In order to emphasize the learning process over grades, a number of post-secondary instructors are foregoing traditional grading rubrics in favour of contract grading. Students are still evaluated based upon the demonstration of their knowledge and skills but instead of basing the evaluation on a single essay or test, contract grading takes a more holistic approach.
Contract grading replaces point and letter-based evaluations on assignments with a three point scale: below proficient, proficient, above proficient. In an English-composition course all student activities – attendance, tutorial discussions, peer-reviews, drafts, final papers - will count towards the final evaluation. If students participate in class and complete all of the work, they will not earn less than a B. If students actively engage with the material and excel on their assignments, or do additional work, they will earn an A. If students do not participate or complete the work expected of them, they will be evaluated accordingly.
Contract grading works to level out the playing field in the classroom. Traditionally, students already highly proficient at technical writing can achieve an A without engaging in the classroom or coursework; meanwhile students who initially struggle may be highly engaged with the course content and demonstrate significant improvements in their writing proficiency and still end up with a poor grade. As a result, in a traditionally evaluated course, the strong writers often don’t push themselves to improve their ability while the less proficient students may not put in the effort because it won’t be reflected in the final grade.
The effectiveness of the contract grading model is undetermined because there is little data available for analysis. In theory, the model fosters deeper student engagement and learning by placing the emphasis on the process rather than the product. In practice, however, it will likely meet resistance in more objective courses like calculus and biology as well as from students who require more specific point and letter-based evaluations for their GPAs and graduate school applications.
Regardless of its effectiveness, contract grading demonstrates the value and need for innovation in modern classroom evaluation.
About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.