Contract Grading

As I prepped for the fall, I wanted to give students more agency in the grading process. And I wanted to clarify what college means for some of the first-year students who are grappling with the new academic venue. Without fail, at least a few students in each of my comp sections asks if they can miss a class, or step out, or leave early for whatever reason. It is not a moment where they are alerting me to their absence  – they are asking permission. Some of this is indicative the high school mentality and lack of college-preparedness of first year students. Adam Kotsko’s tweet in November (a bit over 47,000 retweets as of this posting) speaks to this issue:

Granted, not all of my students are 18 and fresh out of high school. But more troubling is that many of the students I’ve encountered seem to think that I am the arbiter of their fate – that they do not earn a grade for themselves, but that grading is a whim (oh, the hours that would be saved if grading was based on whims alone). It would be naive to suggest that there is not a hierarchy in place, but I would like to facilitate more student ownership of grading practices. No matter how many rubrics, checklists, commenting strategies, peer reviews, and other tactics I deploy in an attempt to make grading transparent, there still seems to be some confusion – some haggling, begging, and pleading during the final grading push.

Ideally, grades would not matter. But they clearly do, as evidenced by the aforementioned end-of-semester haggling/begging: there are majors that demand all As and financial aid packages contingent upon GPAs. Grades mattered a lot to me as a student. Getting high grades was the only way I had a shot at going to college, and maintaining my GPA was crucial to my financial aid and scholarship package. Telling my students now that it is “just a grade” is somewhat disingenuous, considering how important that “just a grade” was to my own educational prospects. Nothing has changed that drastically since I was a student: grades still very often matter to the powers-that-be (except at a small numbers of schools), even though grades are an imperfect – and, at times, arbitrary – system of rating student performance.

So – until the revolution, grades happen.

I have been reading a lot about contract grading on other blogs and in articles- Peter Elbow’s and Jane Danielewicz’s “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching” is constantly referenced, as is Cathy Davidson’s “Contract Grading + Peer Review: Here’s How it Works.” Elbow’s and Danielewicz’s grading contract stipulates what students have to do to get a B (and is largely effort/behavioral-based), then claims that an “A” will reflect “exceptional” work (qualitative evaluation, based on a portfolio), and a somewhat murky but ominous warning about C/D/F territory. Billie Hara on Profhacker wonders how exactly this “exceptional” work is determined. Liz Homan’s write-up on contract grading on her Gone Digital blog acknowledges that, as writing teachers, what we teach is “messy” and “vague,” and details her approach to contract grading via the Elbow/Danielewicz model.

Davidson’s approach to contract grading is, in my mind, much clearer (and cleaner). The requirements for each letter grade are stipulated in detail. Davidson and Tanya Sasser on her Remixing College English blog both highlight the role of students as peer leaders, and thus give them the ability to determine whether their classmates’ work passes muster. However, I was left wondering if this would grant my students the level of agency I was hoping for: if students didn’t have a voice in setting the terms of the contract, would there be as much agency? If I want students to participate more actively in their academic welfare (and make grading more transparent), shouldn’t they be able to negotiate the terms?

In “Critical Pedagogy Is Too Big To Fail,” Ira Shor notes where he diverges from Elbow and Daniecewitz. Shor also teaches within CUNY, a “working-class site, situated as it is in an ongoing class war (and race war for those students of color).” 1 Writing quality is a consistent factor for Shor along a full range of grades included in his contract (not just the “B-model” of Elbow & Daniecewitz), and he proposes a plan for grading which students can then negotiate in the first class meeting. This second distinction is, according to Shor, crucial to the very idea of a grading contract; he claims that “no contract exists if one party unilaterally obliges another to abide by terms to which the second party did not formally consent.” 2 Grading contracts, Shor continues, wherein both parties are stakeholders are necessary in the neo-liberal environment that is consuming higher education – he asserts that this “agenda is distinctly transforming CUNY,” and that CUNY is “re-branding itself upscale as an elite place of celebrity faculty and star students…distancing CUNY finally from its historic public mission as the tuition-free ‘working class Harvard’ and Open Admissions frontier.” 3 LaGuardia still has an Open Admissions policy (though Shor, among others, has argued that entrance exams work against claims of open access), but Shor’s points about the pervasiveness of neo-liberalism in education are well-taken. This shift in education is exactly “why strong contract relations, strong democratic practices in the classroom, especially matter now.” 4 Shor makes a strong case against what he terms a “unilateral contract,” i.e., the kind of syllabus I historically have handed out at the start of the semester:

Market forces are undermining constitutional rights and public spheres of deliberation, information, cooperation, and education. When teachers choose unilateral contracts, we forfeit an opportunity for students to deliberate cooperatively on the terms of their experience, to develop democratic agency, which I claim is foundational for their ability to build a free and just society. Democratic deliberation in classrooms is counter-hegemonic, against the dominant market forces directing society. Negotiating the terms of grading and learning calls out complex civic behaviors. But the negotiating teacher does not stop being a teacher of writing when she becomes an agent of democratic arts. She also must be expert in advancing literate abilities from the cultural capital students bring to class. The challenge of critical-democratic teaching, then, is to advance knowledge, literacy, and civic arts in the same syllabus. 5

I still have a ways to go before I am the “agent of democratic arts” that I wish to be (and even further to become the “expert” Shor mentions), but I hope a grading contract serves to strengthen student agency and advance democratic practices. I slightly tweaked Shor’s proposed grading plan for each of my classes this semester – a first-year comp course, a capstone course on post-colonial literature, and a research paper class – and we are negotiating terms this week. Students will contract for a particular grade by our second or third class. The embedded GoogleDocs contract for the World Lit class (with slight modifications from the students) is below. I’m curious to hear how others (particularly CUNY colleagues) have used some form of contract grading, and I will certainly write a post reflecting on how this grading plan played out at the semester’s close.


  1. Ira Shor, “Critical Pedagogy Is To Big Too Fail.” Journal of Basic Writing 28, no. 2 (2009): 9.
  2. Ibid., 14.
  3. Ibid., 15-6.
  4. Ibid., 18.
  5. Ibid.


  1. John McDonald says:

    Hi Bethany, Could I see your complete grading plan (B, C, etc). I am contemplating using contracts for my writing classes.

    • Bethany Holmstrom says:

      Hi John, Sure, I’m happy to share. I still use a kind of variation on Ira Shor’s plan in my current syllabi, but linked here (as a GoogleDoc) is a version more directly modeled on Shor’s contract, and that I used in a composition class not too long ago. I shared the GoogleDoc with students so that they could add/contribute before we finalized the document, in keeping with Shor’s approach. I ended up using a more Peter Elbow-esque contract when I did a portfolio-based composition class, and that worked very well in conjunction with the portfolio-based assessment – linked here. Let me know if you have any questions, need different formats sent via email, and how things generally go!

      • Eric says:

        Thanks for sharing your work on contract grading, Bethany. Truly inspiring. I’d be very interested to learn a bit more about how you combined portfolio assessment with contract grading. Was the portfolio assessed only by you or was this a part of a departmental portfolio process?

        • Bethany Holmstrom says:

          Thanks, Eric! My department does not have a portfolio process (though I’ve certainly heard of ones that do); instead, another colleague and I made a deal to both do portfolios in our classes, set the same general criteria, and swapped. I still assessed my own class, but we then compared notes post-swap (and, not surprisingly, we were entirely in sync). If you can recruit a few folks to do this with you, I highly recommend it; we enjoyed reading other materials, it eliminated haggling on the part of the students, and it made us clarify our thinking about criteria and assessment. Somehow, it didn’t end up taking any extra time either!

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