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Contract Grading Schemes

Article written by ASC Office of Distance Education Instructional Designer, Sarah Dove.

Contract Grading is an assessment tool that pushes the boundaries of traditional grading schemes in order to promote open and clear instructor-student communication, infuse agency and autonomy into the process of student learning, and promote equitable learning communities with increased transparency and engagement.

Female student and male professor looking at a document together

Contract Grading

As more instructors and instructional development specialists are interrogating high-stakes grading schemes based on performance—such as standards-referenced grading that puts a great deal of emphasis on comprehensive examination—the benefit of creative grading schemes is increasing in both visibility and availability. One scheme that is gaining in popularity is Contract Grading, a scheme that promotes effort over performance.

Contract grading schemes utilize a task-oriented design that incorporates a combination of assignments, exams, and projects. Where contract grading differs from traditional grading schemes, though, is in their invitation to students to consider their own needs for how and when they will complete tasks to earn their desired grade. Furthermore, contract grading introduces and encourages early and open communication since moving through coursework with a grading contract constitutes a predetermined, cooperative agreement between instructor and learner. Grading contracts—which are contracts in a very literal sense that can exist in a digital or physical format—are often negotiated one-on-one between instructors and students, thus establishing an early line of communication. The depth of this can vary from classroom to classroom as some instructors may wish to introduce a contract with pre-determined options for students to select, while other instructors may wish to build the terms and language of each contract individually to suit the needs of the student at hand. In either case, contract grading can become a powerful vehicle for illuminating how we discuss and assess student mastery.

In addition to emphasizing effort and encouraging communication between instructor and student, contract grading also values the efficacy of some very important student learning theories, namely Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and Expectancy-Value Theory.[1], These theories place a great deal of emphasis on student autonomy and choice in their educational journeys and outcomes. With the goal of empowering students to become active participants in their learning and fostering equity by encouraging students to build knowledge and skills that are meaningful, contract grading also presents the potential to leverage this practice for broader social interventions.

A Quick History of Contract Grading

Though it may not yet have gained wide acceptance or buy in, contract grading has been making its way into classrooms for close to fifty years. And it is tied to some compelling research, both strictly in terms of student performance and outcomes, and in terms of more recent conversations on equity and inclusion.

This practice was first introduced in 1974 by Professor of Finance and Marketing Emeritus, Elmer G. Dickson, at the California State University, Chico.[2] . Initially, contract grading was a response to studies that suggest a high degree of subjectivity in most grading processes. These studies—conducted since the turn of the 20th century—have primarily been concerned with the efficacy of implementing a percentage scale to judge students against “absolute standards” meant to reveal proficiency. Their findings demonstrate that an instructor’s criteria for mastery is deeply contextual and subjective, meaning that there is actually a widely variable set of standards that students are being judged against in both humanities and STEM classrooms.[3] Plainly, these studies lay bare the implicit (and explicit) biases that have tremendous control over how students are judged. Conversations around contract grading and other alternative grading schemes recognize that learning and retaining the tools to execute even the most basic fundamentals of primary, secondary, and post-secondary education are also contextual. In other words, grading systems designed to locate students on an even playing field with their peers often fall well short of their primary goals. Contract grading was thus established to fill this gap by accepting grading as a subjective enterprise and developing solutions that pursued a more student-centered approach.

Alternative assessment schemes such as contract grading introduce an intervention by, first, acknowledging the fallibility of traditional grading schemes, and then, by posing an alternative that gives greater weight to the labor of learning, student choice, and cooperation than to outcomes that students may (or may not) be able to produce. In 2019, Asao Inoue, Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and Director of University Writing at the University of Washington, Tacoma, posed contract grading as an intervention for assessing students based on the “quality” of their work, and, critically, infusing that assessment with compassion. Inoue argues that implementing labor-based grading contracts is a means to radically push back against traditional grading and its imbrications with dominant colonial discourse. In writing classrooms like the one’s Inoue facilitates, he discusses assessing writing quality like language and syntax as structurally racist. In his words, such a practice produces “political, cultural, linguistic, and economic dominance for White people.”[4] Simply, Inoue is attempting to implement a compassionate policy of fairness that considers each student individually and (literally) on their own terms.

Most importantly, scholars and fellow instructors like Inoue are advocating on behalf of student well-being and attempting to introduce a learning culture that broadens itself to make space for everyone. Instead of a model that unintentionally misses student needs, it gives a new way to consider mastery and to invite students into a radically different kind of learning practice. If a greater appreciation for diversity that seeks to implement equity and inclusion is the goal, why not start here?

Contract Grading Schemes, 3 Ways

There are several ways to design and implement contract grading schemes. Below you’ll find three strategies to implementing contract grading into your classroom:

1. Hybrid Contract Grading: the guaranteed “B”

Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow struggled with wanting to approach grading by thinking less about the grades themselves and more about the student engagement beyond the grades. As a result, they introduced the concept of Hybrid Grading Contracts. In this model:

  1. If students complete a minimum number of assignments (completion is the only requirement), they automatically earn a grade of “B.”
  2. If the completion of the requirements demonstrates exemplary effort and a marked attempt to build skills (judged against a rubric), students can potentially be upgraded to an “A.”
  3. All assignments are accompanied by copious evaluative feedback. There is no need to assign each submission an official grade, decreasing grade anxiety and increasing the likelihood that students will focus more on the substantive comments that will help them improve, and potentially be upgraded.

Committing to this “contract” agreement before any work is completed means students know that committing to a schedule of completion will automatically ensure them a desirable passing grade. While you may find yourself explaining this to students multiple times, eventually the goal is to reduce anxiety about failing and to encourage students to take agency in their planning and skill building. This means that students coming from diverse backgrounds can feel supported to engage deeply in their learning regardless of difference in past access to educational or socio-economic resources.

Classrooms where this model could work well:

  • Course design includes assignments that are primarily written, coupled with robust feedback meant to foster skill building toward mastery.
  • Course design includes many smaller components of assessment, such as attendance and participation, where “completion” could easily be determined by students’ physical presence or doing small assignments, like journal entries, that do not require extensive evaluation.
  • Course design that includes examination checkpoints where no grades are assigned, but techniques, processes, practices, and outcomes are reviewed extensively before and after, leading to a final comprehensive examination that is evaluated on a percentage scale.

The Hybrid Contract Grading scheme was designed to be implemented in writing classrooms, but its efficacy could also be tailored to work for more technical or scientific disciplines where showing extensive and complicated proof of work are necessary. Here, the instructor can still provide robust evaluative feedback and discuss processes that can help enhance student mastery without introducing high-stakes failure early in the course. This is not to say that points must be taken off the table all together. Comprehensive and final exams can be designed to hold full weight so that students can demonstrate mastery for a traditionally percentage-scale grade in those cases. But early learning would not hold that same pressure and stress, encouraging students to engage more deeply in their learning to increase problem solving and mastery.

2. Self-Selection / Self-Evaluation

This approach is one that encourages maximum communication between instructors and students. In most cases, this scheme could be introduced in a grading scheme that has other completion-based components as well, or in courses where there are very few assignments. For this model:

  1. Instructors determine a schedule for course components that include one-on-one instructor-student discussions to go over effort and performance, as well as what students had the opportunity to learn.
  2. Instructors design and provide a checklist or rubric of predetermined criteria (that can be decided in conversation with the class as a whole, if desired) for what successful engagement and completion look like.
  3. Students are asked to assign themselves a grade based on aforementioned criteria; instructor and student enter into negotiation together to determine what grade will be awarded.

The “contract” part of this approach manifests any time negotiation comes into play. Instructors may want to have something on hand for students to physically agree to (such as a survey or a signature bank) as a symbol of their commitment to this process for their students, as well as for students to demonstrate ownership and commitment to the process on their end. This could be introduced at the start of the course (as a contract to abide by ground rules), or at several checkpoints throughout the course (mini-contracts).  

Classrooms where this model could work well:

  • Classrooms where high-stakes examinations and/or quizzes are not a priority.
  • Classrooms that study research methods deeply and include large research projects that require very active student engagement.
  • Classrooms that include a high degree of student participation such as discussion, debate, or group work.

In most cases, students will never have been asked to assign themselves a grade before. Being explicit about how this process will work up-front and then communicating clearly with them during the process will help set an anxious student’s mind at ease. Instructors who adopt this kind of a model may find that students are ready to grade themselves harshly, and that negotiation is often in the spirit of encouraging students to see the value of their work. This model may best suit disciplines that do not rely on high-stakes testing, but there have also been examples of this working in classroom environments that do utilize high-stakes assessments more frequently. For example, Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, Professor of Chemistry at Central New Mexico Community College, assigned three midterm examinations. She gave students extensive feedback about their work while keeping their scores hidden, but also asked them to grade their own exams. Then, in one-on-one meetings, she discussed her notes and the student grading process. In most cases, she assigned a score based on an average of the grade she assigned and the grade the student assigned. The contract in this case constituted a commitment to this process which highlighted student involvement and deepening understanding.[5]

3. Edit to Mastery

A model like this is meant to encourage a lot of hands-on instructor-student contact where intensive collaboration and guidance are central. A great example of this kind of contract grading scheme is one in which students are dedicated to working on the same project for the entire semester. It might look like this:

  1. Students will work on a single project for the entire duration of the course and the instructor designs a guide or rubric for grade assignment based on specific criteria that student work will be judged against.
  2. As students embark on their project, ongoing communication, cooperation, and collaboration between students and the instructor become central to the course goals. Substantive feedback and critique may be necessary to this process. Course material also supports this process.
  3. Once the instructor has determined that there is nothing left to critique, the project is considered complete. A passing grade will be issued based on how close the project comes to this benchmark by the end of the semester, in conjunction with a consideration for how much labor the student has invested in attempting to reach this level.

Communication is central to this kind of grading contract. It is worth noting that this may work best for classrooms where the instructor to student ratio is on the lower side, especially for instructors responsible for teaching multiple classes in the same term. Particularly for courses that begin with foundational knowledge and that then add layers to enhance that knowledge, this model has the potential to make a great deal of impact in terms of increasing student skill building, risk taking, confidence, and retention.

Classrooms where this model could work well:

  • Course goals are designed to build skills in a comprehensive manner, where each new set of skills enhances and compliments previously learned skills.
  • Courses where culminating projects are designed so that they can be broken apart into smaller components, allowing each component to build into a cohesive outcome.
  • Course design is such where students can reasonably achieve “mastery” in some skill or discipline at the end of a semester-long course or can achieve enough mastery to demonstrate readiness for a subsequent level of study.

For an example of this model’s implementation, check out Associate Professor of Computer Science at Northwestern University, Christopher K. Riesbeck. He compiles and distributes parameters to get started on a number of different exercises that students can work on throughout the semester. Students develop and submit their work at several checkpoints throughout the semester, then Riesbeck critiques and returns their work so they can edit and carry forward with it. This continues until there is nothing left to critique, so that at the end of the semester Riesbeck can submit final grades based on progress, quality, and effort.[6] This kind of contract would only need to be addressed at the beginning of the semester, allowing more time and focus to be dedicated to the hands-on learning process.

Female adult talking to male young person, with caption, "Improve, Benefit, Fix"

Pros and Cons: Is Contract Grading Right for My Classroom?

The exciting part about exploring whether or not contract grading is right for your classroom, is that there are many ways in which this model can be molded and stretched to fit both disciplinary needs, as well as the core pedagogical values of the instructor implementing them, all while giving space for experimenting with how much control students have in the assessment process. Some things to consider before making your ultimate decision include how you think about cultivating equity, what skill building looks like in your classroom, whether or not making a move away from traditional grading practices is something you want to navigate in the culture and atmosphere of your classroom, and how much (or how little) grading you want to do.

At the core of contract grading is the desire to infuse a more cooperative teaching and learning atmosphere, especially between instructors and students. Most instructors will be familiar with students coming into their classroom spaces representing not just a wealth of cultural, racial, or gendered diversity, but also a wide array of educational backgrounds based on factors such as the socioeconomic location of families and guardians that the students represent, whether students have come from private or public institutions, as well as state and local funding to local school districts or to the private institutions that they attended. Beyond that, there is a great deal that is not easily uncovered about students, such as preferred learning styles or accessibility accommodations that might be necessary. Contract grading schemes can be tailored to the needs of individual learners, demonstrating the potential to address each student’s goals and take into account the skills that they already possess while addressing critical gaps in previous training or education. 

When students feel more at ease with their learning, there is a greater opportunity to set expectations for introducing skills that they may not have attempted before. When students worry about failure, they are less inclined to attempt skills that might lead to that result. And for many students coming into post-secondary education, the fear of failure has real stakes, particularly those who view education as a pathway to upward mobility.[7] Those students—specifically first-generation, or those from underserved racial and ethnic groups—are more at risk of being lost amidst the normative pathways of higher education. More to the point, traditional grading schemes tend to further achievement gaps,[8] thus reinforcing and even broadening equity gaps. Kevin Bell, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Digital Futures at Western Sydney University drives this point home, saying, “Fragile learners who lack confidence and whose self-doubt is exacerbated by failure will almost certainly not loop back round for another try. Given the obstacles these learners are facing, the costs they are incurring, and the life-load they are carrying, if they fail they generally do not (or cannot) come back.”[9] But if failure is off the table, the possibility that students might feel empowered and excited to try difficult things is much greater. For instructors, this can create a space to introduce material in the classroom beyond levels attempted before. Students have the potential under these circumstances to take risks that they might have been too anxious to attempt previously, including risks that build critical problem-solving skills.

On the other hand, most students are already familiar with how to behave in classrooms where traditional grading schemes are used. The chances that students coming into your classroom have recently completed their secondary education journeys and have become used to grading schemes like standards-referenced grading, or percentage scale grading. Introducing something different from this, if not explained clearly and often, has the potential to increase student anxiety. Even if an alternative scheme is well explained, there is a chance that students’ initial impressions of a very different approach to grading will make students uneasy until they have a chance to get used to it. Thus, an approach that uses contract grading is a commitment, and likely one that will need careful forethought, planning, alteration, and implementation. 

As an instructor, you also may want to limit the control your students have for some aspects of your course, such as attendance and participation. Beyond setting your expectations for your students’ behavior, introducing an environment where there is an abundance of choice can have unintentional effects on student anxiety and ability to engage in class. While contract grading could still fit the needs of nearly any classroom, deciding when and where to introduce measures of student freedom must be carefully planned based on the needs of the classroom.

You may assume that contract grading will not work for your discipline, and while you may be right, you may also be intrigued by the potential for flexibility that contract grading introduces. Perhaps you find yourself, as an instructor, thinking that while you may not be on board with all the arguments of contract grading, that you are still feeling a bit stale in your assessment approach particularly because you feel a lack of engagement from your students. Contract grading offers a workable solution for almost any kind of classroom that can be designed to fit needs dictated by the learning goals that your particular curriculum dictates. From the three examples listed above, there are many ways to implement contract grading into your syllabus and lesson planning through combining or re-working what you see.

How can I get started with Contract Grading?

If you are interested in building a contract grading scheme but would like some help designing something to fit your specific classroom needs, Schedule a consultation with one of ODE’s instructional designers!


[1] See ASC ODE Article, “Increasing Motivation and Maximizing Student Engagement: The Benefits of Gameful Learning” by Jessica Henderson for more detail about these theories.

[2] Dickson, Elmer G. “CONTRACT GRADING.” Journal of Financial Education, no. 3 (1974): 21–24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41948761.

[3] Reference 1912–1913, Daniel Starch and Edward Charles Elliott study -- Starch, Daniel; Elliott, Edward Charles. "Reliability of Grading High School Working English." The School Review. 20 (7): 442–457.

See also:

  • Bauman, M. (1997). What Grades Do for Us, and How to Do Without Them. In S. Tchudi (Ed.), Alternatives to Grading Student Writing (pp. 168-178). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

  • Charnley, M. V. (1978, October). Grading Standards Vary Considerably, Experiment Shows. Journalism Educator, 49-50.\

[4] Inoue, Asao Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Writing Classroom (2019), p. 11

[5] Beckie Supiano. “Grades Can Hinder Learning. What Should Professors Use Instead?” Chronicle of Higher Education Online. (19 July 2019).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kevin Bell. “Gameful Design: A Potential Game Changer.” EDUCAUSE Review 53, no. 3 (May/June 2018).

[8] Belanoff, P. (1991). The Myths of Assessment. Journal of Basic Writing, 10(1),54-66.

[9] Kevin Bell. “Gameful Design: A Potential Game Changer.” EDUCAUSE Review 53, no. 3 (May/June 2018).