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.

Here is show Moreno-Lopez reports the final course grades were determined:

At the end of the semester, I held an individual interview with each student in my office, in which I asked them to evaluate their work and assign a final grade for the course based on their contract and class performance. Among the 24 students who remained in the course at the end of the semester, 23 had initially signed for an A and one for a B. The final grades as decided by each student were twelve As, eight Bs, three Cs and an Incomplete. I agreed with each of the students’ grade decisions.

Thus, the students graded themselves, with the instructor in agreement. I’m curious what would have happened if the instructor did not agree.

Students choose grades

In this version, students decide beforehand what grade they would like to achieve in the course, and they know exactly what they have to do in order to get that grade. There are exact numbers of absences, late arrivals, missing homeworks and journal assignments, etc., that are listed for each grade. This way, students can decide for themselves if they want to put more energy into something else in their lives (another class, their work, their family, etc.) and just earn a C or a B in that particular course.

One could do that in a traditionally-graded course, but it’s harder to tell exactly how many absences one can have, how many missing homeworks, etc., when the final grade is determined by percentages. So in that sense this form of contract grading is more transparent, letting students more easily choose what level of work they want to put into a course. It also suggests, in my mind, a sense of respect for those students who choose to put in less work–it tells students exactly what they can do to earn certain marks, rather than making everything less than 100% on each assignment a bit mysterious in terms of how much it counts for the final mark, in percentage-grading systems.

Of course, one would want to leave some leeway for students to be able to change their minds during the term, and I expect that the contracts are not binding in that sense. Students can always do more than they have contracted for (just as they can, of course, do less and earn a lower grade).

This version does not eliminate the problems with grading noted in the Elbow and Danielewicz 2009 article, though, discussed in the previous post.


Cathy Davidson, in her blog at HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), has a post in which she describes a combination of contract grading and peer grading for a class called “21st Century Digital Literacies.” Similar to above, Davidson’s contracts spell out exactly what students need to do for each grade (actually, they spell out what students need to do for an A, and then the B and C contracts just say students will only do certain items from the A contract, and they can miss more classes).

I like how Davidson explains the value of contract grading in her draft document in this blog post:

The advantage of contract grading is that you, the student, decide how much work you wish to do this semester; if you complete that work on time and satisfactorily, you will receive the grade for which you contracted.  This means planning ahead, thinking about all of your obligations and responsibilities this semester and also determining what grade you want or need in this course. … I respect the student who only needs a C, who has other obligations that preclude doing all of the requirements to earn an A in the course, and who contracts for the C and carries out the contract perfectly.   (This is another one of those major life skills:  taking responsibility for your own workflow.)

Students choose which grade they would like, and sign a contract in the presence of a witness (the instructor also signs the contracts).

What happens if students don’t fulfill the terms of their contracts? If they fail to fulfill some of the terms, they will lose points: e.g.,

If you contract for an A in the course, you may miss two classes (and the corresponding blog posts) without an official (doctor or pre-approved) excuse.  Penalty:  If you have more than two unexcused absences, your grade for the entire class automatically will drop 0.5.  If you miss four classes, it will drop 1.0, and so on.

But if students fail to fulfill the contract in some “systematic” way, then they may get a D or an F. As Davidson explains:

A D grade denotes some minimal fulfilling of the contract.  An F is absence of enough satisfactory work, as contracted, to warrant passing of the course.  Both a D and F denote a breakdown of the contractual relationship implied by signing any of the contracts above.

One thing that sets this system apart from others I’ve considered in this post and the previous one is that all marks given in the course are either satisfactory or unsatisfactory. One can get the latter mark for work ranging from not submitted or late to poor quality. The peer grading comes into the course in the sense that some marks are given by peers, but the instructor marks are also either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

This goes much further than Elbow and Danielewicz’s version of contract grading (discussed in the previous post) in the way of downplaying grades during the term. It is the most extreme of the versions I’ve looked at in terms of focusing more on what one has done rather than how one has done it (though, of course, one has to achieve a certain level of quality to earn a “satisfactory” mark).

Though doing something like Davidson’s version of contract grading would make instructors’ lives easier in the sense that one wouldn’t have to worry about the differences between a B+ and an A- on individual assignments, I think I would have trouble putting it into practice in a philosophy course. I’m not sure how I could tell, for a philosophy essay, if it was “satisfactory” or not. What is the cutoff point between “satisfactory” and “not satisfactory”? Am I thinking of “satisfactory” as being a C-level essay, or a B-level one, or something else? Am I just so steeped in grades that I can only think in terms of those letters?

What are grades for?

This question comes up for me when I think about some versions of contract grading. It is a big question that I can only start to consider here (more later, I expect). Does it make sense to give an A for a course because students have completed all assignments to some “satisfactory” level, or only if they complete enough assignments at an “excellent” level even if some of them are only “satisfactory” or possibly “unsatisfactory”? Is it important to distinguish between students with final course grades of A, B, C and more based on the quality of their work (product) or whether they have done a certain number of things up to a basic standard?

I have tended to think that the letter grade at the end of a term gives some rough estimate of the quality of students’ work, their products. But of course, in my courses it also reflects other things, since I and others have come to use grades as external motivators to get students to do things like come to class, participate in discussions, complete reflective journal entries, etc. So the final grades also reflect how much work they’ve done, and a student could get a C even if they were doing A-quality work, by missing too many classes, not talking enough, turning in papers late, missing an assignment, etc. So really, my own final course marks are a hybrid.

Doing contract grading in Davidson’s version would move me more towards grades reflecting how much work (of a basic quality level) one has done. Doing contract grading in Elbow and Danielewicz’s version (see previous post) would be less in that direction, keeping the “A” grade as a reflection of quality.

I honestly don’t know what I think grades should reflect. And it’s not exactly just up to me, either–what grades “say” about a student is dependent on the reader of the transcript, and they’ll be using whatever is the dominant meaning of grades wherever they are.

And, of course, there are the arguments that there shouldn’t be any grades at all. I’d like to look at those here in the blog sometime later.


After looking at a few versions of contract grading, here’s what I think at the moment:

  • Spelling out exactly what students need to do for a certain grade (even with some quality criteria included, which are not always exact) is a positive change. It does seem to allow students the information needed to make choices on how much work they want to do for a course, better than my current system of percentage grading (e.g., paper 1 = 25%, paper 2 = 30% etc., attendance and participation = 10%, etc.).
  • I also like the idea of letting students rewrite as many times as needed to get the mark they want on an assignment without the lower marks affecting their final grade. Currently I use 25% of the old version mark plus 75% of the new version mark, just to make sure students actually try on the first version. But I’ll rethink this.
  • Having students sign a contract seems to fit best with the idea of contract grading, but I’m not sure what purpose it serves. After all, I think students must have the possibility to change their minds later, so it shouldn’t be binding. And spelling out in the syllabus exactly what’s needed for each grade serves a similar purpose of saying students are guaranteed to get that grade if they do that work. So overall, I don’t see the need to use contracts, and therefore don’t see why I should call it “contract grading” if I don’t. Of course, I may be missing something…
  • I’m not yet convinced that it would be useful for me to use the satisfactory/unsatisfactory marks for each assignment in philosophy, though I might consider something more like the “satisfactory for a B, not satisfactory for a B, better than a B” system of Elbow and Danielewicz discussed in the previous post. I think I know what that means in philosophy essays.
  • It’s difficult to figure out how to deal with contracts for full grades (A, B, C, etc.) when one’s university, like mine, requires numbers for final course grades. That one may be a sticking point I can’t quite get around, as I’m not going to write lists of criteria for an 85 vs. 86, etc.! This is made worse by the fact that at my university, the grade of A ranges from 80-100 (80-89 is A- to A, and 90-100 is A+). So I can’t just say I’ll give in the middle of the range for an “A” grade, as that would be 90 (an A+, a grade not given often). But if I tell students they’ll get an 86 or an 88 for an A contract, they’ll be justifiably upset that they can’t get higher. A difficult problem.



  1. Thanks for this analysis. As an elementary school teacher, my situation is slightly different, but I really appreciate your thoughts and comparisons.

    My two cents on the value of the contract: even if things are spelled out in the syllabus, I think having to piece together what level of work a student plans to do and put it in writing, sign your name to it, forces a student to take responsibility, plan ahead, and commit to a course of action – even with the freedom to change your mind later.

    As for what to call it, the best thing about education these days is the freedom to experiment. So call it whatever you like!

    1. Thanks for the comment! It does make sense to say that making a more conscious action by signing one’s name encourages students to take responsibility and commit–good point. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It might give students an extra push when they’re feeling tired and want to just give up on parts of the course; or at least, it could help them to be self-reflective about what they’re doing.

      And yes, you’re right–one could just make up a new name if one wanted. I was thinking a “commitment” of some kind, but that sounds too rigid, given the flexibility of being able to change it later. As does “contract.” Hmmm…if I decide to use something like this in the future I’d have to really give the name some thought.

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