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Grading contracts August 18, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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Yesterday, I made a comment on Twitter about using a grading contract for the class I’m teaching this semester.  I talked about the specifics of the class in this post at EngineerBlogs.  After posting the comment, @profgears and @27andaphd asked me explain a bit more.  I’d been planning on writing a post about them after talking about how people impute certain characteristics into grades that really aren’t there.  I guess now is as good a time as any.

Contract grading is basically using an agreement between yourself and the student for what grade they will earn in the course.  Typically, this contract allows for some choice on the student’s part, and may even include some input, as well.

Essentially, developing a grading contract means you need to consider a few things:

  • What assignments are essential to meet the goals of the class?  Which assignments are optional, if any?
  • What is the minimum level of performance for these assignments and for the class overall?
  • How much latitude can you give the student in determining how they will fulfill the requirements?
  • How do these requirements fit into a grading scheme?

As an example, I will probably have several assignments which are mandatory and some that are not.  I plan to grade these assignments on a binary scale: Pass or Redo.  If the student wants, they can revise the Redo the assignments as many times as they want until it becomes a Pass.  Most assignments will require a written submission, but there will be the option of completing the assignment through alternate means if the students want to propose something.  Final grading for the course will require that they pass all of the mandatory assignments and, depending on what grade they contract for, a specified number of optional assignments.  If they fail to meet the requirements of the contracted grade, I will assign them the grade which matches what they actually achieved.

The reason I like this system is because it doesn’t place a lot of undue pressure on the student.  I remember that, as an undergrad, I came to the realization that I didn’t have to do all of my assignments perfectly: to get an A, I just needed to do better than everyone else.  That was slightly helpful, except that doing better than everyone else always left me with an uncertain and often moving target (depending on the other students in the class)…which was almost as stressful as striving to get perfect grades.  The student who uses a grading contract can determine what level of effort they need to get the desired grade for a course.  Not everyone cares about getting As, and looking at the requirements at the beginning will get them thinking about where their priorities are within the class and within the whole system of going through school.

Using a grading contract means that  grade assignments aren’t relative to people in the class.  It’s an absolute measurement, and makes it very clear what is expected of the student…while also allowing a level of flexibility usually not offered in a classroom.

It also enables prioritizing: if stuck for time, the student doesn’t have to do *every* assignment, and the instructor can get across (hopefully) what they consider to be the most important topics of the class.

And I like that there’s the option for the student to chose what works for them in terms of assignment fulfillment.  This aspect works best when presenting results for projects.  Do they like to give talks better, or do they prefer writing?  What are the essential parts of making the project successful?

Finally, I have to admit that I have a very selfish purpose in doing this: I get tired of students arguing about getting one point here and there because they are under the false impression that the one point, worth .03% of their grade, may potentially make a difference in the long run.  I really want them to focus on the right things to get good grades, not minutia.

Once you’ve worked out how you want to deal with the contract, each student can sign an agreement stating what grade they are going to work for.  This also gives the instructor an idea of what level of effort they can expect from each student: it gives an explicit statement of how much they hope to take from the class.

There are several places to find information about grading contracts on the web, but this is a good summary of the system.

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