Category Archives: Marking/grading

Problems with grading rubrics for complex assignments

In an earlier post I discussed a paper by D. Royce Sadler on how peer marking could be a means for students to learn how to become better assessors themselves, of their own and others’ work. This could not only allow them to become more self-regulated learners, but also fulfill roles outside of the university in which they will need to evaluate the work of others. In that essay Sadler argues against giving students preset marking criteria to use to evaluate their own work or that of other students (when that work is complex, such as an essay), because:

  1. “Quality” is more of a global concept that can’t easily be captured by a set of criteria, as it often includes things that can’t be easily articulated.
  2. As Sadler pointed out in a comment to the post noted above, having a set of criteria in advance predisposes students to look for only those things, and yet in any particular complex work there may be other things that are relevant for judging quality.
  3. Giving students criteria in advance doesn’t prepare them for life beyond their university courses, where they won’t often have such criteria.

I was skeptical about asking students to evaluate each others’ work without any criteria to go on, so I decided to read another one of his articles in which this point is argued for more extensively.

Here I’ll give a summary of Sadler’s book chapter entitled “Transforming Holistic Assessment and Grading into a Vehicle for Complex Learning” (in Assessment, Learning and Judgement in Higher Education, Ed. G. Joughin. Dordrecht: Springer, 2009). DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-8905-3_4).

[Update April 22, 2013] Since the above is behind a paywall, I am attaching here a short article by Sadler that discusses similar points, and that I’ve gotten permission to post (by both Sadler and the publisher): Are we short-changing our students? The use of present criteria in assessment. TLA Interchange 3 (Spring 2009): 1-8. This was a publication from what is now the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh, but these newsletters are no longer online.

Note: this is a long post! That’s because it’s a complicated article, and I want to ensure that I’ve got all the arguments down before commenting.

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Contract grading, Part 2

In the previous post I discussed two versions of contract grading that, to me, didn’t really seem like contracts. In this one I’ll talk about a couple more that are more like contracts.

Critical Pedagogy and Grading Contracts

Isabel Moreno-Lopez, in “Sharing Power with Students: The Critical Language Classroom,” Radical Pedagogy 2005 (available online at, uses grading contracts as part of a larger strategy of critical pedagogy based on the work of Paulo Freire and others. An important part of engaging in critical pedagogy is giving more power to students:

… critical pedagogues encourage teachers to reinvent the role of power, placing authority on the students, and arranging curricula and classroom practices to ensure students can develop the relative autonomy necessary to be empowered to analyze, criticize, and question not only the material they are studying, but also the texts in which the content material is presented.

Moreno-Lopez uses grading contracts plus a number of other strategies in order to giver her students more autonomy. I’ll focus here just on the grading contracts she reports on in this article, from a fourth-semester, undergraduate Spanish course.

In her version, students signed a contract for a particular grade, saying that they would fulfill a set of criteria that included both completion-only items (such as number of classes attended, only being late a certain number of times, number of journal entries completed) and items marked for quality (such as written work and class participation). Students could rewrite assignments as many times as they wished in order to achieve the quality desired, with the restriction that rewrites had to be turned in within one week of receiving the marked paper back.

Moreno-Lopez’s version of contract grading is highly negotiable with students. She presented the syllabus and contracts on the first day, and students had time in class, without her present, to discuss them and suggest changes. They negotiated until they came to a mutually-acceptable decision.

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Contract grading, Part 1

I first came across the phrase “contract grading” in some Twitter feed or another (I really should write down which feeds I get things from, so I can give proper credit!). I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what contract grading could be–surely it didn’t mean that one would sign a contract with a student, promising to give them a certain grade, right?

Wrong. That’s exactly what it means. Though, of course, the student has to hold up their end of the bargain too.

I’ve looked into the idea a bit more, and I’m still ambivalent about it, though intrigued.

The Bok Blog (Harvard) starts off a post on contract grading this way:

The central feature of contract grading is the contract: a clear and detailed set of guidelines that stipulate exactly what a student needs to do in order to earn each possible grade.

Surely that’s not all there is to it, of course, since that’s what a syllabus gives (this point is also made in a post by Billie Hara on contract grading over at The ProfHacker blog, from The Chronicle of Higher Education). The first versions of contract grading I have come across, though, do resemble sections of syllabi more than contracts.

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