Reflections on Contract Grading

Yesterday marked the end of my last semester of teaching, but this was also the first semester when I taught the way I wanted to. It sounds strange to say, given that the semester was unexpectedly cut in half by a global pandemic, but the resilience of my course design felt like a total victory to me. As I celebrated that, I also understood that everything good about it was something I learned from someone else, so I intend these reflections as a kind of acknowledgments section as well. Nothing I’m going to say in this blog post is something pedagogical researchers don’t already know, but I think it’s important to celebrate when an experiment repeats and produces the same victorious outcome. At least, my science friends tell me that’s how we build knowledge.

This past academic year, I had the great privilege of teaching Translation from Spanish to English, a 4000-level course which counts toward both the Spanish major and minor at UVA. It also presents one of the few opportunities that graduate students in our department have to teach syllabi entirely of our own design. That’s takeaway number one, honestly: graduate students need to teach courses of our own design. It’s essential professional development for us, but it’s also so much better for the students. Not once did I find myself apologizing for a course policy I didn’t believe in, unintentionally undermining grading standards, or teaching material I didn’t fully understand—because I was given the trust to play to my strengths.

Having been given that trust by faculty, I was then able to extend that same trust to my students. I decided to adopt contract grading, which empowers students to set their own goals for what they want to get out of a given course while balancing other obligations. In my class, that looked like providing an outline of the standards for course grades (four satisfactory practice translations, one satisfactory translation review, excellent participation, and an exemplary final project will get you an A; three practices and a satisfactory final project for a B; and so on) and allowing students to choose the grade they were aiming for and set their own deadlines for individual assignments. I did not police deadlines, and I didn’t need to. One of my students summarized the typical student experience perfectly in their final reflection:

“At first, I thought it was going to lower my motivation to do the assignments, but it actually did the opposite. It made me want to try to turn in authentic work because I almost felt bad about how simple and easy the grading contract was. It was so stress free that I enjoyed doing the work instead of dreading to do the work.“

Blissfully, rather than spending my time on disciplinary measures, I spent all of my teaching effort outside of class on individual feedback, guiding students on how to revise their work so as to meet the "satisfactory” or “exemplary” standards they had chosen. My experience completely justified what I had written in my grading policy at the outset:

Contract grading maintains rigorous standards while reducing the anxiety and lack of transparency associated with traditional grading. It is a good fit for courses like this one, which draw on many skills that do not all require the same type of empirical evaluation. The skills involved in translation include critical thinking, problem-solving, historical and linguistic research, creative writing in English, advanced grammar in Spanish, and philosophical inquiry—all of which would be challenging to synthesize into an arbitrary-seeming percentage. More importantly, to quote Ryan Cordell (from whom my grading policies are adapted), traditional grading “does not much resemble the way you will be evaluated in your lives or careers, where you will define many of your own goals and be measured by how responsibly and effectively you achieve them.”

In this class, you will be held to professional standards, meaning that you will be asked to revise your work until it is satisfactory to both the translator (student) and the client (instructor). While you will be challenged to take responsibility for your priorities, I will be challenged to give constructive feedback that actually helps you meet your personal goals rather than spitting out a number tacked onto a generic rubric.

My students responded really well to the professional framework that I laid out for our class. “It was refreshing to have a system that was modeled after how translation might be actually handled in the real world,” one student’s final reflection noted. Another added, “it helped to foster a type of translator-client relationship and felt much more independent and mature than a ‘normal’ class structure.” Refreshing, independent, and mature are maybe the best three adjectives I could have hoped for. But I should be honest: as happy as I was to implement a pedagogical approach that was more in line with my values, this also meant a lot more work for me.

I spent more time and effort giving feedback to students in this model than I ever spent grading under a traditional, rubric-based model. And because I was committed to not using grading as a disciplinary tool, I had to find more constructive ways to provide corrections and check-ins when necessary. I had some hard conversations in office hours (both virtual and in-person), conversations that were much easier to avoid when I could just take points off and write a cursory explanation in the rubric rather than having promised to help a student revise until their work was satisfactory. At the same time, communication went both ways—this was by far the semester when my office hours were busiest. In the past, students have generally only come to my office hours to discuss personal circumstances, accessibility measures, follow up on unexpectedly low grades, etc. This semester, students primarily came to office hours to talk about the material—reviewing texts before submitting, asking questions about the profession, looking for help with strategies. To me, the most pleasant surprise was that my students felt much more confident defending their own points of view in class and office hours alike, because they did not have fear of retribution in grades.

An unexpected benefit of the contract grading system was that it made the course incredibly crisis-responsive. Because students could have confidence that their grading contract would stand regardless of the change in circumstances—and equal confidence that any mid-semester decision to adapt it, aiming for a different grade, would be theirs rather than mine—our course felt like an oasis in the chaos. In fact, when asked to reflect at the end of the semester on their experience with contract grading, the majority of my students’ comments focused on stress reduction:

  • “I was able to manage all assignments without feeling additional pressure in this time of hardship and uncertainty.”
  • “The contract grading was very helpful once we transitioned to online classes, as it gave me a higher sense of security in my grade than other classes.”
  • “It lessened a lot of my stress, as I am a typically anxious person, and because I wasn’t worried about a number being assigned to my translations I was able to give what was truly my best effort and then be excited to receive feedback, rather than dread being told there were things I should have done differently.”
  • “To be able to look at my schedule to plan ahead … allowed me to give these translations as much time and attention as they deserved, and I wasn’t forced to split my time between editing and cramming for some high-stakes Neurobiology test.”
  • “Setting my own goals allowed me to work around my schedule, and made the class a lot less stressful compared to my other classes.”

I think a lot of humanities teachers have the experience of being the pressure valve for STEM students, and it’s important to acknowledge the sadness and frustration that comes with that. (Jeffrey Moro’s writing about this dynamic has been helpful to me in this respect.) It was hard, after unexpectedly losing our classroom environment, to also sacrifice months of lesson plans and course material that represented a lot of thought, care, and intellectual struggle on my part. It was hard to do that knowing that many of my students’ other teachers would not be making that same sacrifice. It was also an incredibly easy decision, though, once I remembered that being a rigorous teacher is not the same as being a good one. In the end, I’m proud of my decision to combine contract grading with asynchronous learning so that students did not have to disclose their personal circumstances under quarantine in order to continue in the course on an equal playing field. I’m proud of chopping out half my syllabus and focusing all our asynchronous activities on the final project, so that students knew I had no interest in loading them with “busy work” in the middle of a crisis. More importantly, it also communicated that the project was itself intended to be a learning tool and not an assessment tool. As such, students participated in peer-editing exercises because they had an authentic purpose—both within the class (minimizing the amount of revision required later on) and beyond it (polishing projects designed to become public portfolio pieces).

Not only did all that assuage my conscience, but letting go of the specter of “rigor” improved my students’ learning outcomes in every way. Students confirmed this in their own words:

  • “I definitely learned a lot more by having to go back through my mistakes and figuring out how to fix them, than I would have by just getting a 89 and then not looking at it again.”
  • “I was able to focus more on making a GOOD translation and play around with possibilities (knowing that there would be opportunities to revise) instead of stressing about my grade. I think this allowed me to learn more about translation and to take more risks in my work.”
  • “I kind of wish that other Spanish classes would do this too, because I feel like a lot can be said for the validity of re-evaluating your own work and improving/editing it for a better ‘grade’. A lot of times in Spanish classes you don’t have the opportunity to do that, which I think is a missed opportunity for the improvement of reading comprehension and writing skills.”

Moreover, as The Discourse produced paranoia about cheating as students worked from home, I didn’t have to worry about that. This was the first semester when I had no problems with cheating in my course whatsoever, and it required relatively little on my end. First, by allowing for revision, students knew that mistakes would be learned from rather than punished—so there was no longer any incentive to cheat. In addition, by dedicating the first week of my course to how machine translation works, my students and I were able to come to an understanding of why doing the work from scratch would actually achieve their goals better. When we all have supercomputers in our pockets, it’s crucial to be able to distinguish between the skills we actually need to learn and the ones we should feel comfortable outsourcing. If cheating really is the best way for a student to succeed in a class, then that class is not teaching valuable skills.

That’s why I’m proudest of the comments from my students that were focused on fairness. They wrote:

  • “There’s a certain motivation in knowing that as long as you work to x degree, you would achieve the grade you set out for. Hard work doesn’t guarantee anything in some of my classes.”
  • “I liked contract grading because you are committing to yourself up-front with how much work you want to put into the class, your personal goals, and what grade you are wanting to work for. I find this to be more progressive than working incredibly hard all semester and earning a lesser grade.”

See that language they used there? The student “achieves” the grade, the student “commits” to the class, the student “works for” and “earns” the grade. That’s the same language we use for grades in general, but in my class students actually believed it to be true. That’s the win right there. They aren’t proud of my approval. They didn’t need it. They’re proud of what THEY did in my class. That’s what’s up.

I couldn’t be happier to be ending on this note.

Resources: my course website | an ungrading bibliography | introduction to contract grading

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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