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Saturday, August 7, 2010

How do you grade participation in the process?

ProfHacker had a post last week on contract grading and it's been simmering in my brain ever since. The particular contract that is discussed in the post is for a writing class and lists several things that students must do; as long as they do all the things on the list, they will get at least a B in the class. Some of the items on the list can be satisfied with participation ('meet due dates', 'complete all low stakes assignments like journal writing') while others are a little more subjective ('give thoughtful peer feedback', 'make substantive revisions') but none really has to do with the quality of a student's writing. In order to earn an A in the class, students must meet all the contract requirements for a B, plus produce 'exceptional' writing. The instructors essentially make the argument that if a student actually does everything on the list, they are likely to get a B anyway, and the contract allows both the instructors and the students to focus on the writing instead of the grade (for example, the instructors feel freer to give more negative feedback because it does not affect the grade; students can decide for themselves whether or not to incorporate that feedback into their next draft, which can foster more critical thinking about whether the value of those comments).

One reason I am so intrigued with the idea of this kind of contract is that in my writing class this past spring, a good chunk of the overall points were for items like those on the list (e.g., students got points simply for turning in a first draft or completing a follow-up evaluation) and because all my students completed all those things, the lowest grade in the class was a B-minus. That felt a bit weird to me because there were at least a couple of students whose writing still needed a lot of work but they had done everything I asked them to do and those points added up. I think that if I had been using a contract instead, the outcome (in terms of grades) would not have been very different but I could have spent a lot less energy trying to assign grades to papers and more energy on simply critiquing them. So I definitely am considering adopting something similar when I teach the class next year.

But a big reason why I think a 'contract' like this could work in a writing class is that for many students, their writing will improve simply by going through the process. That is, in order to improve your writing, you simply have to write and write a lot. So students who write multiple drafts of papers and who give critical feedback on papers written by others will likely improve, as long as they are putting true effort into the process.

By the same token, I'm not sure this would work in most economics classes, where assignments usually have more clear-cut 'correct' answers. But I am really debating whether it might work for the data class, which is more similar to the writing class in that a lot of what students need to do is simply do the stuff I ask them to do. Because I am using team-based learning, there are several assignments where students need to do something before class (like get data or read something) that they will then use in class with their team. So there will be a number of times when I will ask students to turn something in (or complete a short quiz) just to make sure that they did the prep work. This prep work does not really need to be graded; it just needs to be done, with enough effort that the student should then be able to make a reasonable contribution to the group discussion. In addition, at least a couple of the individual assignments (separate from the group work) are the types of things that I'd like to give feedback on but where I think it would be really hard to grade for content (e.g., students have to take a graph they think is bad and make it better, which could be done in a bunch of different ways - I imagine that trying to differentiate between an 'A' graph and a 'B' graph will be more effort than it's worth). I've been trying to figure out the best way to include these sorts of assignments in the grading scheme and am wondering if some variation of a contract might work. So, for example, as long as students do all these assignments with appropriate effort, they get at least a B, and then they can also earn an A with exceptional scores on the quizzes and final exam?

If anyone has used a similar approach, I'd love to hear about it...


  1. Jennifer,

    This next year I plan to borrow ideas from English instructors I’ve observed on my campus. They divide their assessments into two parts: 1) a rubric (or a set of comment codes) that are used to point out surface writing errors, and 2) a written comment that responds to the assignment’s content. The purpose is to depersonalize the criticism, especially important for writing classes, and allow for a more free-flowing reaction to the writing content.

    For my assignments, I’ll try this two pronged approach. My rubric will be a check list on which I’ll point out failure to follow directions and missing or inadequate sections. Students will be expected to remedy these deficiencies in the next draft, perhaps like the minimum requirement in your assignment description.

    My hope is that students will then read and respond to the more interesting comments I will make—while at the same time holding them responsible for a minimum standard as listed on the rubric. Also, I hope that this will make my grading easier because I’ll simply need to check off common errors and my written responses will be more fun to write.

  2. The ProfHacker article on contract grading caught my eye as well, but I had a pretty negative reaction to it, to be honest. I'm not so sure about grading things that students are supposed to do. Rather, why not collect data on if they do what they're supposed to do, correlate that with grades, and the report that to students?

    I'm concerned that we're sending very explicit signals to students that all they need to do to succeed in a course is the assigned work and nothing else. The idea of reading the textbook before classes, working on their own to understand confusing ideas, etc. seems a bit foreign to some students. I recently finished "The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another" by Rebecca Cox and she describes students who take this approach. This student view is certainly consistent with the decline in student study hours documented in http://www.econ.ucsb.edu/~babcock/LeisureCollege2.pdf (a scholarly version to appear in ReStat) if one assumes that years ago, students did more than graded work (and I suspect that this is the case). Finally, a survey of employers of recent college grads ( http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/01/23/employers ) argues that these recent grads rank low on self-direction. I wonder to what degree this comes from students apparently only doing graded work and not taking the approach that they should be in charge of their learning?

    For contract grading, I'd promote something along the lines of certain levels of course mastery, perhaps based on course learning goals. Unfortunately, I doubt that one could easily articulate such in a syllabus.

    For the coming semester, I'm thinking of ways to implement the above idea of fewer graded assignments but correlated the results on non-graded ones with results on graded work and showing this to the students.

  3. Thanks Mark! I like the idea of a checklist for the basic stuff. I feel like a lot of that is probably already in the assignments as I've written them and I've often wondered why it seems like students can't follow directions. But I can imagine that having an explicit checklist would give them better guidance.


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