Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Grading Contracts Challenge Traditional Principles of Academia

Zam Ortega

Hearing the word “grading” accompanied by the word “contract” might evoke thoughts of terror for some students if they are unfamiliar with the process. However, grading contracts are a collaborative agreement between student and professor. It involves quantitative goals—such as the amount of labor done and the effort put forward—rather than the quality of work produced. This is due to subjectivity between professors on the ideals of quality work and increasing student agency in coursework. 

English Associate Teaching Professors Hannah Tracy, Alex Smith and Tara Roth spent the summer of 2020 reading about grading contracts and creating their own (specifically, labor-based contracts) based upon the writing and theory of an academic named Asao Inoue. Inoue envisions a grading system in which final grades are determined not by the judgments of professors, but solely by the amount of labor that students contribute to the course.  

The sudden deep dive that Tracy, Smith and Roth found themselves in meant changing the structure of their courses and their traditional grading systems—an initially intimidating process.  Overall, Roth, Smith and Tracy expressed that it has been worthwhile. Since coming up with their own slightly different systems, they’ve been utilizing student feedback and their own experiences to make changes as necessary. 

“We were looking for ways to make our courses more antiracist and accessible and more inclusive for students,” Tracy said of the initial motivations for the switch to grading contracts. 

Tracy went on to elaborate that labor-based contract grading is based in antiracism because it seeks to not diminish the quality of students’ work by forcing them to align with conventional ideas about what academic writing and efforts should look like. 

“It intends to honor the language that people use without imposing these, sort of, artificial English academic standards onto people’s writing. So it seeks to preserve students’ own voices, allow them to have authenticity in their voice, and to have the power to make their own choices about how to use language without being punished for it,” Tracy said.

Two years ago, the three professors received a grant for antiracist pedagogy, using it to put on a workshop for faculty through the Center for Faculty Development. When asked if there were potential for future workshops, Smith expressed that she would love to hold another one if there is enough interest from faculty to participate. 

“In general, I’ve encountered tons of colleagues who are really interested but are intimidated by the process. And it does take a lot of work at the beginning to get going but once you’re going— I could never go back. It’s transformed the way I show up in the classroom and the way I relate to students and the curriculum,” Smith said.

Lynia Morris, a second-year psychology major at Seattle U, had a grading contract in one of her previous University Honors classes. She said that grading contracts outline exactly what is expected of students by their professors. 

“[It’s] a system in place between the teacher and students so that they know what their baseline grade is going to be for the whole class if they do the bare minimum,” Morris said.

For Roth and Tracy, this baseline is set at a B+. If students wish to end the quarter with a higher grade, they can simply do more assignments (more labor) to fulfill that goal. This flexibility allows students to choose the amount of work they want to do for a class. Also, grades are based on the completion of assignments, not the content, to help prevent instructor bias. However, other professors may have guidelines that differ from what Roth and Tracy have laid out in their grading contracts.

For Morris, she found the grading contract beneficial for balancing out the stress of her other Honors classes, as she expressed that the workload can be very heavy and dense at times.

“It was nice because I was like, ‘Okay, as long as I just complete this assignment, or the required minimum amount of assignments that I have to do, I know that I’m gonna get this specific grade,’” Morris said. 

While some students have had positive experiences with grading contracts, others may not share that same fondness going forward. Julie Pham, a second-year design major, also had her first experience with grading contracts in an Honors class, but had some trouble getting used to a revised curriculum. 

“You either love it or you hate it,” Pham said. “People who strive for the A have to put in additional work that’s not in the curriculum that the other students aren’t doing. I can see where people are frustrated with that, and I definitely felt frustrated with that too.” 

Annabelle DeGuzman-Carino

However, she didn’t feel that it was difficult to get an A with contract grading, as long as students could afford the extra time it would take. 

One potential criticism of the grading contract system is whether it could allow for students to take advantage of it by doing the bare minimum, and if students could have meaningful takeaways from the material with that type of standing agreement. Smith responded to this potential concern.

“A traditional grading system doesn’t really prevent students from ‘taking advantage’ or not doing the best that they can—there are ways to kind of work the system in both methods,” Smith said.

Smith went on to say that the main difference with contract grading is that it doesn’t rely on utilizing fear of poor grades to motivate the student. Instead, students are in charge of their own agency.

“I think it’s encouraging a sense of ownership over their work in a way that can be really helpful for life after college,” Smith said. 

Both Tracy and Roth said that they provide just as much, if not more, feedback than they did with traditional grading. Tracy noted that she still leaves a significant amount of comments and her overall perspective of students’ writing, but students have a choice whether or not to take her feedback into account. 

In short, as Tracy put it—“we become coaches instead of judges.” 

Contract grading isn’t the only way to modify teaching. Jarrad Felgenhauer, a philosophy instructor, is an example of a Seattle U professor who has heard of grading contracts and subscribes to many of the values but doesn’t know much specifically about the concept. He describes the traditional grading system as oppressive and is focused on making students feel involved and invested in their own educational experiences to combat that. 

“Taking people from all these diverse backgrounds and educational experiences and just trying to force them into this box is at best off-putting, and at worst is really oppressive,” Felgenhauer said. “It seems to me that traditional grading practices do more to discipline students rather than open up their creative capacities. It takes a standard, or a norm, and tries to make everybody fit to that norm.”

Felgenhauer speaks to the challenges of engaging students in UCOR classes, where the majority of students are enrolled to fulfill graduation requirements, not necessarily for the love of the subject. He wants everyone to get something out of his classes, no matter what their major may be, and amping up student involvement in their own grades and assignments is key to achieving this goal.  

One way that Felgenhauer aims to fight the oppression of the traditional grading system is by giving his students as many chances as they want to write and rewrite essays. This means they can make multiple attempts until they receive a grade that they are comfortable with. Coincidentally, this practice lines up with what Roth, Smith and Tracy implement through contract grading. 

As the majority of professors implementing grading contracts are primarily writing or English instructors, the future of applying more labor-based grading contracts in other disciplines is undetermined. Yet, its design to encourage students to engage with concepts more freely rather than the prescribed ideas that would earn them a good grade in a traditional grading system has the potential to make students less intimidated by theories they may be unfamiliar with. Low-stakes environments may be able to produce higher quality work. 

Roth, Smith and Tracy have joined with Dr. Hidy Basta, director of the Seattle U Writing Center, to work on a paper called “Deconstructing Rigor: Centering Student Agency and Voice Through Labor-Based Contract Grading,” which will be published and then presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication this April. 

“It’s such a collaborative endeavor. I couldn’t have done this without working with [Roth, Tracy, and Basta] on this,” Smith said of the paper and implementation of grading contracts in general.

Although it can be intimidating to implement grading contracts initially, she said that nobody has to do it alone and it’s great to have people to bounce ideas off of. 

Would students be interested in seeing contract grading or other alternative grading more widely used on campus? Will more Seattle U professors start adapting it over time? This dialogue will surely continue, spurred by the efforts of the alternative grading pioneers of Seattle U. 

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