9 Avoiding Resistance to Grading Contracts

contract grading
I’m a pretty strong believer in the idea of an explicit social contract at the beginning of any class that you are teaching. What do I see your job as being, what do you see my job as being… how do we negotiate that. One of the ways that I like to do that in my class is to turn my syllabus into a ‘learning contract’. I start with an example and, depending no how the course goes, I open up different parts of that contract to negotiation with the students. The students no only get to select which assignments they work on, they select which threshold of work they wish to work towards. Students do this anyway “I’m really just trying to pass this course” but what the contract does is offers the opportunity for students to openly select what they want.

So… if you want an A – do that much work. Only want a C? Do that much work. You could select an ‘F’ amount of work… but this is not recommended.

I’ve become more than a little fascinated about how many overlaps there are between educational work done in the 70’s and what I’ve been trying to do with Rhizomatic Learning. Contract grading, it seems, is no different. I found as much research from the 70’s as from the 2000s. I decided to focus my searches on the challenges for adoption that different researchers had encountered, and see if i could come up with reasonable first draft solutions for some of them.

You need to ACTUALLY be open to student control
The one thing that everyone seems to agree upon is that shaping the course for themselves is the critical element to contract grading. If you create a situation where the contract exists, but students get little or not input into how its carried out (say you set things up where choice is very robotic, or checkbox like) it will not work.

“Virtually every student expressed the belief that the opportunity to assume responsibility for shaping their contractual obligations helped maximize their commitment to the course and fostered ownership of their learning in ways that conventional grading practices did not.”
Brubaker, Nathan D. 2010.

This position is supported by a 1971 article by Hugh Taylor where the results of student surveys had 5.10/7 agreement with the statement “The grade contract does not allow for adequate communication between students and teachers about course objectives”


Student Reaction to grade contract, Hugh Taylor

And while the research done by Spidell and Thelin echoes this idea by stating that many of the students said that they would have been more engaged had they had more input on the model, there came this little gem…

“When asked, though, what provisions they would add to the contract and what provisions they would eliminate, the students did not reach beyond the boundary of the contract. Many, in fact, needed to take out the contract from their backpacks as a reference, as they could not remember which provisions they liked and which they objected to.”

The article quotes the grand-daddy of andragogy himself (Malcolm Knowles) as having said that you should start grading contracts from scratch with your students… but I’m going to put myself down as too chicken for that. I’ve tried it before, and failed miserably. Maybe next time.

Allows students to have input, but remember that this is potentially their first time with contract grading, and you can’t expect them to have complex feelings about how they are to go about it. Still… give them real choice.

Other comments from the quite excellent Spidell and Thelin article
If the world made any sense at all, i could just link you all to the excellent article written by Spidell and Thelin, but I’m afraid that you or your institution will have to pay for that right. Some other comments from their article that I’m going to be keeping in mind.

Issue: Both Spidell & Thelin and Taylor suggest that student confusion was strong…
Proposed solution: I’m going to have the students each develop their own grading sheet, and hope that this process will allow us to confirm their own understanding of the grading. Also… I’m going to try to explain it well 🙂

Issue: High performing students resent a perceived levelling effect (Spidell & Thelin)
Proposed solution: The only thing i can really do about this is address it outright both in the contract and in the class. All assignments are going to be ‘satisfactory/unsatisfactory’… that may get some normally upper-level students irritated. We’ll see.

And my favourite…
Issue: Contracts must be within a constantly negotiated curriculum (Spidell & Thelin)
Proposed solution: rhizomatic learning 🙂


Davidson, Cathy. 2011 “Contract Grading + Peer Review: Here’s How it Works” HASTAC http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/contract-grading-peer-review-heres-how-it-works. Accessed May 6, 2012.

Brubaker, Nathan D. 2010. “Negotiating Authority by Designing Individualized Grading Contracts.” Studying Teacher Education 6, no. 3: 257-267. ERIC, EBSCOhost (accessed May 6, 2012).

Spidell and Thelin. 2006 “Not Ready to Let Go: A Study of Resistance to Grading Contracts” Composition Studies 34, no 1. p35-69 Texas Christian University.

Taylor, Hugh. 1971 “Student Reaction to the Grade Contract.” The Journal of Educational Research 64, No. 7 (Mar., 1971), pp. 311-314. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27536139