Put in simplest form, my position on conventional grading is that it is imprecise, unreliable, and counterproductive to the atmosphere of teaching and learning. Indeed, there is plenty of good research and theory to back up this position.* Thus, I have decided to pursue alternatives. In this post, I will describe this year’s experiment and how it connects to my larger vision of teaching and learning in my classroom.
What I’m Doing: an overview of the grade contract**
Here’s what I love about this idea: the grade of B does not derive in any way from my judgment about the quality of student work. It’s just did you do this or not? Grades higher than B, however, do rest on my judgment that student work is of exceptionally high quality.
Now what does that mean? Well, it could mean lots of things. For instance, it could mean that the work...
That’s obviously not an exhaustive list, and I’m open to students who want to propose a way that their work goes above and beyond the basic provisions of the B contract. We will use class to come to a shared understanding of how one goes above and beyond, and to enumerate possible criteria that define “exceptionally high quality work.” We’ll make these criteria as public and concrete as possible.
Students who wish to lobby for an A are expected to justify their claim by describing, in writing, how the work in their final portfolio exemplifies excellence. As they curate this portfolio, students are free to revise and re-cut their work until it meets those criteria. Would it be nice if there were an impersonal and completely objective way to make qualitative judgments? Certainly, but alas, such a system does not exist. I am a person. The good news is that I’ve tried to eliminate ambiguity from all grading decisions except those at the highest level.
About the Contract: four theoretical points about this contract
A full accounting of the theory, research and thought behind this model would take thousands of words. Instead, I’ll elaborate what feel like the four most important theoretical points for me about this grading scheme.
It’s not completely gradeless, and that’s okay. I know what you’re thinking: Nice try, dude--A’s and B’s are still grades. And it’s true: despite my initial hopes of going completely gradeless, that’s not really possible. Like many teachers, I’m not in a position to simply declare NO GRADES. Were I working outside an institution that required them, I certainly wouldn’t use them, but I’m stuck working within certain institutional constraints. Plus, as much as I dislike grades, and as problematic as they are, they still mean something--to students, to parents, to college admissions officers. So while it’s not a perfect alternative to grading, the contract system solves several problems of grades. Again: this is an experiment, a first try to see what happens.
The A category seems fuzzy and arbitrary, and that’s also okay. No doubt, some critics might bristle at the nebulousness of the A-quality criteria. And ordinarily, if I were writing a rubric or scoring guide, I would try to avoid this sort of fuzziness by using ultra-precise language. But there are two points I’d like to make about this:
By decoupling my judgment from the actual grade (up to a B), I’m hoping to get students to engage with my feedback, instead of simply obeying it, or seeing it as a set of instructions to follow. I want students to have the opportunity to actually think about my feedback, to ground it in the actual work, and decide for themselves whether or not my comments or suggestions make sense to them. Among other things, this would hopefully improve the overall sincerity of our conversations about work--for instance, it would free me to give negative feedback without grade-related consequences for the students. It would also free students to actually make some decisions about how to proceed.
Everything I’ve tried has been only sort of successful. For instance, we did a very informal book study of Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work, followed by a group effort to, ahem, show our work. We had a Twitter hashtag and a few months of enthusiasm. And while that was cool and fun, it never really connected in any coherent way with a larger process framework.
Same thing with notebooks. Several years ago, I tried to make open-ended notebooks a central activity--sort of like the way drawing classes require sketchbooks. I made a video. I got everyone excited for it. It was a thing. But then I ran into difficulties: Do I collect them? Do I grade them? Do I even look at them? If so, why? Do I need a rubric? What exactly constitutes a “notebook?” Do pieces of paper count? How about iPhone notes? Should I make guidelines for notebooks? Doesn’t all of this rule-making defeat the purpose of keeping an open-ended notebook? It just didn’t make sense!
So the contract is the best solution I’ve found to bring all these strands together into a coherent system. The contract communicates the expectations that students show evidence that they’ve worked through the process. I don’t care what the evidence looks like: Twitter pics, notebook pages, Google Docs, notes on phones, email exchanges, whatever. I want to see evidence of student thought. Show your work, you know? Do the thing. So now, when I do presentations on sketchnote strategies or using Diigo for research, I’m showing students a way that they can meet this process expectation. These aren’t required ways, but they are possible ways. They connect with the total design of the course.
I hope the contract guides at least some of the students toward an understanding of the intrinsic benefits of these process steps. Because I’m not going to collect, grade, or even comment on this work. In most cases, we’ll talk about their notes, their research, or their plans. I’ll say, “Show me what you’ve got. Let’s take a look at your notes on this story idea.” And if they’ve half-assed it, it’s going to be a very short conversation. Looking at some chicken scratch and drawings of rocket ships, there isn’t much I can say about the work aside from, “your research doesn’t seem very thorough” or “I can’t make heads or tails of these notes.” And I don’t need to say more than that. It’s not a veiled threat of a low grade; it’s my impression: looks like you half-assed it. Maybe they didn’t, in which case they can say, “No I didn’t. Let me explain.” And it’s not a veiled plea for a better grade; we’re having a conversation about their process.
It is certainly true that the process components of this contract asks only that students “go through the motions.” I initially bristled at this idea, and it’s surface-level contrariness to the way we speak about “intellectual rigor” in school. But here I’ll quote Peter Elbow, who put it better than I ever could:
"Going through the motions" is a dismissive phrase: a way of avoiding “the real thing.” But there is a deep and broad tradition that predates our "process movement" and honors going through the motions—sometimes even seeing it as the only doorway to the real thing. If we seek to use physical exercise for health or fitness, the message from experienced people is the same: just keep going through the motions; trust it; it's the process that counts. If we seek enlightenment or just an empty mind, wise people tell us that it's a trap to focus on the goal itself. Ritual itself is founded on process. Whether it's shaking hands or saying the pledge of allegiance, the idea is to go through the outward motion whether or not you can get your mind to be fully committed to the inward meaning. William James famously argued that actions are not caused by emotions or beliefs; rather actions lead to emotions or beliefs.
To the extent that this contract aims to simplify student assessment and feedback, it is also a strategic instructional design decision to remove some of the potential "blocks" imposed by the school, a culture of conformity and risk-aversion, and an arbitrary system of evaluation that offers only very meager extrinsic rewards.
This is a long post, and I’ve left a lot out--about how my grade book is set up, about how I deal with daily accountability, about progress reports, about students who never come to class--and I hope to address all of that soon. But I wanted to briefly get this idea framed out so that I can move on to these other concerns. For now, know that I plan to address each of the following topics in the days and weeks to come:
*And indeed, there is good research and theoretical thinking to suggest that grading is at cross-purposes with teaching and learning. I’m not interested in summarizing the hundreds of articles and resources that have helped shape my thinking on this issue, so I’ll just direct you to a few places where you can find more info:
**Many of the contract-related ideas are adapted from Peter Elbow’s work on pedagogy and grading. If this idea of contracts appeals to you, I recommend “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching (2009)” by Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow as a useful starting point. Further, my ideas about the transparency of the contract, and how it could be used to help anchor feedback in the learning and student work is strongly influenced by Mark Barnes’s Assessment 3.0.
Charlie Huette is a public school teacher who also keeps a notebook. He dreams about making school just a little less terrible. Many of the posts you find here are based on notebook entries. You can learn more about Charlie by visiting the about page.