioned above, 25 to 30 (case assignments, peer review, and some in-class assignments) are what I would classify as “writing assignments” and the remainder are something less intensive in terms of assessment (for example, visiting the University Writing Center or submitting to the University Writing Portfolio—although these assignments do still generate writing that I must assess in some way before counting an assignment for credit). Most students will not do all 40 assignments, but this is still an enormous amount of work to track.

I have had a hard time with assessment in this model. Because of the volume of assignments, I have to quickly assess a piece of writing to determine if it passes or fails, offer a little feedback, and move on. This is immensely difficult for me; it’s not how I was trained to give feedback, and it feels like I’m not doing enough. I’ve had many, many (constant?) moments where I have to remind myself to fully commit to the practice/process model rather than trying to give feedback as I usually would. I average 1 or 2 sentences of feedback per assignment in these classes, instead of the page or so I would offer in a differently structured course. I worry that the large amount of practice students get is not a sufficient trade-off for the lack of in-depth feedback from me. I’ve tried to value peer review highly both because I think students learn a lot from it when it’s set up well and also because it garners more detailed feedback for students without my having to give all that feedback. But, peer feedback is still not the same as instructor feedback. Plus, in order to ensure that peer review in the class does flourish, I assess it—which means that peer review is part of the assessment burden.

The students generally seem to like contract grading—unlike in this useful account by Lisa Litterio, I haven’t had a single complaint, though I am eager to see the end-of-semester evaluations. It seems as though the students who would have excelled anyway still excel; the students who would have struggled still find themselves challenged but feel more in control of their final grade. I really like the latter effect; this empowers students to approach learning in ways that work for them. But honestly, I’m on the fence about whether that control students feel combined with the large amount of practice is sufficient reason to trade a more merit- and instructor-feedback-based approach. I believe that lots of practice in writing is beneficial, in the same way that lots of practice in reading is beneficial. Students in this class are practicing with a variety of genres, and they are genres that they will encounter after their time at college. I’m just still struggling to figure out if this is a context in which the benefit of large amounts of practice writing is the best approach, or if more detailed instructor feedback on fewer assignments would be better. Hopefully, I’ll gain a better sense of this as the semester comes to a close.

Litterio, Lisa M. (2016). Contract Grading in a Technical Writing Classroom: A Case Study. Journal of Writing Assessment.

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