Thursday, January 12, 2012

Avoiding the Ranking Obsession: Contract Grading

First things first. I must offer my apologies for taking more than a month to write a new post. I kept starting and deleting half-formed ideas. With the new semester coming into full swing, I will be more consistent from here on out.

Ok, now to the exciting topic...

Contract Grading :)
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Earlier in my short teaching career, I called a student out on the lack of effort in his revisions, and he told me, "I didn't make revisions because I knew I'd have to make them for the final portfolio," and later, "I know I'm getting an A anyway." Two things became clear: (1) even though his comment made me want to screech, he was right; (2) he was missing out on a valuable learning experience because he couldn't see beyond the grade on his paper. His negative attitude towards applying himself in my classroom was not all his fault. He had been programmed by previous learning experiences and my own failed teaching attempts. Something needed to change. I didn't want this to happen with another student ever again.

This past semester, I knew that I would have to try something new. I heard colleagues talk about contract grading during a department meeting, and though I wasn't certain about how it would work, I was certain that the grading policy I was applying-- grading each essay and then the final portfolio-- was failing miserably.

I did have fears going in though. Here's just a few:
  • How the heck do I make this work?
  • Will I be overwhelmed with keeping tabs on students' work?
  • I'm young. I already have to be careful about maintaining a professional presence. Will this make students think I'm inept?
  • Will students actually do work if they are not seeing a letter grade on each paper?
  • Will I have grades at the end of the semester that are dramatically different than if I were grading only qualitatively on students' writing?
The good news is that my fears were mostly imagined. I only had one student whose grade fell below what it would have been if I were grading solely on the quality of writing. I took that into consideration and did bump the grade up a bit, mostly because, by the middle of the semester, this particular student had stepped up and started doing work and having conversations with me about writing.

So, it's not scary... but does it work?

I am happy to report that I was impressed with the way that contract grading worked. Perhaps, it was a fluke because I had a really great bunch of students and much fewer of them than I typically have. I can't say for sure yet, I suppose. But if I had to say something, I'd say that it was actually effective.

Contract grading works because students who would have been discouraged by poor grades on their early writing assignments are instead challenged to deal with the responses to their writing. The most amazing thing that I saw as a result of contract grading was that students who probably wouldn't have nabbed As (or maybe even Bs) on some of their drafts were opening up and allowing other students to read their work or to offer really insightful feedback to their peers. For most of my students, there was a definite arc of growth throughout the semester, but also a ton of collaboration. That alone was enough to sell me on contract grading.

Plus, contract grading removes have the "smart kid/dumb kid" division.They can't rank and isolate themselves. No one can ask anyone, "hey, what'd you get?" until the class is over. And even then, my students know that hard work earned them the grade, not magic or just being smart.

How do you contract grade?

There are several ways to perform contract grading. Some of my colleagues take the term contract grade quite literally. They actually write and have students sign a contract. I thought that would not suit my teaching style, however. I simply laid out a road map for students in my syllabus. If they wanted an A, there was a list of criteria to meet. If they wanted a B, there was a list of criteria to meet. And, so on. 

To help me keep track, at the end of the semester, I divided everything into a point system: major assignments were worth 30; smaller assignments were worth 30; participation/attendance was worth 5; attending one-on-one conferences was worth 5; and the final portfolio was worth 30. This part was time consuming, but mostly because I had a different vision of how the grading would work before I actually got the process under way. With the exception of the portfolio, which was graded from a rubric that we designed as a class, I simply found out how many of the assignments were completed on time and in accordance to the guidelines set out for that assignment. I turned that into a percentage, and then, I had to translate that into a number out of the category number (if 100% of major assignment drafts were completed on time, for instance, that would translate to 30/30). Initially, I had planned on simply weighting everything, adding the sum, and dividing by the possible total points to get a grade, but because I was still figuring out the system, I didn't like the way I had weighted things. I didn't think it accurately reflected the work that they were doing. This semester, I will probably create checklists for each draft and assignment so that students really know what is being expected of them.

Overall, the important thing is to design the system in a way that works for you, but also helps students to grow through feedback rather than focusing on an arbitrary letter system. Contract grading is contextual, which is why it is so effective. It's not a one-size-fits-all method as is traditional grading.

Should you choose to give contract grading a whirl, here are a few pointers:
  • Show that you are serious about the contract. Remind students often that they are being graded on turning in work on time and following directions.
  • Make them reflect and self-evaluate often. Because they aren't getting grades, it's important that you make students assess their own work and respond to feedback. It helps give them focus and lets you know if students are grasping the concepts of the course, growing as writers, and fully understanding your expectations for them.
  • Keep a good record. Unfortunately, because you are working a more quantitative grading system in most cases, this requires you to keep track of much more data. Use a spreadsheet. It will be a lifesaver. At the very least, if you aren't a techie, keep up with entries in a grade book. It will make your life easier at the semester, and if students have questions about low grades, you can prove to them that they did not keep up with their work and did not earn a higher grade as a result quite easily.

Don't take my word for it!

Here are some other folks who think contract grading is swell.

James J. Polczynski  & L. E. Shirland

T. B. Hiller & Amy B. Hietapelto

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