Using Contract Grading to Ease Student Anxiety about Grades

Using Contract Grading to Ease Student Anxiety about Grades

Spring 2023
Outside view of Herter Hall.
Jennifer Fronc
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Faculty are rethinking how they assess student learning and experimenting with alternative grading approaches.  Jennifer Fronc, Professor of History, discusses how she uses labor-based contract grading in her junior year writing courses to foster an intellectual community between her and her students.



What is contract grading? 

How I define labor-base contract grading might diverge a bit from folks who are in writing, rhetoric or composition, but in my syllabus, I have a detailed explanation of what sort of assignments students have to complete, and the quality of those assignments, in order to earn an A, B, or C. Students can’t contract for a D or an F, but I have the right to assign Ds or Fs to students who have not upheld their part of the contract. So the student decides how much work they wish to do in the semester, and if they complete that work on time and satisfactorily, they’ll receive the grade for which they contracted. So, for a “C” contract, they would do a specific number of assessments at a satisfactory level.  For a “B” contract, they would put in significant effort to distinguish themselves from the “C” requirements, and I outline what that effort would look like. Students are able to re-contract as the semester proceeds, based on the work they are submitting for feedback. I give them until the end of the add/drop period to turn in their contract. 

Why did you decide to use contract grading? 

I noticed that my students were so obsessed about their final grade that it impeded learning. My courses focus on the history of immigration to the U.S. and the history of policing in the U.S., and these topics became more contentious. White students weren’t comfortable talking about race, and then there’s the specter of an “A” grade hanging over their heads. I had two semesters that were excruciating, and my class participation was tanking. During my sabbatical, I was reading about alternative grading strategies from Cathy N. Davidson, Jesse Stommel, and Ryan Cordell. The models of contract grading were really useful because it eases some of the anxiety that students have about what grade they’re going to get. 

How did you get your students accustomed to the approach? 

When students enter class, I say to them, “I’ve abandoned traditional grading schemes and instead you decide at the start of the semester—if you have the time, energy and motivation—for an A, B, or C. I answer a lot of questions in the beginning, and I tell them, “I want you to learn and I want to learn from you. I want this to be community of learners.” I’ve had a student who contracted for a B and as they started to turn in their first assignments, I was like, “Whoa, you’re amazing. You’re doing really high-quality work and I believe you can get an A if you’re interested, and you have the time.” And so that student re-contracted for an A. If students are not turning in work reflective of the grade they contract for, I check in and let them know that they’re going to need to step it up, think about going back and rewriting an assignment before we move on to another part of the class.  

What has been the impact of contract grading on you and your students? 

What’s so interesting is that in a class of 15 students, 13 of them will contract right. They’re not lowering their own standard. They’re still writing dozens of pages in my class and if the work is not satisfactory quality, I give it back and ask them to rewrite it. After a couple of semesters, I realized that it’s a paradigm shift in the way I read student work. I’m no longer fixed on grammatical errors and can engage with their ideas and act more as a developmental editor. This has been liberating for me as well. I think it’s really fostered better relationships and intellectual community. I think it’s made me a more accessible and approachable person. I will say the workload is not lighter, it’s just different. And honestly, what’s different is my mindset. 

What challenges with contract grading did you encounter? 

I’ve now used labor-based contract grading in upper level and graduate level courses, and it’s worked phenomenally in those classes because the students already have an investment or buy-in. I've tried to implement labor-based contract grading in my gen ed course with mixed results. First, there are more students, so I don’t have as much time for the personal soft touch of intensive feedback. I also noticed some students coming out of the sciences have really different expectations about grades and grading schemes. Also, my class might not be their priority, so I think I’m going to use a different grading approach in that class next time.  

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