What I Miss From Last Semester’s Contract Grading Experiment

Last semester I tried to finally make the hard switch to contract grading, motivated by a number of reasons. My motivations were good, and my policies had been gradually trending that way anyway, but (as I have explained before) the experiment didn’t go well, with a much higher fail rate than I’m used to seeing in my composition courses, and students generally expressing that the unfamiliar grading system was confusing rather than empowering, possibly because of the course’s dependence on the LMS Canvas.

So, this semester I reverted back to using rubrics on major assignments, although most exercises are still graded on a complete/incomplete basis. I imagined this would feel familiar, as I’ve used these rubrics for years. And yet I am finding that I miss the contract grading, to some degree.

A single red apple on a stack of books.
Oh hey the educational apples are back!
(Image via StockSnap)

As I go through stacks of these assignments, I find that while I’m still happy to comment extensively and provide individualized feedback, I am not enjoying clicking those boxes on the rubric. It feels punishing now, and it feels like deciding which boxes the work fits best is taking up time I should be commenting.

This is increasingly making me suspect that the problems last semester were a mixture of the interference by Canvas and my own lack of confidence with a system that, honestly, I’ve never really been able to envision as truly revolutionary or different from more traditional grading systems. (The fault is almost definitely mine: I have always seen connections between ideas more clearly than distinctions.)

What this resistance to returning to rubric grading is showing me is that grading and responding to student work are very distinct actions. Responding to student work requires seeing the work in the context of the student and the work’s own goals and merits. This is the teaching I was raised to do by my art teacher mother, who taught me things like “There’s no such things as a problem student, just a student you haven’t figured out how to teach yet” and “You have to assess students based on their own improvement.” This is the teaching the most closely mirrors how I learned how to write outside the classroom, attending critique groups and analyzing published fiction and engaging in informal communal storytelling in online fan spaces. This is the fun bit. It’s also, unfortunately, the place where my efforts are most likely to be lost because my students have been trained (traumatically in some cases) through over a decade of standardized testing and aggressive grading to look at the score first and, maybe, notice some comments here and there.

Three red apples arranged in a close triangle on faded wood planks.
They’re very nice apples. What grade would you give them?
(image via StockSnap)

Grading, however, is a different mental process. Responding to student work requires the analytical reading that I’ve been trained to do through three English degrees, but grading requires thinking about balancing rubrics, assessing according to standards that were made apart from the student completely. It means assessing the work based on the program goals rather than on the work’s own merits. At some level, this does become necessary, in as much as the courses I teach are a required checkpoint, and the appearance of a passing mark on a transcript signals that the student demonstrated certain skills that are expected for their other coursework. There is a pragmatic side to this skill, but it’s a different mental process than the process that considers each student’s work individually and responds accordingly.

And the requirement to use both skills simultaneously to process the same assignment does become burdensome, and they conflict with each other somewhat. The rubrics mean that, while my comment might express enthusiasm because the assignment shows very valuable skills or improvement, the score may suggest the assignment does poorly because it wasn’t what the assignment design “wanted.” Because there’s two different skills involved, but students perceive it as one unit, the conflict between the skills can cause confusion and leads to students constantly asking, through their years of conditioning and even trauma related to grades, “What do you want here?” And that’s not the best way to teach writing or cultivate strong authorial voices.

So what do I miss from contract grading last semester? Clicking “complete” instead of marking a score. Checking things off feels good. But, although checklists are a wonderful tool, even they may not be the best way to respond to students as individuals. It’s definitely something that needs to be considered carefully.

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