Contract scoring should be the default in college writing

Last semester, I approached my CORE 111 writing seminar class with trepidation. I had always heard how unforgiving college writing classes could be. I expected unachievable grading standards, especially since I was in the thematic option program, which emphasizes scholarly writing.

However, my anxiety-fueled assumptions were quickly overturned. My teacher introduced his course and his grading style with something I had never seen before – a grading contract. My later experiences with contract notation inspired me to advocate for this alternative style of notation to become the norm in college writing courses.

What these grading contracts entail is quite simple: a list of requirements, agreed upon by both the professor and the student, that the latter must meet in order to achieve an A in the course. These requirements may relate to class etiquette, lateness and attendance, attendance, quality of writing, demonstrated improvement, and a variety of other performance factors. California State University, Professor in Sacramento Lynda S. Radican credit rating contracts as being able to “essentially transform the grading process from criteria developed by the teacher into an agreement between teacher and student, with considerable freedom for students to propose and assess work on their own initiative” .

My CORE 112 teacher this semester also uses a grading contract rather than traditional letter grades. The contract, which I accepted at the start of the semester, promises students an A in the classroom if we: “come prepared”; “participate in class discussions”; “do the written work”; “cultivate a sensitivity to risk taking; “embracing failure”; “show concern for [our] reader;” “give [ourselves] it’s time to improve” and “are pleasant”.

This means that none of the papers, projects or assignments submitted by students get letter grades. Instead, students receive only constructive feedback on their work, cultivating a low-stakes environment where risk-taking is encouraged. Grading contracts alleviate classroom stress – rather than responding to what I think my teacher wants to see, I am able to prioritize my own style and growth.

Contributors Dan Melzer, DJ Quinn, Lisa Sperber, and Sarah Faye of Writing Commons, a peer-reviewed college educational resource, explain that “students are often more concerned with how to get an ‘A’ than how to write effectively for different audiences, purposes and genres”, continuing that “focusing on grades is not only less satisfying than to focus on learning is also very stressful and can put students and teachers in an adversarial relationship rather than a learning partnership.

This is precisely why scoring contracts should become the norm in writing courses. Especially with the enormous cost of attendance that many USC students face, higher education should be a rewarding process based on partnership, not a patronizing system dependent on letter grades. Also, no one should be reduced to a letter on a scale – it’s dehumanizing.

Annette Finley-Croswhite, a professor at Old Dominion University, wrote in a item 2021 for the school’s Center for Faculty Development News that “many faculty and students observe that efforts to improve writing via contract grading are heightened because students must respond to instructor feedback to complete assignments, and they have more room to experiment without fear of a ‘bad grade.’”

I’ve certainly experienced this myself, as I’ve noticed that I’m more receptive to feedback and less defensive of criticism of my work in classes that use grading contracts. I really want to improve my writing in these classes, and my main goal is not to get a certain grade.

I urge writing teachers to consider switching their grading systems to contractual grading for the benefit of their students, who may both achieve better results and experience less academic stress as a result. USC is an innovative institution that has changed a lot over time, and it is time for the status quo in grading to evolve with the University.

Scott R. Banks