My First Experiment with Labor-Based Contract Grading

You might have heard about labor-based or contract-based grading practices as part of a larger movement against traditional grading practices (for example: this piece and this piece by Prof. Jennifer Hurley, this piece by Alfie Kohn, and this piece by Jesse Stommel). At the heart of these debates about grading as an assessment of learning is often questions about what is being measured, how it is being measured, and whether such an assessment contributes to student learning. Other teacher-scholars, such as Asao Inoue have pointed out the ways racism can be inadvertently perpetuated through traditional assessment methods.

Labor-based and contract-based grading have been introduced as an alternative form of assessment. As the name implies, labor-based grading focuses on the time and effort a student invests in an assignment rather than the outcome. This method of grading is often (but not always) communicated to students in the form of grading contracts. (If this is all brand-new to you, it might be helpful to read Traci Gardner’s infographic on labor-based grading geared towards students.) These contracts vary in degree of “contractual” language employed, but they are essentially a document that outlines what the students need to complete in a given semester to earn a particular letter grade. The labor asked of students therefore varies based on the grade they choose to work for.

I experimented with labor-based grading methods this past semester (Spring 2020) in my Introduction to Creative Writing course. I felt labor-based grading would be particularly well-suited to my teaching philosophy for introductory creative writing: to motivate students to experiment and push themselves out of their comfort zones as they learn basic craft elements of poetry and fiction.

In the remainder of this post, I will first describe my past experience with teaching introductory creative writing using traditional grading methods. I think this previous experience is a useful backdrop for understanding my desire to change my assessment methods (but if you don’t think so, feel free to skip it). I will then compare that experience to my experiment with contract grading in Spring 2020. Finally, I will conclude with a list of resources for those who might wish to delve more deeply into this assessment methodology (including sample grading contracts I have found online).

My Experience Using Traditional Grading Methods in the Creative Writing Classroom

When I first taught introductory creative writing in Fall 2018, I used traditional grading methods despite the fact that I did not feel comfortable grading students on the “quality” of their writing when many of them were writing poetry and fiction for the first time. Furthermore, at the STEM-oriented institution where I currently teach, many of the students who enroll in introductory creative writing are not English majors or minors–they are coming to the course as a pure elective. At such a beginner stage, I don’t want students to get hung up on whether or not they are “good” writers; rather, I want them to focus on their writing choices and the effect of these choices on potential readers.

For better or worse, students* have been trained to view traditional grading practices (A-F or point-based grading scales) as measuring the quality of what they produce. While some teachers might have found a way to get students to take risks while using traditional grading practices, I found such practices constrained even my thinking about student assessment. Here is the grading policy in my 2018 syllabus:

“When grading the writing you produce in this course, I will focus on your timely completion of assignments and the way that you navigate the revision process in particular. Your thoughtful participation in discussions and workshops and your commitment to mindfully developing your work over the course of the semester will also be considered. The percentage breakdown for the course grade is as follows:

Participation                                                               5%
Collection Journal                                                      5%
Daily Writing Exercises                                             10%
Workshop Drafts                                                        25%
Workshop Feedback                                                   25%
Short Story/Creative Nonfiction/Poetry Collection Paper        10%
Final Portfolio                                                              20%”

This sort of breakdown probably looks pretty familiar. I don’t necessarily think the process of weighing activities/tasks differently was the problem, but this given that I am also a product of the American education system, framing evaluation in this way made it difficult for me to deviate from the rubrics and standards with which I was familiar.

Despite regularly encouraging students to revise their work if they were not happy with the original grade, I found that when faced with a choice between a risky move or a “safe” one, they nearly always opted for the latter. They did not want anything less than an A on their initial submissions, even with the opportunity to revise. We might be tempted here to blame the students themselves (or their parents) for seeming so risk-averse. But considering that students have spent their entire educational lives up to this point being rewarded for conformity (whether through standardized testing or trying to guess a particular instructor’s taste), is it any wonder that they continue to play it safe in college?

I also noted this semester that students tended to ignore the feedback on their stories and poems from their peers during workshops unless it coincided with my own. I again attribute this move to the assessment methods I was using: why bother listening to their classmates when in the end it was the instructor’s opinion that mattered? (This observation led me to change my workshop and feedback methods during Spring 2020, which I describe in a previous post.)

My Experience Using Labor-Based Contract Grading in the Creative Writing Classroom

Before I describe my experience this semester, I should note that the conditions for this experiment were not ideal: due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all courses at my institution were moved online following Spring Break in mid-March, and I revised my expectations of students to reflect the extraordinary circumstances (a decision I plan to discuss in a future post). This mean that for all intents and purposes, I essentially disregarded the grading contracts my students signed after mid-semester. My students, however, did not necessarily do the same (but I’ll get to that later).

I found the biggest difference of grading contracts versus traditional grading methods to be in the amount of up-front work required. I spent several hours over several days writing and revising my grading contract (this was on-top of all the research I had done on contract grading). The benefit to this up-front time investment is that it left me free to focus on providing feedback and support to students during the course of the semester, rather than measuring their work against a rubric and assigning points or letter grades to their writing. I found that this dramatically shifted how I approached student writing: I was no longer looking at it through the mindset of whether it “merited” an A, B, C, etc, but rather reading it for what it was–an experiment or work-in-progress. This shift to contract grading revealed to me how so much of the “feedback” I typically provide students is really a justification of the grade I’m assigning. Without having to give each piece a grade, I approached their work with a generous spirit (the mindset I always want to have but find difficult to maintain with traditional assessment methods).

I opted to distribute the grading contracts separately from my syllabus, so as not to overwhelm students on the first day of classes and give me the opportunity to discuss this assessment method with them in class in advance. Here is the language I used in my syllabus to introduce labor-based, contract grading to students:

“I do not believe traditional grading practices are conducive to the spirit and goals of this course. In my experience, it is difficult for students to take risks, experiment, and try something new when they fear being graded on the outcome. Additionally, this is a purely elective course, and I assume you would not be taking it if you didn’t want to take risks, experiment, and try something new! However, the university still requires grades, so we will be using a contract grading method this semester. More information on contract grading will be provided during the first week of the semester.”

The actual contract I distributed to students is linked below.

Because of it’s length, I will just share a preview of what constituted “A-level” work in this course:

  • Attend class regularly (missing no more than 2 classes)
    • Missing more than 2 classes will result in a .5 grade reduction for each additional absence.
  • Fulfill participation/engagement expectations (as outlined in syllabus)
  • Submit drafts of 5 poems
  • Significant reimagining of 3 poems
  • Submit 3 revised and polished poems in your Final Portfolio. NOTE: These should be the same poems as the ones you “significantly reimagined”; final versions of poems should be substantially different from original drafts and significant reimaginings of poems!
  • One of the following fiction options:
    • Microfiction Option
    • Submit 2 microfiction drafts (500 words or fewer)
    • Submit a significant reimagining of 1 of your microfiction drafts (500 words or fewer)
    • Submit 2 revised and polished microfiction stories (500 words or fewer) in your Final Portfolio. NOTE: final versions should be substantially different from both original drafts and your significant reimagining (i.e. not just cleaning up grammar and calling it a revision)
    • Short Story Option
    • Submit 1 short story draft (full story; 1000-3500 words)
    • Submit 1 significant reimagining of your short story draft (full story; 1000-3500 words)
    • Submit 1 revised and polished short story (full story; 1000-3500 words) in your Final Portfolio. NOTE: final version should be substantially different from both original draft and your significant reimagining (i.e. not just cleaning up grammar and calling it a revision)
  • Satisfactory completion of Author’s Note reflections accompanying each draft of poetry, microfiction, and short story pieces
  • Timely submission of feedback on ALL of your writing group’s drafts (as defined by guidelines)
  • Satisfactory and timely completion of short story/poetry collection essay (as defined by assignment sheet)
  • Satisfactory and timely completion of final reflection (as defined by assignment sheet) in your Final Portfolio.”

While students certainly had questions after I distributed the contracts and they had a chance to look them over, they were mostly clarification questions, and I did not meet any overt resistance to the idea of labor-based assessment methods. If anything, they appeared excited at knowing exactly what they were expected to produce during the semester and the ability to “control their own destiny,” as it were, by agreeing to the terms in advance. As the semester progressed, I did not run into the usual barrage of questions about what a student’s grade was in that exact moment, since they knew that if they were completing what was on their contract, they were receiving the grade they had contracted for. I was also never approached to justify a particular grade, since students knew that if they had not satisfactorily completed an assignment, I would email them and let them know it needed further work to be counted (this actually didn’t happen much at all, though).

The biggest hiccup (other than the pandemic), was that I had a couple of students with disability accommodations for flexible attendance–something I hadn’t anticipated, but certainly should have. (I have somehow not had students with relevant disability accommodations in my classes up until this point–it was previously accommodations for things like testing which I don’t do in a writing class.) Initially, I was concerned that attendance accommodations would throw off the contract system, but after meeting with a representative from the Disability Resource Office, I understood how I could meet these specific students’ needs within my contract system. (The compromise, for those who are curious, was to allow these students up to 6 absences without penalty, but more than that would result in failing the course.) So in the end, this turned out to be a non-problem.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of this section, I cannot consider this first experiment with labor-based contract grading a true representation of the method, as the pandemic caused me to radically re-evaluate what I would require from students for the second-half of the semester. The short version here is, I basically threw the contracts out the window and allowed students to self-grade for the period of the course affected by the pandemic. Many of the students, however, continued to work towards the grade they had contracted for and explicitly referred to their contract in email communication and in their final reflection papers.

Despite the fact that I did not maintain focus on the grading contracts through the end of the semester, a couple students referred to them in their course evaluations. Here are some comments:

“Grading procedures fit very well with the class – less pressure to “write well,” so I could focus on being creative.

“I liked the grading structure of this course, and felt that it encouraged growth and creativity better than traditional grading.”

“The grading policy was very clear.”

“Super easy to understand what was expected from a student, and it was extremely pleasant to have a professor so committed to my growth as a creative writer.”

This positive student response to the grading contracts, coupled with my experience (as the instructor) in deploying them, has convinced me to return to this assessment method again in the future, both for creative writing and other writing classes. While I do not believe labor-based contract grading is necessarily suitable for all courses (and obviously contracts will look different for each course in which they are used), I think it’s worth considering this assessment method in your own classroom–especially if traditional grading practices have never sat well with you.

Additional Resources**

In addition to my own grading contract posted above, I’m linking some additional resources on the topic of labor-based contract grading (including other sample grading contracts). If you are interested in employing this assessment method in your own classroom–or are just interested in the topic–I recommend checking out some of these pieces.

Cordell, Ryan. “How I Contract Grade.” (includes two sample syllabi)

Elbow, Peter. “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching [co-written with Jane Danielewicz].”

Hurley, Jennifer. Grading Contract.

Inuoe, Asao. Grading Contract for ENGL 160W.

—. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom.

Litterio, Lisa M. “Contract grading in the technical writing classroom: Blending community-based assessment and self-assessment.”

Rajabzadeh, Shokoofeh. “Labor Contract.”

SUNY Cortland. “Grading Contracts 101.”

Warner, John. Discussion of Contract Grading from Inside Higher Ed (Part I and Part II)

* I am primarily describing American students, or students who study in the United States and have therefore adapted to our grading practices. These are the students I have taught, and I do not wish to unfairly conflate other countries’ approaches to grading and assessment in this piece.

**I want to thank my colleague Joe Spieles for sharing many of these resources with me.

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