Avoiding Resistance to Grading Contracts

I have a course that starts in 4 days. I’ve taught the course before (ED366 educational technology and the adult learner) but as my views of rhizomatic learning evolve, so do my feelings about how to teach this course. I have a fair amount of latitude on how it is to be taught, and, while the reviews of the course have been more than acceptable, I can’t help but give it a ‘tweak’.

The tweak – contract grading
At the end of ED366, the last time i taught it, a student came up to me and said “you know, i think i buy rhizomatic learning, but you really should look at contract grading… would make way more sense for what you’re doing.” I smiled, and nodded, shook his hand and thanked him for being a great student… and the thought just sat there in the corner of my head. Late this winter, when i found out I’d be teaching the course again, I decided to dig in a little deeper. The contract grading approach, loosely speaking, is one where the student and the instructor negotiate a ‘contract’ for how that course is supposed to go. Here is an excellent example from Cathy N. Davidson that I’ve been borrowing from. (or, as she suggests, pilfering from)

So… if you want an A – do that much work. Only want a C? Do that much work.

In the last few months I’ve become more than a little fascinated about how many overlaps there are between educational work done in the 70’s and what I’ve been trying to do with Rhizomatic Learning. Contract grading, it seems, is no different. I found as much research from the 70’s as from the 2000s. I decided to focus my searches on the challenges for adoption that different researchers had encountered, and see if i could come up with reasonable first draft solutions for some of them.

You need to ACTUALLY be open to student control
The one thing that everyone seems to agree upon is that shaping the course for themselves is the critical element to contract grading. If you create a situation where the contract exists, but students get little or not input into how its carried out (say you set things up where choice is very robotic, or checkbox like) it will not work.

“Virtually every student expressed the belief that the opportunity to assume responsibility for shaping their contractual obligations helped maximize their commitment to the course and fostered ownership of their learning in ways that conventional grading practices did not.”
Brubaker, Nathan D. 2010.

This position is supported by a 1971 article by Hugh Taylor where the results of student surveys had 5.10/7 agreement with the statement “The grade contract does not allow for adequate communication between students and teachers about course objectives”

Student Reaction to grade contract, Hugh Taylor

And while the research done by Spidell and Thelin echoes this idea by stating that many of the students said that they would have been more engaged had they had more input on the model, there came this little gem…

“When asked, though, what provisions they would add to the contract and what provisions they would eliminate, the students did not reach beyond the boundary of the contract. Many, in fact, needed to take out the contract from their backpacks as a reference, as they could not remember which provisions they liked and which they objected to.”

The article quotes the grand-daddy of andragogy himself (Malcolm Knowles) as having said that you should start grading contracts from scratch with your students… but I’m going to put myself down as too chicken for that. I’ve tried it before, and failed miserably. Maybe next time.

Allows students to have input, but remember that this is potentially their first time with contract grading, and you can’t expect them to have complex feelings about how they are to go about it. Still… give them real choice.

Other comments from the quite excellent Spidell and Thelin article
If the world made any sense at all, i could just link you all to the excellent article written by Spidell and Thelin, but I’m afraid that you or your institution will have to pay for that right. Some other comments from their article that I’m going to be keeping in mind.

Issue: Both Spidell & Thelin and Taylor suggest that student confusion was strong…
Proposed solution: I’m going to have the students each develop their own grading sheet, and hope that this process will allow us to confirm their own understanding of the grading. Also… I’m going to try to explain it well 🙂

Issue: High performing students resent a perceived levelling effect (Spidell & Thelin)
Proposed solution: The only thing i can really do about this is address it outright both in the contract and in the class. All assignments are going to be ‘satisfactory/unsatisfactory’… that may get some normally upper-level students irritated. We’ll see.

And my favourite…
Issue: Contracts must be within a constantly negotiated curriculum (Spidell & Thelin)
Proposed solution: rhizomatic learning 🙂


Davidson, Cathy. 2011 “Contract Grading + Peer Review: Here’s How it Works” HASTAC http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/contract-grading-peer-review-heres-how-it-works. Accessed May 6, 2012.

Brubaker, Nathan D. 2010. “Negotiating Authority by Designing Individualized Grading Contracts.” Studying Teacher Education 6, no. 3: 257-267. ERIC, EBSCOhost (accessed May 6, 2012).

Spidell and Thelin. 2006 “Not Ready to Let Go: A Study of Resistance to Grading Contracts” Composition Studies 34, no 1. p35-69 Texas Christian University.

Taylor, Hugh. 1971 “Student Reaction to the Grade Contract.” The Journal of Educational Research 64, No. 7 (Mar., 1971), pp. 311-314. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27536139

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

8 thoughts on “Avoiding Resistance to Grading Contracts”

  1. Dave:

    I think I get how the contract grading works, but am not sure of your scope.

    Are you talking about every assignment being graded this way? Will this involve rubrics? When you “explain everything really well” will you give a sample lesson or assignment so that learners know how to negotiate their path?

    I ask this because I have gone through a course like this before, and it was excellent for me to be able to negotiate what I proposed to my Prof as “outcomes”, but most of my classmates were bewildered.

    Hope things go well for you with the class.

  2. I think we’re all pretty much agreed (and is addressed in my looking into the topic) that bewilderment will be a part of the process… I’ll do my best to explain it, but there will certainly be confusion. It breaks a pattern, and that can often be a challenge. It’s part of the process i think.

    It would take a great deal of student encouragement to get me to offer an example or a rubric… as soon as you do that you take power away. When I say i will ‘explain it well’ i certainly don’t mean “what they should write in a reflective blog post,” but rather, “how the overall process works.”

    Thanks for the good wishes 🙂

  3. I’ve taken a MEd course where there was this sort of “contract grading”. It worked very well for the timing of the course as most of the students (teachers) were in the thralls of end-of-the-year hoopla and each new exactly the amount of time they had to afford to put forth on a particular assignment, etc at that time.

    I’ve also used a similar kind of grading system in senior high courses in the past. I derived my system based on Kathie Nunley’s work on layered curriculum: http://www.help4teachers.com/nutshell.htm

    I think your students will appreciate this type of grading. I know I did as a student, and my students did as well!

  4. I have taken a couple of courses where the contract grading system was used and I thought it was great. As others have mentioned we are all busy and some of us do not have as much time to invest as others or perhaps the higher marks are not a priority for us. This form of grading provides us with an option. I like it.

  5. Thanks for this Dave. I’ve been experimenting with my own take on #AbolishGrading but actually having to assign a number to my students at the mid points (two grading periods) and final grade.

    It has mostly worked and it is *amazing* some of the work done by students when the barriers are lifted. I also have some great feedback from students that many need more push or carrots (or sticks?) to motivate them. I keep pushing back on this but in an excellent discussion with two students yesterday I found myself coming back to Contract Grading as a possible twist to my system. I explained it to the second student (they all must come talk to me about their final grade) and he seemed genuinely excited. Which of course is more than enough signal to “go for it”.

    I originally looked at this a couple years ago on a deep dive that probably started at the Digital Pedagogy site and ended up on Cathy Davidson’s page at hastac. Or was it from a Virtually Connecting session with Cathy that led me to Digital Pedagogy and then back and forth. It is all rather muddy which is to be expected.

    I would love to get together a group of educators working on contract grading sometime to have some online sessions to discuss our experiences, practices and plans. Perhaps you would be interested in joining.

    Keep doing excellent work Dave. You like so many other colleagues make my classroom a better place with the work that you share.

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