My Experiences Grading via a Contract


a piece of paper with a checklist on it.

This blog has been neglected for a while. To be fair, I was back to teaching, and that involved commuting to Boston 4 days a week, which doesn’t leave much time for thought. But I wanted to write, because I decided to do something different this year with my grading, and I wanted to share my experiences.

This year I am teaching for BU’s Writing Program. The WP is very DEI conscious, and as part of that encourages their instructors to move beyond the standard letter grading system. This system is inconsistent, capitalist, racist, exploitative, and not to mention stressful for both students and instructors. I have personally always stressed over grading, especially student writing because of these very reasons. And so I decided to embrace one form of ungrading, specifically contract grading.

Contract grading, or labor based grading, is based on a contract between students and instructors. Under this contract, if they complete the course requirements, as outlined in the syllabus, they will receive an agreed upon base grade in the class. For my class this semester, students were guaranteed a B+ in the class if they

  • Complete the tasks described on major assignments sheets by the due dates 
  • Attend class and arrive on time, including for required conferences with your instructor (see attendance policies below)
  • Participate in in-class exercises and activities
  • Complete informal, low-stakes assignments (e.g., reading, homework exercises)
  • Give thoughtful written and spoken peer feedback and work faithfully with your group on other collaborative tasks
  • Sustain effort and investment on each draft of all major assignments. 
  • Make substantive revisions when the assignment is to revise—not just editing or touching up
  • Copyedit all minor and major assignments (spell-check, check for grammatical errors and consistency, etc.)

In order to gauge student efforts on these items, beyond observation, a lot of student reflection is needed. My class incorporated reflections after each major assignment, minor reflections on topics like reading academic writing and genre differences, as well as in class reflections. When it became clear that students weren’t necessarily putting the necessary amount of effort into homework readings, I also added homework reflections.

In my class, students had the opportunity to make up any ‘contract violations’ by editing and resubmitting any work. The only contract violation that could not be made up was too many unexcused absences, but because the contract made it clear being in class was required, this was only a small issue.

Students could then do other labor based tasks in order to up their grade. Under my contract, 4 Extra Effort points would earn you an A- and 8 an A. If, for some reason, students were working with a lower contract grade (too many absences, or missing work), they could still up their grade, but only by 2 grades from the base grade (that is, a student whose contract grade was lowered to a B could only get up to an A-). For my course, I split the Extra Effort opportunities into three available all semester, and then a few available for each module of the course. For module 1, which was on literature from ancient Greece and Rome, they could earn an extra 4 points by reading all the poetry of one of our selected authors, and write a reflection on how reading the whole body of work changed their interpretation of the author. Then, for an extra 2 points, they could share their reflection with their classmates. For module 2, which was on graffiti and material remains from Pompeii, they could earn an extra 4 points by choosing a piece of material culture (that we didn’t cover in class) to analyze in terms of how a non-elite Roman might use/interact with it. Then, for an extra 2 points, they could share the item and analysis with their classmates. For module 3, which was on creative interpretations of non-elite lives from Rome, they could read the novel The Wolf Den, which we read an excerpt of for class, for 6 points. Throughout the school year they also had the option of attending talks hosted by the BU Classics department or Classics departments in the greater Boston area, and reflect on the relevance to our class topic, for 4 points each, as well as visit the MFA Greece and Rome exhibits and take a selfie with an item for 2 points. I liked this system, because I was giving higher grades to students who actually did more work in class rather than better work.

My advice, should you decide to implement this type of grading for your own course, is to make the requirements for each part of the contract very clear from the beginning. For example, I overheard one student say that they weren’t concerned with putting effort into their assignments, since they were graded on completion. Because that is the attitude I didn’t want, for the next major assignment I made sure to outline specifically what was necessary to meet contract (# of quotations, citation style, etc) rather than leaving that interpretation up to them, which I had accidentally done for the first major assignment. Ironically, this resulted in more contract violations than the first assignment, but in the end I think it was beneficial to students. You will also want to remind students periodically about the contract, and specify that it is an agreement not only between them and you as the instructor, but also between them and their fellow students. Their peers were reliant on them to be in class and give good peer feedback in order to get their own work done.

Another feature of this grading system that I liked is that, if a student felt like they were struggling with the semester, they always had the option to come to me and negotiate a lower contract grade. This way, rather than pressuring themselves to get work in while dealing with things like family emergencies or illness, they could take care of those external pressures knowing that they still had a say in what grade they received.

I like seeing my students succeed and hated having to give ‘low’ grades. With this system, my students were able to choose a grade to work towards, and many noted that having their grade be based on the labor of what they turned in rather than the quality of what they turned in made them feel more empowered to take risks in their writing. And as an instructor, I can see how this this confidence helped their writing improve.

Having used this grading method, I now look forward to implementing ungrading in other types of classes. I have a point system for language classes that I feel is equitable, but next time I teach a language course I will test that just to be sure.