In “Grading Contract Journey, Part 1” John Warner describes contract grading as a method of shifting assessment methods to match the behavior and needs of writers. Writing, he argues, “requires curiosity, it requires comfort with ambiguity, recognizing that a piece of writing is a series of choices, often made with the audience’s needs, attitudes, and knowledge in mind.” And writing also requires a “willingness to risk and fail and learn from those failures. Above all, writing requires a desire to communicate and be understood.”

A jumble of white letters against a white background

To get an A, you must not only [...] demonstrate an active engagement with the work, you must also find something original during the course of the semester.
What I mean by "finding something original" may be hard to define on paper, but it's unmistakable when it starts to happen. The whole class feels it. A new way of seeing comes about, a new approach to problem-solving and working that extends beyond the limits of our class time into other aspects of daily life.
-Lynda Barry, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor

In another essay on the subject, Warner also describes his dismay over the recognition that numerical grading systems caused “much of [his] evaluation time [to be] spent justifying that number. In analyzing [his] own comments, nearly 80% of [his] words were spent explaining what was ‘wrong’ with the student’s work. Even when [he] would consciously try to focus on ‘process’ and provide forward-looking comments, [he] just ended up writing more and longer commentary that seemed even less useful to students who are thoroughly conditioned to only care about that number anyway.”

These are two recent pieces on contract grading, but the system has been around for a long time, and have been studied extensively by scholars of composition and rhetoric, including Peter Elbow, a luminary in the field.

Our Grading Agreement

Assignments will earn the following grades:

  • Proficient (P)
  • Below Proficient (BP)
  • Excellent (E)

As your professor for the course, I will give feedback and support to aid you in your writing assignments toward successful completion of the course.

Here’s how you can get a B/B+ as your final grade:

  • Do all assigned work
  • Meet the course requirements for attendance and participation
  • Earn a “P” on the major projects in the course

To get an A- or A, you will need to do everything required for a B, and you will need to receive an Excellent on your final portfolio at the end of the semester. You will also need to do something more, such as:

  • Earn an “Excellent” on your final reflection for the class
  • Earn an “Excellent” on some major projects
  • Stretch yourself in new skills
  • Decide to take risks in your writing or web design that work
  • Help fellow classmates with their projects in such a way that it makes a difference for your friend
  • Engage in effective collaboration with another or several others in the class
  • Any kind of thing that goes beyond just “getting the assignment done”

If you’ve never seen a system of evaluation such as this, don’t fret. I think you’ll find that it rewards learning and that you’ll do fine. This system will allow you to focus on the rest of the course, on learning, on finding out about yourself, rather than on worrying about your grade. You do have work to do, but you’ll feel a certain freedom as well, knowing that if you do your best and stretch just a little, you can be confident of a good grade in the course. You will be more in control of your learning this way. You will learn to be a risk taker, and those risks will help you learn better. Our class will be a real supportive community of learners instead of a bunch of people competing for the best grades. If you are ever concerned about any of this, just let me know.

Works Cited

Warner, John. “Grading Contract Journey Part I: First-Year Writing.” Inside Higher Ed. 8 Jan 2017.

——. “I Have Seen the Glories of the Grading Contract…”Inside Higher Ed. 4 Jan 2016.

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