Contract Grading System Key to Equitable Learning

Once, as I meandered about King Building — as one did in pre-COVID times — I overheard two professors discussing grades. They were confused about why their students were so eager for an A, constantly seeking out their professors during office hours to inquire about their grades. After all, the professors said, a C is average, and learning the content matters more than the grade one receives. Obviously, this comment is more than a little tone-deaf to the realities students face — hundredths of a decimal place could spell the end of graduate school aspirations, or cost a student thousands of dollars more in tuition. 

Several semesters later, this overheard conversation still irks me. However, there is good reason to question our current grading methodology. Not only does the hypercompetitive nature of higher education force many students to obsess over grades, but grading systems within the classroom limit student learning. I learned this lesson during my third semester at Oberlin. I wanted to pursue a paper topic beyond the bounds of a course’s readings, but the professor warned me that it would be tricky to write about. I was passionate about the topic and decided to go for it anyway. To date, it’s the worst grade I have ever received on a college paper. Since then, I have tempered my ambitions and aligned my passions with the course material. 

During this past fall semester, which I spent unenrolled and bouncing against the walls of my house, I was fortunate enough to work remotely as a Course Writing Associate. For anyone who is unfamiliar, Oberlin Writing Associates primarily work in the Writing Center in the Mudd Center — meetings are currently virtual — and assist students with writing assignments. A CWA works with a single class for an entire semester, meeting one-on-one with students, collaborating with the professor, hosting workshops, and sometimes participating in class. Last fall was my first semester as a CWA, and I was paired with Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Laurie McMillin’s rhetoric course Re-envisioning Writing: Connection, Negotiation, and Empowerment. It ended up being one of my most eye-opening educational experiences, due largely to a grading system Professor McMillin implemented called “contract grading.” 

Contract grading prioritizes effort, participation, and assignment completion over quality of work. In Professor McMillin’s course, this meant a guaranteed B grade if a student turned in all assignments on time and attended all classes. While there were some minor allowances for late work, the B threshold was the essence of the “contract” between Professor McMillin and her students. Contract grading encourages the sort of risk-taking that I attempted early on in my academic career — if you are guaranteed a B for turning an assignment in and applying clear effort, why not choose a more demanding paper topic?

With Professor McMillin’s guidance, students tackled the modes of writing that challenged them. For some, this meant experimenting with creative writing. For others, especially those less familiar with academic writing, it meant practicing formal essays. There was an authenticity to their writing that I rarely encounter in my own classes. Students investigated personal topics which were often intimate or sensitive in nature. Without the fear of one bad grade ruining their course average, or of being judged for their incoming knowledge of rhetoric, the students focused on what they knew the teacher wanted — honesty, risk-taking, and engagement with the course material. 

Too often, academic coursework is a positive feedback loop — students write in the style that they have practiced the most about the topics that they are most familiar with, and only improve at that at which they already excel. Genuine improvement requires the latitude to try over and over again, without being punished for your first and worst attempt. This is what education should be about — and it’s at the heart of that earnest yet shortsighted discussion between the two professors. 

This being said, I don’t think every class needs to or even should adopt this exact style of contract grading. Certainly, contract grading is easier with a smaller class, and it’s a system that requires constant attention from a professor willing to encourage students to seek out their interests and face their insecurities. However, aspects of this system can be adapted to most classrooms. Students should be given more leniency to try multiple times on the same assignment. Similarly, if a student decides to seek out a particularly difficult topic, their final grade should reflect the challenging nature of the material.

We at Oberlin may not be able to alter the entire landscape of higher education nationwide. However, we can implement grading practices that motivate and encourage students, rather than dampen their educational aspirations. Contract grading allows us to decide what constitutes the best education possible at Oberlin.