Contract Grading Democratizes Writing

I recently saw an opinion in the Review (“Contract Grading Detrimental to Oberlin Academics, Student Success,” The Oberlin Review, Dec. 9, 2022) that critiqued the use of contract grading in certain courses. Having had the opportunity to take “Re-envisioning Writing: Connection, Negotiation, and Empowerment” under the contract grading system, I feel compelled to voice my opinion on what exactly contract grading is and what it brings to the table.

To start with, contract grading is not an easy ‘B’ or above. It’s not a means to reward minimal effort with a passing grade. Professor of Writing and Communications Laurie McMillin’s contract reads, “[To get a] B+ you need to have 0–3 absences, no missed or ignored assignments, [and] all assignments completed fully and appropriately according to stated assignment guidelines.” The contract makes it explicitly clear that not only must students complete assignments on time, but submitted work must also meet certain standards. In many respects, it is comparable to a standard grading system, which also rewards appropriate completion of work.

The main philosophy behind the contract grading system is to allow students to unlock creative potential in their work. In the standard letter grading system, with the fear of a negative grade on one assignment having an adverse impact on the overall course grade, students often opt for simpler, more straightforward ways to complete their assignments. They may be hesitant to explore a new topic or write using unconventional styles, anticipating a negative response from their instructor if they choose to do so. That’s where the beauty of contract grading lies: it lowers the stakes on assignments just enough so that creative expression isn’t stifled. The contract aims to allow students to take risks with assignments and go beyond what the conventional path dictates. Therefore, it is a means of democratizing writing — by reducing the stigma and repercussions of not conforming to typical approaches to an assignment, contract-graded classes promote more inclusive styles and encourage the flow of creative thoughts. Sometimes risks don’t pay off, and that’s okay — the contract offers some protection in those situations. For example, in ‘Re-envisioning Writing,’ Professor McMillin allows students to redo assignments and resubmit within 48 hours if they do not meet a required standard. Furthermore, students get multiple opportunities to receive feedback on their work — from peer-reviews, course writing associate, or the professor — to push their writing to a higher standard. The contract is unequivocal. It rewards hard work but not at the expense of creativity. It’s a testament to the idea that there is no “correct” way of doing an assignment and that each approach will have its merits and demerits while allowing you the freedom to choose how you want to do things.

Moreover, contract grading aims to reduce the anxiety associated with overall course grades. At any point in the course, students can use the guidelines in the contract to ascertain their performance in the course without having to reach out to their instructor or wait until final grades are released, at which point there is no opportunity for corrective action.

The previous article argued that contract grading inflates grades and underprepares students for the workplace. Contract grading is not a free-for-all distribution of ‘good’ grades, but rather an alternative approach to grading. It rewards hard work and penalizes lack of effort as much as any other grading system. Secondly, creativity is a valuable skill in the professional world; having the ability to give a fresh perspective to an issue or a problem is the driving force of innovation, which defines business. As such, contract grading does aim to better align course goals with the expectations of the workplace.

I was really disheartened when I read the piece in the Review that discussed contract grading in a negative light, and I hope that I shed some light on the topic. I see contract grading as an evolution of the standard grading system that aims to free students from conventional ways of approaching an assignment. When implemented correctly, it creates a less stressful environment for students and allows them to flex their rhetorical and creative capabilities. I expect some courses might have to be reorganized to better incorporate contract grading, but it is certainly worthwhile to do so.