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Composition Forum 53, Spring 2024
http://compositionforum.com/issue/53/

Hybrid Contract Grading in Online and HyFlex First-Year Composition Courses during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Oksana Moroz and Krista Speicher Sarraf

Abstract: This article presents students’ experiences with hybrid grading contracts through a thematic analysis of data. We specifically focused on students’ perceptions of the grading contract’s role in improving their writing skills, issues of fairness, labor, and stress. We argue that the stressful conditions of COVID-19 illuminate the benefits and drawbacks of contract grading, especially regarding fairness and equity, when used at institutions that predominantly serve working-class students. This article can serve as an example of how graduate teaching assistants can use hybrid grading contracts in writing classrooms. We conclude with recommendations for instructors on how to adapt grading contracts to meet the needs of the students and suggest a future research agenda to examine grading contracts and stress levels.

Introduction

Contract grading is not new to writing studies teachers and scholars. For decades, writing, rhetoric, and composition teachers have challenged traditional grading systems (e.g., Blum; Carillo; Chiaravalli; Danielwicz and Elbow, Inoue; Mallette and Hawks; Shor), arguing that grades hamper students’ motivation to learn (Chiaravalli), unfairly rank students according to a single standard (Danielwicz and Elbow), and limit students’ agency over the learning process (Mallette and Hawks). The broader discussion about “the meaning and necessity of grades” (xxi) has been called the “ungrading” movement by Susan D. Blum, among others.

In part, the ungrading movement is rooted in questions of equity, or “the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people” (“Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Matter,” Independent Sector). As Blum asks, “Is it equitable to grade when students’ conditions are so various?” (xxi). Teachers often look to alternative assessment models, such as contract grading, to balance teachers’ concerns about equitable assessment with institutional requirements to assign grades. In addition, Bean and Melzer provided several types of alternative assessment differentiating between portfolio assessment and contract grading, which may include portfolio assessment in the form of digital, traditional, and e-portfolios and labor-based contracts “with instructor gate” and “without instructor gate” (Bean and Melzer 347). The main difference between the two labor-based contracts is the instructor’s role and the student’s agency. In the “with instructor gate” type, students begin with a B grade, and the instructor determines whether their grade could be increased to an A. In the second type, “without the instructor gate,” students “receive an A if they meet all the tasks and expectations” (Bean and Melzer 349), and therefore, the focus is on labor and growth.

As Kelly-Riley and Whithaus wrote in their editors’ introduction to the Journal of Writing Assessment’s special issue on contract grading, “contract grading has (re)emerged as a promising method for aligning writing classroom assessment practices with students’ and institutions’ stated learning outcomes” (1). Indeed, there is a great variety in how writing instructors implement contract grading. Two of the most widely cited methods are Jane Danielwicz and Peter Elbow’s unilateral contract, in which all students begin with a B grade and can earn an A grade based on the quality of the writing, and Asao Inoue’s labor-based assessment, in which students earn grades based on the amount of labor they complete. Other instructors, ourselves included, create hybrid contracts in which students can earn an A based either on their labor or their writing quality. The variety of contract grading styles and adaptations invites conversation about critical questions related to writing assessment. How are instructors designing grading contracts in their writing classes? How do these adaptations enact equitable assessment goals?

In this piece, we reflect on our experiences as graduate student teachers of first-year composition (we conducted this research as Graduate Teaching Associates; at the time of this writing, Oksana is preparing to graduate with her Ph.D. and Krista is an Assistant Professor). As graduate students, we used contract grading in our courses with the hope that we could increase student agency and create more equitable, community-driven classrooms (Appendix A). This article reports on our undergraduate students’ experiences with our application of contract grading, as shown through students’ mid-semester and final evaluations of our teaching. We begin with a literature review of contract gradings’ relationship to issues of fairness, labor, and stress. Then, we discuss various grading contract models and define key terms, such as “labor-based grading.” Next, we provide quantitative and qualitative data collected during the Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 semesters in our first-year composition courses at a single university. The analysis focuses on participants’ impressions of how contract grading improved their writing skills, issues of fairness, the instructors’ role, and the online context. Specifically, the analysis demonstrates a range of student responses to grading contracts and suggests ways for instructors to adapt contracts to their contexts. We conclude by suggesting the pedagogical practices of remixing and adapting labor-based and unilateral contracts to the instructor’s local context. We offer pathways for future researchers to examine labor-based grading contracts’ affects/effects on student stress levels. In addition, we provide recommendations for researchers to explore graduate teaching assistants’ experiences with contract grading, especially in terms of selecting a particular kind of contract grading to meet the needs of the given context and specific population.

Context and Study Goal

The data we share in this article was collected in 2020, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. At this time, Krista and Oksana were graduate teaching assistants. Like some other writing instructors, we used grading contracts during the pandemic in particular ways and with various justifications (Doyle; Feldman and Reeves; Shubert). Like other instructors, we felt that the COVID-19 pandemic intensified existing issues of inequity and accessibility among our students, and these pandemic conditions provided an exigence to rethink our grading practices. Thus, we began using and advocating for contract grading as an empathetic response to pandemic pressures. We were inspired as we read Brianna Doyle’s article, in which she listed contract grading as one strategy her professors used in graduate classes during the pandemic, noting that contract grading helped to remove Doyle’s stress about grades. We read Amanda Mingail Shubert’s reflection on her experience teaching an introduction to literature course in which students defined their own goals for participation, tracked their progress toward their participation goals, and assigned themselves a participation grade.

We also collected data under emergency pandemic conditions. We did not coordinate our data collection tools; our collaboration emerged from our informal discussions about our classroom experiences with these tools. Like much of our pandemic experience, the ad-hoc nature of our research, we hope, provides an unexpected strength. We illustrate how grading contracts may be applied in the classroom by showcasing the differences in our teaching styles, contexts, and student responses. We echo Ellen C. Carillo’s plea that “the complexities associated with grading (both on this large scale and at the more local level in our classrooms) exposed by the pandemic might lead to some change” (4).

This article aims to extend prior research on contract grading by sharing how contract grading was applied in our classes during the COVID-19 pandemic and investigating how our students perceived using these contracts. Such an investigation may nuance scholars’ understandings of the relationship between grades, fairness, labor, and stress. And while the unique pandemic conditions and our methods necessarily restrict the extent to which these findings are generalizable, we build upon prior notions that grading contracts work differently for different populations. Especially using labor-based contract grading among our student population during the pandemic highlighted economic inequity gaps. As Ellen C. Carillo wrote in her critical examination of labor-based contract grading, “time is a luxury that not all students have” (5). Finally, we aim to provide an example of how instructors, particularly graduate teaching assistants, may utilize contract grading in writing classrooms. Below, we synthesize existing contract grading literature with the adaptations we made to suit our contexts.

Situating Our Grading Contract

Writing studies scholarship has moved beyond general discussions of contract grading to focus on how grading contracts work in localized contexts. This section describes our grading contract design in light of other grading contract research. We also illustrate that aspects of both unilateral and labor-based grading contracts can work in online courses; however, instructors need to adapt these contract models to their teaching and learning contexts.

To meet our pandemic context and needs as graduate teaching assistants, we used a hybrid grading contract that combined elements of a unilateral contract (Danielewicz and Elbow) and a labor-based contract (Inoue) (see Appendix A). Our adaptation aligns with other grading contract scholars’ suggestion that instructors should adapt unilateral or labor-based contracts to the local context, including course modality and teaching style. Adaptations were especially important for our purposes because, as Michelle Stuckey, Ebru Erdem, and Zachary Waggoner point out, “while much previous work on grading contracts has focused on traditional class structures taught by tenured faculty, most writing faculty do not operate in this privileged space” (2). In other words, the conditions for using grading contracts are different for tenured faculty members than graduate student teachers. Like Stuckey et al., we used contract grading in less-than-ideal conditions. We were both contingent graduate teaching assistants at the time, working under emergency pandemic conditions. Our classes involved face-to-face (F2F) and online modalities. Oksana taught a planned HyFlex (hybrid but flexible) class in the Fall of 2020 to allow flexibility for students to choose between two modalities of instruction.

Furthermore, it was Oksana’s first time independently teaching English 101, and Oksana is an international student, adding to the precariousness of her position. Krista taught a F2F course in the Spring of 2020, which switched to an asynchronous online course on March 16, 2020, as the university went into lockdown. Unlike Oksana, Krista occupied a more privileged space in the writing classroom: She had been teaching first-year composition since 2013 and is a United States citizen. Given our teaching circumstances, we describe our contract adaptations and how they relate to contract grading literature. We hope readers use this discussion to inspire their grading contract remixes and adaptations. Furthermore, as we describe our contract adaptations, we point out several challenges of grading contracts, which we revisit through our analysis and discussion of the data.

A key difference between unilateral and labor-based contract grading is the extent to which students and instructors negotiate the contract terms. Danielewicz and Elbow’s unilateral contract does not involve negotiation; it “gives students no power over rules” (247). Unilateral grading contracts were found to be successful in online writing instruction by Stuckey, Erdem, and Waggoner, who created a program-wide grading contract for online, accelerated first-year composition courses. They describe their unilateral grading contract choice: “We chose the unilateral contract model because the accelerated, asynchronous structure of our courses does not allow for meaningful engagement of students in the process of developing the contract or rubrics for the course” (Stuckey et al. 3). With similar justification, Oksana chose not to negotiate the contract with her students, partly to simplify her graduate teaching experience during the COVID-19 pandemic and also because the HyFlex environment involved fewer F2F contact hours with students, making it challenging to negotiate contract terms.

Krista negotiated contract terms with her students, following Asao Inoue’s suggestion that labor-based contracts ought to involve negotiation with students. As Inoue writes, “Labor-based grading contract ecologies attempt to make accessible all grades to all students. It is clear and apparent what one must do to get an A-grade, and those requirements are reasonably accessible to everyone and negotiated with students—that is, they get a say in the labor requirements” (Inoue, Labor-Based Grading Contracts 140). Krista’s students decided they could miss one process component of one major assignment while maintaining a complete grade (e.g., one missed draft). Though initial negotiations took place before the shift to online teaching, the contract was renegotiated after the emergency shift to online teaching in March 2020. Angela Laflen and Mikenna Sims use negotiated labor-based grading contracts in their online classes. They explain, “The grading contract is also a group-authored document in which students and faculty collaboratively make assessment decisions through negotiation and class discussions” (Laflen and Sims 121). Students in Laflen and Sims’ courses negotiated the contract on the Learning Management System (LMS) discussion board, individually via email, and during office hours (122). Laflen and Sims noted several challenges of implementing labor-based grading contracts in online writing instruction (OWI) and proposed several adaptations. One such challenge is that the LMS grade book generally requires an instructor to assign a point value to an assignment. Laflen assigns a zero-point value to assignments and uses Canvas’s complete/incomplete tool. Although this workaround is not ideal, it demonstrates how instructors implement contract grading in online courses. Krista found similar workarounds in the LMS grade book. Because of the ever-shifting pandemic conditions, the negotiation was key to the success of the grading contract in Krista’s course.

Another distinction between labor-based grading contracts and unilateral contracts is the valuation of writing quality versus the valuation of labor. Like Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow’s unilateral contract, students in our classes received a minimum of a B if they completed the course assignments and participated in peer review, drafting, and discussions. Also, like Danielewicz and Elbow’s students, our students could earn A grades by producing writing “of exceptionally high quality” (246). We deviated from the unilateral grading contract because, in addition to a quality-based grade increase in our classes, students could earn an A by completing additional labor, an idea derived from Asao Inoue’s labor-based contracts. As Inoue explains in Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, extra labor is different from extra credit work in a course in that students simply contract for the labor they can complete and receive a grade in return for that labor. In our grading contract, students improved their grades by a full letter grade for every three extra labor items they completed, such as visiting the writing center, conferencing with the instructor, or conducting peer review. The peer review, conference with the instructor, and revise and resubmit could only be counted as extra labor, and thus toward an A grade, if the student completed additional labor beyond the class requirements. In other words, all students were required to complete a peer review to earn a B, so to count a peer review as extra labor toward an A, a student would need to arrange for an additional peer review. Our hybrid contract was our attempt to provide students with options; we hoped that more options would result in a fairer, more equitable classroom, although our students’ responses complicate our assumption.

Both unilateral and labor-based contract models attempt to address equity issues, albeit in different ways (Danielewicz and Elbow; Gomes et al.; Inoue; Shor). Inoue writes in his 2019 book Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom that his early iteration of grading contracts defined fairness as “collaboratively building rubrics and deciding final grades together with each student” (Inoue, Labor-Based Grading Contracts 60). The collaboration helped students to feel that the grading was fair because the students participated in constructing the criteria. However, in Labor-Based Grading Contracts Inoue critiques his early belief, reflecting that these collaborative discussions merely reproduced the “White racial habitus” (58); when students are asked how the instructor should assess student writing, students parrot White supremacist language ideologies. Similarly, Joe Cirio’s study of two first-year writing students’ experiences with negotiating rubrics suggested that students “may just reproduce or reinforce the kinds of criteria a teacher might hope to dislodge from a traditional rubric” (115). By removing writing quality from negotiations altogether, Inoue’s labor-based contracts attempt to make “all final course grades more accessible to every student in the room, regardless of the languages they practice, their linguistic backgrounds, or most other social dimensions” (Inoue, Labor-Based Grading Contracts 136). Inoue describes that he asks his students to keep labor logs and labor journals to record the time spent on projects; then, he uses these logs and journals as springboards for class discussions to potentially renegotiate the workload (Inoue, Labor-Based Grading Contracts 220–221). Thus, negotiations attempt to teach students to value their own laboring in the writing classroom.

However, labor-based contracts come with limitations and, we argue, should be adapted to the local context. Labor is a limited resource, and some people have greater access to labor than do others. Reflective writing, such as Inoue’s labor log and journal assignments described in Labor-Based Grading Contracts, can demonstrate to instructors the context in which students complete labor (Byrd, Slide10). Kristina Reardon and Vanessa Guardado-Menjivar wrote that they held “conversations in class about the ways labor and investment of time are linked and how productive labor involves deep engagement with course materials in a way that, for some, requires more focus than their high school work might have demanded” (3). In their turn, Stuckey et al. note that interventions, such as labor logs and journals, entail another type of work students must complete in addition to their regular workload. This reflective work increases the labor burden, which may not be ideal in certain contexts, such as online classes. Thus, Stuckey et al. used a unilateral contract model in their online courses, noting that “students already struggle to complete the required work” (3). Although instructors can account for the contexts in which students labor, asking students to engage in additional reflective work can be problematic since the reflection component creates another labor requirement.

Other scholars have pointed out the limitations of labor-based contract grading, noting that labor-based contract grading assumes a neurotypical, socioeconomically advantaged student. In Ellen Carillo’s book-length study, The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading, Carillo takes up Inoue’s call in Labor-Based Contract Grading: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom to investigate labor-based contract grading through a disability studies lens. Carillo argues that “labor-based grading inaccurately assumes that labor is a neutral measure” (11). Carillo deconstructs Inoue’s construction of labor in Labor-Based Contract Grading, which is based on a willingness to labor, with willingness including “engagement, coping and resilience, and metacognition” (13). Carillo writes that, even if Inoue is correct that labor-based assessment only highlights existing class inequity, instructors still need to decouple “the willingness to labor from the labor itself” (16). A student may very well intend to labor but lack the time or resources necessary to complete that labor. As Kathleen Kryger and Griffin X. Zimmerman note in their work on grading contracts with neurodiverse students, the effort that students take to reorient themselves from conventional grading to contract grading is indeed another form of labor (6). Labor-based grading contracts “create inequity for neurodivergent students” because these contracts “focus on labor but may not account for the additional time/labor of adjusting to, adhering to, putting trust into, and understanding the new activity system” (Kryger and Zimmerman 6). Furthermore, Carillo writes that labor-based contracts propose an “ideal” amount of labor, which places “the normative, neurotypical student at its center” (16). In other words, labor-based contract grading is not automatically more equitable than unilateral contract grading or conventional grading. A structural shift in the classroom can support instructors’ efforts to humanize instruction in combination with other pedagogies.

Labor was a scarce resource for many of our students during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising equity concerns. For instance, many of our pandemic students worked multiple jobs and long hours to compensate for wages lost by a family member whose job was eliminated. Students taking online classes for the first time needed to learn new technologies and literacies alongside the course content. In other words, we cannot assume that students have equal access to time or opportunities to labor in our courses. Thus, we offered students the option to earn an “A” grade through their labor or writing quality, our imperfect solution to this complicated problem. We are not satisfied with our solution; whether selecting a labor-based model or a quality-based model, some students benefit while others suffer. While the COVID-19 pandemic context was unique, it shined a light on labor inequities in a way that may be helpful for future teachers as they adapt contract grading in their courses.

As we share in the next section, we frequently discussed the benefits of grading contracts with our students, hoping they would buy into the notion that contract grading is more helpful to their learning than traditional grading. Our insistence that grading contracts are “better” or “fairer” than elicited various student responses, from frustration to liberation. Similarly, Inman and Powell’s empirical study of students’ attitudes and beliefs toward grades found that students experience various contradictory emotions toward grading contracts. They wrote, “Contradictions arose within individual student responses. A student sounded notes of freedom and improvement with notes of fear” (Inman and Powell 38). Our study findings present similar contradictions. Perhaps this is due to the population in our classes. Inoue’s 2012 article Grading Contracts: Assessing Their Effectiveness on Different Racial Formations found that grading contracts tend to be more effective for students predisposed to seeing—or can be convinced to view—grades as unhelpful, destructive, or harmful to their learning (92). We report on our experiences with contract grading among predominantly White, rural, working-class students residing in the Appalachian region of the United States.

In the following sections, we describe the chosen methods we used to answer research question: How do composition students perceive grading contracts used during a pandemic? We detail the instruments, study site, participants, grading contract, and tools for analysis. The study’s findings are reported in the conclusion, along with future recommendations for the field of composition.

Methods

The present study on participants’ perceptions of contract grading during the COVID-19 pandemic uses a mixed-methods approach to understand participants’ attitudes. We aimed to provide space for participants’ voices to be heard about contract grading, especially during challenging times of emergency remote instruction and the pandemic. 61 students participated in the study out of 91 students enrolled in four-course sections taught by Krista and Oksana. 61 students yielded 67% participation in our survey.

This manuscript reports on teaching of four-course sections (see Table 1). Each course included both a F2F and an online component. Krista’s classes were fully F2F until March 2020 and transitioned to online asynchronous during the emergency transition at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Oksana’s two sections of English 101: Composition I course was HyFlex, a type of hybrid instruction with flexibility for students to choose whether to attend class in person or online. In her turn, the instructor had to juggle synchronous and in-person modes simultaneously. This particular model was introduced by the Indiana University of Pennsylvania in response to Center for Disease Control guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Interestingly, for the first three to four weeks of the course, most students chose to attend class F2F, but after week five, the number of students who attended F2F classes decreased as the number of cases of COVID-19 increased on campus (see Table 1).

Table 1. In Chronological Order: Instructor, Course and Section Information, Modality, Instruments Used in the Study, Class Sizes, and Study Participants
Instructor Section Semester Modality Instruments En­roll­ment Study Par­ti­ci­pants
Krista English 101 C Spring 2020 F2F (1/2 semester) Asynchronous online (1/2 semester) Survey (after the transition to online) 21 10
Krista English 202 A Spring 2020 F2F (1/2 semester) Asynchronous online (1/2 semester) Survey (after the transition to online) 27 14
Oksana English 101 A Fall 2020 Hybrid (all semester) Mid-term survey 22 20
Final evaluations 22 18
Oksana English 101 B Fall 2020 Hybrid (all semester) Mid-term survey 21 20
Final evaluations 21 18

Instruments

We analyzed archival data gathered via anonymous Google Forms surveys (Appendix B) and students’ teaching evaluations during the Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 semesters (IRB Log No. 21-134) to answer our research question. Krista’s data set includes Google Forms surveys that participants completed just a few weeks after transitioning to the online mode (April 14-16, 2020). Surveys asked students to reflect on their learning, their transition online, and their concerns and insights about the course. Oksana’s data set includes two types of surveys: a mid-semester Google form survey and final evaluations submitted by students at the end of the semester. In the mid-semester survey, Oksana asked students to answer questions about their learning and writing, grading contract, hybrid modality, technical concerns, and suggestions for improvement. End-of-semester student evaluations of teaching forms were provided by the university and included questions regarding the instructor’s role in the course, evaluation criteria, technical aspects of the courses’ modality, and suggestions. Therefore, we used different data sources because each survey has been developed specifically to meet the students’ needs and the context in which it was taught. We believe this difference in instruments strengthens our study because it provides authentic data about participants and course modality. In addition, the difference in instruments enables us to report on richer data sets and discuss this study’s quantitative and qualitative results. Since students were not cued to talk about the same things in each survey, any overlap in what students did discuss was especially noteworthy; we draw attention to these areas of overlap below.

Study Site and Participants

Indiana University of Pennsylvania is a public mid-sized school located in the Region with 10,067 students as of fall 2020 (“IUP at a Glance”). The undergraduate student body consists of 7,759 students who come from within the state (“Enrollment”). The participants of this study were first-year students for Oksana’s courses and first-year, second-year, and third-year undergraduates for Krista’s courses. This study only reports on our students who completed the optional course evaluations. Importantly, we do not intend to generalize our findings to other classes, even within the same institution. In total, 24 out of 48 students in Krista’s classes responded to the surveys and became participants in this study. In Oksana’s case, 36 out of 43 participants submitted their evaluations, and forty participants took a midterm check-in survey via Google Forms. Therefore, a total of 61 students out of 91 enrolled in four sections took part in the survey, yielding a 67% participation rate.

Coding

To analyze participants’ comments, we used a collaborative Google Document to read our data and take notes. After that, we switched to reading each other’s data. Just as Matthew B. Miles, A. Michael Huberman, and Johnny Saldaña suggest qualitative researchers use a memo methodology to record initial impressions of the data, we wrote personal notes about each other’s data to provide a nuanced and insightful understanding of the gathered data. After the first initial round of reading, we used Dedoose data analysis software to perform thematic analysis. Inductive coding was utilized as we created codes based on the survey and evaluation data. In other words, our codes emerged from our data organically. Inductive coding was an appropriate choice considering our research question and orientation toward research. We coded data individually and then read each other’s coded data again to ensure inter-rater reliability. Before we read each other’s codes, we met to discuss possible codes that could be combined. For example, we collapsed the codes “curiosity” and “creativity,” finding that these both referred to the freedom to experiment and take risks. Through this debriefing process, we generated 23 codes to describe the data. After each turn was coded twice (once by each researcher) using our list of 23 mutually agreed upon turns, we met again to debrief. During the second debriefing conversation, we merged closely related codes and grouped them into six major themes. Based on our literature review and familiarity with the data set, we decided on codes to combine into themes. For example, prior literature indicated that the teacher mediates the students’ dispositions toward grading contracts, so we created a theme related to teacher presence. Overall, the data analysis process was collaborative and, simultaneously, reflexive, as each researcher engaged in note-taking and making meaning from those notes.

A limitation of our study design is that we did not use the same survey for each course. For example, Krista specifically asked her students to rate the grading contract in terms of their perceptions of its influence on their creativity and investment in learning, and that prompted student responses in the open-ended comments. Perhaps because Oksana’s survey did not ask about those categories; participants did not mention them in their comments. This limitation occurred because we did not coordinate our study designs during the emergency transition to virtual and hybrid teaching. While we acknowledge this is not ideal, we submit that our data nevertheless offer important implications for the use of grading contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, our difference in instruments provides authentic student data, enables rich reporting of findings, and leads to both quantitative and qualitative results.

Results

In the next section, we present the results of our study in the following sequence: first, the quantitative results from Krista’s course are discussed; next, a brief overview of Oksana’s quantitative results; and finally, qualitative results coming from students’ comments and evaluations of teaching.

Quantitative Survey Results for Krista’s English 101 and English 202 Courses

During spring 2020, 14 out of 28 students in Krista’s English 202 class and 10 out of 28 in her English 101 class completed a survey about their perceptions of the grading contract. The survey also asked participants about their experiences transitioning from a F2F to an asynchronous online course, a transition that the institution required due to COVID-19. These students completed the survey between April 14-16, 2020, one month after the class moved online and three weeks before the semester ended. Survey questions asked participants to rate their experience with the grading contract on a scale of 1-10n, with ten indicating extremely positive. Each of the 24 participants rated their grading contract experience as five or higher, and 83% of respondents scored their experiences an eight or higher, with an average rating of 8.5/10. The English 202 participants’ average score (8.7/10) was slightly higher than the average English 101 score (8.3/10) (see Table 2).

Table 2. English 101 and English 202 Participants’ Average Grading Contract Ratings

Class

Average Grading
Contract Rating (1-10)

English 101

8.3

English 202

8.7

Average

8.5

Survey questions also asked participants to compare their experience with the grading contract to their experiences with traditional letter grading. Categories measured included feeling more invested in learning, feeling empowered, following curiosity, using creativity, following interests, making mistakes, receiving helpful feedback from peers/instructors, thinking critically, and becoming a better writer. Krista created these categories by drawing on previous work, such as Danielwicz and Elbow’s piece, which argues that grading contracts allow students to think “more about writing and less about grades” (249). In other words, Danielwicz and Elbow present grading contracts as a means for liberating students to embrace the messiness of the writing process. Krista generated questions surrounding creativity and curiosity following her interest in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing’s assertion that students need to develop those habits of mind as well as her curiosity about whether grading contracts can be a mechanism to teach habits of mind, such as creativity. Participants selected the answer that best described their experiences on a 1-5scale as follows: way more than traditional grades = 5; a little more than traditional grades = 4; about the same as traditional grades = 3, a little less than traditional grades = 2; way less than traditional grades = 1.

For both of Krista’s classes, participants reported that the grading contract outperformed traditional grading in every category, as shown in Table 3. Please note that we chose to not round up the numbers depicted below.

Table 3. Student Experiences with Contract Grading by Course and Category

Category

ENGL 101

ENGL 202

Average score

Invested in Learning

3.6

4.1

3.9

Feeling Empowered

3.5

4.2

3.9

Following Curiosity

3.8

4.0

3.9

Using Creativity

4.1

4.4

4.3

Following Interests

3.7

4.2

4.0

Making Mistakes

3.8

4.3

4.1

Receiving helpful Feedback

4.5

4.1

4.3

Think Critically

4.0

3.9

4.0

Becoming a Better Writer

4.4

4.0

4.2

Average Across all Categories

3.9

4.1

4.0

While at first glance, this indicates that English 202 students responded more positively to the contract than English 101 students, that may not be the case. English 101 participant scores were higher than 202 scores for feedback (202=4.1, 101=4.4), critical thinking (202=3.9, 101=4.0), and becoming a better writer (202=4.0, 101=4.4). This might suggest that 101 and 202 students benefit from grading contracts in different ways. In the qualitative section of this article, we use student feedback to consider whether the English 101 and 202 students’ ratings are different.

In Oksana’s case, her end-of-semester student evaluations of teaching had two categories regarding the grading (see Table 3), namely “grading explained clearly” and “grading criteria followed.”

Table 4. End-of-semester Student Evaluations of Teaching: Scores for Grading Explained Clearly and Grading Criteria Followed.

Category

Strongly Agree

Agree

Disagree

Grading Explained Clearly

25 (69%)

8 (22%)

3 (8%)

Grading Criteria Followed

27 (75%)

9 (25%)

0 (0%)

Out of 43 students from both sections of Oksana’s English 101 class, 36 students submitted their evaluations. 33 participants (91%) either strongly agreed or agreed that grading was explained clearly, and three disagreed (8%). The second criterion focused on whether the instructor followed the grading contract; 36 participants (100%) strongly agreed or agreed with this statement.

Qualitative Results

The qualitative results of the present study come from participants’ comments about the grading contract. After data analysis, several themes emerged regarding participants’ perceptions of the grading contract.

Improved Writing Skills. Grading contracts assisted in students’ writing improvement by providing instructors with ways to incorporate extensive feedback and revisions rather than focusing on a grade. For example, a student in Krista’s class said, “I like the aspect of feedback and applying it rather than just a grade. You can also edit the drafts, which is really important to me because most courses do not allow you second chances.” This comment refers to Krista’s emphasis on feedback when using a grading contract. One of the ways participants understood that their writing skills had improved is by acknowledging that it is normal to make mistakes and take risks. 33% of Krista’s participants referenced that the grading contract allowed them to make mistakes. For example, one student said the grading contract allowed them to “write in my own way and try new things.” Another student mentioned they appreciated “being able to make mistakes and have the opportunity to fix them.” 12% of Krista’s participants mentioned that the grading contract facilitated creativity, defined as “new or unique and effective approaches to wicked writing problems” (Krista). For example, one participant said, “all writing is creative, and when everything is so structured and standardized with grades, it ruins the creativity.”

Invested in Learning. 21% of Krista’s participants perceived that the grading contract helped them feel more invested in learning. These students said the grading contract allowed them to pursue their interests, work hard, and foster their individual writing styles. Sometimes, these students perceived that the contract encouraged them to work harder in comparison to traditional grading. As one student said, “I know it really does make you push harder.” Another student said that the grading contract allowed them to write in their way: “we can write in our own way. You help us with the feedback but in our own way of writing still.”

Perceptions of Grading Contracts’ Fairness and Suggestions for Improvement. A wide range of responses about the fairness of the grading contract was received from participants in Oksana and Krista’s classes. 2% of students believed that if they did everything required, they should have received an A without extra credit tasks to be completed. 2% of participants expressed some level of misunderstanding of the grading contract’s language, and therefore its fairness was questionable according to them. 3% of students found grading contracts to be a fair representation of their work being submitted and the quality of their writing. One student positively perceived a grading contract by stating, “I like that if we do the work, we get a point towards our grade.” Another one noted the reasoning behind a preference for the grading contract by writing, “What I liked best about grading contract: it recognizes our efforts even if assignments are not perfect.” In Krista’s case, 12% of students mentioned that in a F2F class environment the grading contract worked really well for them; but when they had to switch to the online modality, the grading contract was not working for them because the deadlines and the “overwhelming amount of assignments [ . . . ] that turned into submit something by 11:59 instead of producing quality work” as one student put it. 9% of Oksana’s participants at the mid-semester offered suggestions to improve the grading contract, a theme that also appeared in several end-of-semester evaluations. These participants responded to an open-ended question asking for suggestions for the class overall. Sometimes, the participants simply named the grading contract as an area of improvement without elaborating. Others suggested revising the grading contract so that everyone begins the course with an A. As one participant put it, “I don’t feel it is fair for students to get a ‘B’ for doing everything they have to do. Normally, if you do everything required for you, you get an ‘A.’” Other participants’ comments indicated they misunderstood the grading contract’s nature. For example, one participant believed that if they “got 100% on every assignment,” they would still receive a B unless they did extra credit work.

Instructor’s Role. One participant expressed a positive attitude toward the instructor’s choice of grading contract and wrote: “I like to see teachers stray away from strict and socially acceptable classes. I feel learning and knowledge shouldn’t be based on a number or grade, so I appreciated your grading contract.” 7% of participants who took the survey noted that the instructor’s course organization helped in their learning, and a clear understanding of what is expected from each assignment was a benefit. 8% of students also commented on flexible deadlines and the overall helpful attitude of the instructors when they needed extra help with extra credit items or assignments. A grading contract requires some level of learner autonomy and creativity, which was mentioned by 2% of students as a positive aspect of the grading contract. To support this thought, one student said, “I didn’t feel as pressured to get a good grade, and I was able to write in my own way and try new things. It was much more beneficial than having a traditional grade.” Some of the most frequent responses were about the amount of instructor feedback, described as “extensive” and “constructive.” 4% of students also noted that instructors were responsive to their concerns and passionate about teaching.

Regarding specific comments on the grading contract, three percent of students mentioned that Oksana encouraged them to do extra credit assignments to increase their grades. Krista, in her turn, according to one student, followed the grading criteria fairly. Another student indicated that while at first, they were confused with the grading contract, after explaining it more elaborately, it became clear and suggested providing elaboration from day one to ensure that all students are on the same page about the requirements of the grading contract. 5% of students also noted multiple reminders that the instructors mentioned about extra credit opportunities. In addition, 8% of students from both classes described their instructors as empathetic, caring, understanding, and responsive.

Online Context. 4% of participants from both classes mentioned grading contracts as a productive way of evaluation in online circumstances. One participant mentioned that his grades improved in the online modality, and extra labor activities were easier to complete.

5% of students in Oksana’s class mentioned technical difficulties, such as poor video quality or unstable Internet connection. 2% of students appreciated the instructor’s regular videos posted as a recap of weekly assignments. Nearly every respondent mentioned some difficulty with online context, either with technologies, number of assignments, personal/health-related issues, workload coupled with outside-of-academia jobs and family responsibilities, lack of communication with classmates, and difficulty completing extra credit tasks. Although three students noted the amount of instructor feedback as a positive side of online instruction.

Discussion

Our study aimed to answer the following research question: How do composition students perceive grading contracts used during a pandemic? The quantitative findings revealed that participants perceived grading contracts as beneficial in several areas, such as enabling students to be creative, make mistakes and take risks, become better writers, and receive more instructor feedback. Nevertheless, our participants also expressed contradictory emotions toward grading contracts, similar to those in Inman and Powell’s study. Based on these findings, several aspects should be considered when implementing grading contracts—the modality of the course, the burden to students of completing extra labor, the fairness of the grading contract, the clarity of the language, and the instructor’s explanation of the content. While we cannot generalize our findings beyond our specific institutional context, readers might consider how these findings can inform their application of contract grading in general, especially during political, social, and physical stress in students’ personal and academic lives. At the very least, readers should be cautioned that labor-based grading contracts are not necessarily or automatically more equitable than unilateral grading contracts.

The results of the quantitative data show a slight difference between participants from our English 101 and English 202 perceptions of the grading contract showing that our English 202 participants favored grading contracts more than our English 101 participants. However, for both classes, grading contracts scored higher than traditional grading in every category. This speaks to our participants’ preference for a non-traditional grading system, but with some consideration as to what class and semester is appropriate for such idiosyncracies. We speculate that students who had a grading contract in their first-semester composition class were not fully ready for the grading contract system due to a lack of academic socialization, which is the process of acclimating to an academic context in terms of understanding the academic discourse, rules, culture, and norms. There might be other reasons why upper-level students rated the grading contract higher. Future studies can address this comparison to understand the underlying reasons for the differences in first-year students versus second-year students’ perceptions of the grading contract. In the meantime, we recommend that instructors adapt and remix the requirements of the grading contract according to the context and student population they teach.

We utilized student evaluations of teaching and mid-semester surveys to acknowledge students’ views on grading contracts and rethink our practices as instructors to benefit students in future (Reardon and Guardado-Menjivar). To provide space for students’ voices in this study, we analyzed comments and grouped them into larger themes that showcased students’ views of the non-traditional grading system. This methodology allowed us to understand how student participants in our study perceived grading contracts as helping them improve their writing skills. Specifically, participants mentioned that the grading contract’s focus on qualitative feedback encouraged them to revise their writing.

While some scholars reason that non-traditional grading reduces student stress (Doyle; Ward), especially during the times of COVID-19 pandemic, our findings suggest that some aspects of the grading contract can do the opposite—increase students’ stress levels when they find themselves in an emergency-like situation not only in academia but also in their personal lives. Based on our study’s results, we speculate that stress about contract grading relates to adjusting to something new and uncomfortable. In contrast, stress about grades relates to self-worth, performance markers, and gatekeeping (Reardon and Guardado-Menjivar). The results of our surveys showed us that grading contracts are not a problem that our students experienced but rather a lack of time to engage in extra labor (Stuckey et al.). Therefore, instructors need to carefully consider and get student feedback about their policies regarding extra labor and provide students with alternatives if outlined options do not work for them (Inoue, Labor-Based Grading Contracts; Laflen and Sims). Remixing, adapting, and negotiating with the students allow instructors to humanize pedagogy and cultivate student agency (Shubert).

Moreover, participants in our study viewed extra credit labor-based activities as an additional burden if they worked or had other personal responsibilities, which echoes Stuckey et al.’s findings. Labor inequalities were intensified during Covid-19 and persist today. Thus, it might be productive to rethink grading practices regarding required extra labor tasks or modify them. Beyond world crises, individual stressors on campuses and personal lives affect students’ daily lives. Also, deciphering grading contracts requires mental labor, especially if the student is not used to non-traditional grading systems (Kryger and Zimmerman). If an instructor desires to be empathetic and fair, the instructor might look beyond contract grading altogether and toward other ungrading options presented in the literature. For instance, they might try Feldman and Reeves’ assessment model that averages only the work students submitted without including non-submitted work in the grade. Essentially, various ungrading techniques can emphasize the instructor’s empathy, be appropriate in different contexts during challenging times, and ultimately lead to equitable and accessible classes for all students (Doyle, Feldman and Reeves, Shubert).

Since the instructors in our particular cases enforced the choice of the grading scheme, it was important to consider how the instructor’s role in the course enhanced the understanding of the grading contract overall. This speaks to our finding about the instructor’s role in the class: our students benefited from the grading contract when the instructor was responsive, organized, and positive; encouraged students to complete extra labor; and provided “extensive” and “constructive” feedback, according to the participants of the study. When Krista uses traditional grading, she provides formative feedback on student drafts but only summative feedback on students’ revised work. However, when using the grading contract, she provides formative feedback on both drafts and revised work, allowing students to revise their final versions of writing. Since day one, the instructor has to be extra elaborative about the grading contract and its requirements and spends time explaining the labor-based activities.

Conclusion

Based on the findings of this study, there are several implications for the field of composition. Because contract grading works differently across contexts and among varying student populations, instructors should be mindful of remixing and adapting contract grading to their contexts. For example, instructors might discuss with their students the extent to which a grading contract introduces two forms of labor: the labor of coursework and the labor of adjusting to the contract (Kryger and Zimmerman). Instructors also might allow students to choose the grading system. This could be done through a survey sent out before the semester starts or by voting on the first day of classes and letting students opt out of the contract grading, if they wish. Students need to feel agency and responsibility in the decision-making process about their learning. We join the voices of scholars, such as Ellen Carillo, who argue that implementing grading contracts is not as simple as it seems; contracts do not automatically “reduce struggle by trying to make life easier for us as teachers and writing more pleasurable for students as writers” (Elbow and Danielwicz, 248). Grading contracts do not automatically result in more equitable composition classrooms.

Second, when labor-based grading contracts are applied as an empathetic teaching tool during stressful situations, instructors should be mindful of the inequities inherent in labor-based contracts. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to revisit labor-based grading, the number of assignments to be completed, and the concept of participation in hybrid vs. F2F vs. online classes. Grading contracts, at their core, reward labor; and yet, teachers still have choices about what kinds of labor to include in the contract. In Matthew Gomes, Bree Belatti, Mia Hope, and Alissa LaFerrier’s article on participation labor, they reflect on their experiences as instructors and students. Gomes et al. moved away from compulsory attendance and participation. Instead, they made participation a separate part of the grading contract, of equal value to other forms of labor (like assignments) and gave students a range of participation labor they could perform. The format of the course should be considered. Instructors should be flexible about the type and amount of labor and be prepared to change it mid-semester as they read their students’ work.

Consequently, we suggest several recommendations for future researchers to expand upon this study. First, the relationship between students’ mental health and grading contracts, especially during the pandemic or world crises, is worthy of further exploration. Second, a large-scale study that examines perceptions of students from the same university and compares results across the university would be beneficial. It is important to include various student populations for future studies and explore those students’ perceptions of contract grading. Furthermore, the relationship between stress and grade performance is worth researching in a post-pandemic context to examine whether students’ stress about grades is a natural part of academic life or something we should lean into. Finally, more research is needed to understand graduate teaching assistants’ reflections on contract grading, as graduate teaching assistants constitute a substantial group that teaches composition courses as contingent faculty. Future researchers can pursue a multidisciplinary study to trace how grading contracts shape students’ perception of academic achievement over time.

Appendices

Appendix A: The Grading Contract

Any student in this class is capable of earning the grade they want. Students will automatically begin with a B, and any student can earn an A either by doing extra work or through an assessment of the quality of writing. So long as students uphold the grading contract (details below), they maintain a B and can be considered for an A. Students can also earn C, D, and F grades if they choose to adhere to some but not all aspects of the grading contract. Details of how to earn each grade are spelled out in this contract. At the beginning of the semester, I encourage you to decide which grade you would like to earn and then perform the work required.

My reason for using a grading contract is based on a philosophy of learning that I feel is most appropriate for college-level work. Grades can be problematic, especially in a college writing class, where learning should be a process of discovery, curiosity, experimentation, and creativity. When we follow our curiosity and engage in the creative process, we are bound to make mistakes - mistakes are a necessary part of learning! However, the fear of grades can make us cautious, following what we “know works” rather than engaging in the messy process of learning. This is why, rather than traditional grades, we will use a grading contract in this course.

I hope you will see many advantages to a grading contract. The grading contract allows me to give you authentic feedback on your writing rather than to focus my comments on justifying a grade. It also allows you to rely on a wider audience for your writing than your instructor, including your self- assessment of your own writing, feedback from peers, etc. Further, the contract rewards your engagement with the course rather than your mastery of the course. We will discuss and sign the grading contract during the first week of class.

“A” Grades

Any student in this class is capable of earning an A grade. Students can be awarded A grades in the course if they fulfill all contract requirements and 1) complete additional labor (must complete three of the four items below) 2) and/or demonstrate A-level writing in the course.

Extra Labor. In addition to the labor outlined in the assignment commitments and classroom commitments (those include discussion boards and peer responses), students who wish to earn an A in the class may do so by completing extra labor. Students can combine extra labor items or complete the same items three times:

  1. Writing Center: Visit the writing center (online) and revise your paper using the tutor’s feedback. To get credit for this labor, you must ask the writing tutor to send confirmation of the appointment to your instructor.
  2. Peer Review: Give additional peer feedback on their writing. To get credit for this labor, please send me the feedback you sent to your peer. The peer may be a member of our class or a member of another class.
  3. Conference: Attend a video or in-person conference with your instructor.
  4. Revise and Resubmit: Revise and resubmit a major project. To get credit for this labor, you must revise and resubmit a project within 7 days of receiving feedback from your instructor. You must submit with it a reflective cover letter that outlines the changes you made to the new draft and how these changes have improved your writing/you as a writer.
  5. Friend/Family Paper Review: Ask a friend or family member to give you feedback on your writing. To get credit for this labor, ask your friend/family member to use Track Changes in Microsoft Word or the Suggesting Mode in Google Documents, and to send their feedback to both you and your instructor from their own email address.

A-Level Writing. To assess A-level writing, I will evaluate the student’s growth throughout the semester. For each assignment, you’ll receive a complete or incomplete grade, as well as my feedback. At the end of the semester, I will carefully and thoughtfully reread each students’ work in this course. As I read, I will ask three questions:

  1. Did the student demonstrate a pattern of openness to feedback?
  2. Has the student consistently applied feedback to improve their writing?
  3. Does the student’s writing typically demonstrate a strong grasp of the writing assignments and rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, context) and genre expectations?

“B” Grades

Students who fulfill the course contract are guaranteed at least a “B.” If you do all that is asked of you in the manner and spirit of the grading contract, you will earn a “B” in the course. B grades are not based on an assessment of your writing, although I do expect that you will commit to composing the highest quality work you’re capable of.

“C” Grades

C grades will be appointed to students who have 1) not fulfilled 2 assignment commitments or 2) not fulfilled 4-7 classroom commitments (discussion boards and peer reviews included). Any student who has a C grade can improve their grade by at least a full letter for every three extra labor credits earned and/or through the students’ assessment of the writing quality.

“D” Grades

D grades will be appointed to students who have 1) not fulfilled 2 assignment commitments AND 4-7 classroom commitments, 2) not fulfilled 3 assignment commitments, or 3) not fulfilled 8-11 classroom commitments. Any student who has a D grade can improve their grade by at least a full letter for every three extra labor credits earned and/or through the students’ assessment of the writing quality.

“F” Grades

Failing grades will be appointed to students who have 1) not fulfilled 3 assignment commitments AND 8-11 classroom commitments, 2) not fulfilled 4 assignment commitments, or 3) not fulfilled 12+ classroom commitments. Students who earn an F are eligible for extra labor credit but not for a higher grade through the quality of their writing.

Contract Commitments

Below is the contract that spells out the two kinds of commitments for this course: assignment commitments and classroom commitments. I hope that all students will choose to keep the contract commitments; A- and B-level students must adhere to the contract in full.

As a member of the ENGL 101 course community in the Fall of 2020, I agree to:

Assignment Commitments:

  1. Assignments: Complete all major assignments with commitment and engagement according to the criteria on the relevant assignment sheet, turn in all related parts of major assignments, which should also demonstrate commitment and engagement, and do so by the assigned due dates;
    1. For an assignment to be marked “complete,” the student must complete a draft, peer review, revision, and reflective cover letter. The guidelines below must be followed.
    2. Students may miss one draft or one peer review on an assignment this semester without resulting in an incomplete grade.
    3. Follow the correct format: correct font size, citation guide, etc. Align your work correctly: make it presentable on the page. Use paragraph breaks. Double spaced. 1” margins.
    4. Submit work on time to fulfill your contract responsibilities. The instructor will grant extensions when there is a legitimate and compelling excuse and the request is made prior to the original due date. Late work does not fulfill the contract.
    5. Assignments may be completed using either APA or MLA style. If a student would like to use another style guide, please talk to the instructor. Write your style guide choice on each paper.
  2. Peer Review: Write helpful, thoughtful, and clear responses to peer drafts according to the directions for individual projects, and by the assigned due dates;
    1. All required peer reviews will take place during class time. If peer review or group meetings are required outside of class, class will be cancelled to accommodate.
    2. An outside class member can review your paper for extra labor.
    3. Peer review responses should use correct punctuation, readable font and alignment, and legible handwriting.
    4. Give the writer feedback on what could be improved in their paper: react like a reader to your peer’s writing.
    5. Make suggestions for corrections to grammar and punctuation, but don’t feel obligated to “correct” grammar. You’re a reader, not an editor.
    6. Return feedback to peers in a timely manner (before the due date).
    7. Respond to your peer’s texts/emails/etc. to coordinate peer review.
  3. Drafts: Turn in drafts for Workshops/Peer Review for all Major Projects by the assigned due dates.
    1. Use Microsoft Word, Times New Roman, 12-point font, double spaced. PDFs and pages documents don’t allow the instructor to provide written feedback in the document.
    2. A complete draft is required because complete drafts give students the opportunity for more thorough feedback on their writing from peers and the instructor.
    3. Drafts should be a good faith effort—they should be clear and understandable and should attend to the purpose and audience for the assignment.

Classroom Commitments

  1. Participation in this class is crucial and will take a variety of forms: online learning activities in D2L, face to face meetings in small teams, and Zoom meetings of the whole class.
    • Face-to-face team meetings will take place in our classroom in groups of 10 and 12. These meetings are an important opportunity to ask questions and confirm that you are on the right track! In the meetings, we will work on the learning activities and writing assignments collaboratively. The team meetings are also a great chance to get to know some of your classmates and your teacher. Health comes first, however, so while attendance at meetings is expected, there is no penalty if you cannot attend. Accommodations will be made on an individual basis.
    • We will meet in Zoom as a whole class multiple times. Plan on logging in to these meetings 5 minutes ahead of schedule to make sure your video is on, audio is off, and you are in gallery view. I can record the Zoom meetings by request, so if you are going to miss a class, let me know ahead of time.
    • Students are expected to engage in all class sessions, which will include both individual work and group discussions. Students who do not participate because they do not find the course format conducive to their learning should contact the professor so that the professor can make the class a positive learning environment that all students can participate in. To fulfill the contract, students should contact the instructor for help and not engage in class.
  2. Meeting Attendance: Be on-time for and attend any appointments, whether with peers or the instructor, online or face-to-face;
    1. When meeting with peers for projects, bring everything you need and show up ready to get work done.
    2. Ask questions.
    3. Take notes during meetings.
    4. Give your peers feedback and be a good group member; don’t just benefit from the group.
    5. Groups may determine how they’d like to meet: face-to-face, using video, using Google hangouts, using email, etc.
  3. Readings: Complete all reading assignments and be prepared to discuss them in class, bringing all texts, articles, and other materials relevant to the reading (when applicable);
    1. Read the assigned texts before class.
    2. Take notes on readings.
    3. Annotate your readings by writing comments, questions, and unfamiliar vocabulary in the margins.
    4. Bring either a digital or print version of the reading, with your annotations/notes, to class.
    5. If you didn’t get to the reading, say so.
  4. Discussion Board and Peer Response: In total, you have to submit 10 discussion boards on D2L due by the assigned date as well as one peer response to your classmate. Discussion Board requirements are posted above.
  5. Ethics: Maintain high ethical standards of courteous and civil behavior toward all members of the class, including actively listening to others, asking questions, and using technology in ways that support the learning environment.
    1. Pay attention during class.
    2. Put technology away.
      • Students may tell the instructor (discreetly) if other students’ technology use is a distraction; the instructor will intervene.
      • If a phone call or text is a necessity, excuse yourself from the classroom and then return upon completion.
      • Students may read/access assignments on their laptops, phones, or tablets.
    3. Treat others the way you want to be treated.
    4. Be respectful when participating in class discussions: Hand raising isn’t required; you can call out your response. However, don’t jump ahead or call out in front of someone else. The instructor will monitor this and make sure we are all taking turns without interrupting.
    5. Do talk during class discussions. It’s one way to set a positive environment.
    6. Be respectful when addressing the instructor. Use “Professor Oksana” or “Mrs. Oksana.”

Instructor Commitments

As Instructor, I will do my best to help students meet the outcomes and succeed in the course and to fulfill my own responsibilities as outlined in the syllabus. In addition to my responsibilities outlined in my student evaluation instrument, I will provide thoughtful and constructive feedback for all major work. I will be prepared for course meetings to lead discussion of course readings and to teach course material, and I will speak clearly and audibly during class. I will facilitate student interaction and class discussion to promote learning. I will also be available outside of class to meet with students one-on-one in person or via email, phone, or video chat. I am committed to creating an atmosphere in which all students have an equal opportunity to learn.

Commitment Fulfillment Agreement

If and when the Student has fulfilled all commitments as specified above, the Instructor will submit the Student’s grade for the course as no lower than a B. The Instructor may submit a grade higher than a B if the Student’s writing and fulfillment of course objectives and outcomes have been of superior quality, as determined by a holistic assessment of the student’s work, and/or through the student’s extra labor. Superior writing, as assessed by the Instructor, and extra labor, may improve grades by up to one full grade except an F.

The Instructor may submit a grade lower than a B if the Student fails to meet the terms of the contract in full. In that case, the Instructor will submit grades according to the following stipulations:

  • One failure to meet an Assignment Commitment will lower the Student’s course grade from a B to a C; or 4-7 failures to meet Classroom Commitments will lower the Student’s course grade from a B to a C.
  • Two failures to meet any Assignment Commitment will lower the grade to a D; or 1 failure to meet an Assignment Commitment and 4-7 failures to meet Classroom Commitments will lower the Student’s course grade to a D; or 8-11 failures to meet Classroom Commitments will lower the Student’s course grade to a D.
  • Three failures to meet of any Assignment Commitment will result in an automatic F for the course; or two failures to meet any Assignment Commitment and 8-11 failures to meet Classroom Commitments will lower the Student’s course grade to an F; or 12+ failures to meet Classroom Commitments will lower the Student’s course grade to an F.

If you are missing classes and behind in work, please stay in touch with me about your chances of passing the course. (I would like to credit Matt Vetter, Peter Elbow, Krista, and Emily Wierszewski for the language in this contract.)

Signatures

By signing the contract, Student and Instructor assert that they understand and agree to all provisions of the Contract.

Appendix B: Surveys

ENGL 101 Fall 2020

This check-in survey is meant to help you reflect on the course, as well as your answers will help your instructor to improve the course. Your answers are completely anonymous and will not affect your grades.

  1. What’s confusing/difficult about the course?
  2. What questions do you have about the course?
  3. What are you learning about writing so far?
  4. What is working well/ what do you like about the course?
  5. If you were the instructor, what would you change in the course?
  6. How does the hybrid mode of the class work for you so far?
  7. Any suggestions/concerns?

English 101 Feedback Survey

I’d like your feedback through this anonymous survey to improve your experience in English 101. The first section asks about the transition online. The second section asks about the grading contract. The third section asks about your overall experiences.

Transition Online

This section asks you about your experience with our transition online.

  1. On a scale 1 to 10, with ten being the highest, how would you rate our transition to an online course?
  2. Please explain your response. For example, what has the instructor done well with the transition online? How could the instructor improve?
  3. Some students like to access only the upcoming week on D2L. Other students like to see all the remaining modules so they can work ahead. What do you prefer?*
    • I only want to see the upcoming week.
    • I want to see all the weeks! I like to plan ahead.
    • Other:
  4. What tools can I develop as a teacher that would help you with the online class? Please share your ideas.
  5. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, how would you rate your experience with the GRADING CONTRACT so far?
  6. Traditional grades are point-based. Grading contracts are feedback based. Please finish this statement: Compared to traditional grades, the grading contract lets me….


Way less than traditional grades

A little less than traditional grades

About the same as traditional grades

A little more than traditional grades

Way more than traditional grades

Feel more invested in my own learning.






Feel empowered.






Follow my curiosity.






Use creativity.






Follow my interests.






Make mistakes.






Receive helpful feedback from peers/instructor.






Think critically.






Become a better writer.






  1. What about the course grading contract worked best for you? What could be improved?

Overall Experience

Please tell me about your overall experience in the course.

  1. To what extent do you agree with the following?*


Strongly Disagree

Somewhat Disagree

Not Sure

Somewhat Agree

Strongly Agree

Student voices have shaped our class.






Our class is a community.






  1. Have you transformed in any personal way through this course?*
    • Yes
    • No
    • Other:
  2. If yes, please explain.
  3. Did you become more interested in anything because of this course? (Example: a topic you read about, a kind of writing you tried, a profession, a type of learning, etc.)
    • Yes
    • No
    • Other:
  4. If yes, please explain.
  5. Which assignments/activities did you like best? (Check 1-3 boxes.)
    • Modern Love Rhetorical Analysis
    • Tiny Narrative
    • Comparative Rhetorical Analysis
    • Infographic
    • Podcast Script
    • NYT Public Comments
    • Individual Assignments/Essays (Due Saturdays)
    • Reflective Cover Letters
  6. On a scale of 1 to 10, with ten being highest, how would you rate this course OVERALL?
  7. Why did you rate the course in this way? Please explain.

Works Cited

Bean, John. C. and Dan Melzer. Alternatives to Traditional Grading: Portfolio Assessment and Contract Grading. Engaging Ideas. The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 3rd ed., John Wiley & Sons, 2021, pp. 338–352.

Blum, Susan D. Introduction: Why Ungrade? Why Grade? Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). Edited by Susan Blum, West Virginia UP, 2020.

Byrd, Antonio, panelist. Panel Discussion. No More Checkboxes: ‘Getting at the Meta of Learning for Equity and Survival.’ Conference on College Composition and Communication, 9 Mar. 2022, Chicago, IL.

Carillo, Ellen C. The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading. Utah State UP, 2021.

Chiaravalli, Arthur. Grades Stifle Student Learning. Can We Learn to Teach Without Grades? Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum, West Virginia UP, 2020, pp. 82–88.

Cirio, Joe. Meeting the Promise of Negotiation: Situating Negotiated Rubrics with Students’ Prior Experiences. WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 42, no. 2, 2019, pp. 100–18.

Danielewicz, Jane and Peter Elbow. A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching. College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 2, 2009, pp. 244–68.

Doyle, Brianna. Critically Considering Empathy in the Classroom: A Graduate Student’s Perspective on Pandemic Pedagogy. Double Helix, vol. 8, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–5.

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