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I no longer give As (Contract Grading)


Submitted by syntaxfactory on May 5, 2013 - 3:48pm


A recent set of conversations with colleagues leads me to articulate changes in my grading in the last three years. They are strategic changes which have left my overall curve unchanged, but they have changed my relationships to my students and the relationship to writing that I seek to communicate with my students.

1. I have moved to "contract" grading. To receive a C, you need to complete 8-20 assignments (based on the diverse purposes of the class) that focus on application and analysis and argument. To receive a B, you complete a collaborative assignment designed to focus on synthesis across course concepts. To receive an A, you complete a reflection essay measuring metacognitive abilities: do you know what you learned, and do you know how you learned it?

1.a. By "complete," I mean "to a passing quality." My standards for passing quality for an assignment are roughly ballpark, if not a little higher than my colleagues (remembering that my colleagues have probably historically held a higher standard for an A than I do -- but all these claims are anecdotally based on complaints and comments from students).

2. Finally, I have regularized "Class Participation" in this way: students must, at the end of the semester, produce a "log" of 12 moments in which their participation (online, large group and small group) advanced one of the learning objectives listed on the syllabus. This keeps them focused on the learning objectives all semester long. It also keeps me from using participation as a "fudge" factor or falling too subjective -- I am weak, and I recognize that I don't remember all participation equally.

Value of the change: In this way, I can easily say: If you did not earn a "B," it is because you did not demonstrate the synthetic and collaborative skills I sought. If you did not earn an "A," you did not demonstrate the reflective learning skills I sought. There are clear demarcations.

Beyond these kinds of simplifications of grading and of learning objectives, there is another reason I like this system: Students who receive an "A" on an assignment presume it is "done" -- that it is finished. But this system never gives a student that illusion. Instead, we can talk about "done enough" to move on to the next assignment -- but that, were the writing to move from the classroom to another context (a submission to the school paper, a submission to the regional undergrad research journal, a submission as a resume for a job) it would require more work. And based on the feedback earned at that point, whether in a job interview, the feedback cycle on a grant or the peer reviewers on an academic paper, the paper will need more revision. The paper is never done. It is only "done enough" to move into the next stage of being read and being revised or being read and being engaged by a reader, and so subject to critique which hopefully invites more dialogue (all the more likely in a Web 2.0 world).

This is the best way that I can signal that being an "A" writer does not mean writing perfect documents, but rather that it entails three habits of mind (analysis/application, synthesis/collaboration, and metacognition) that support the better writing of documents. Those habits do not guarantee a grand slam run, and a portfolio full of awesome work does not prove that someone is great communicator. A willingness to engage in an ongoing and complex dialogic and recursive system makes for an effective communicator.

Is this the best way to signal these differences to students? Can you help?

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