As each section of each semester is full of new students with new skills, hopes, and concerns, it is crucial that instructors are able to meet students where they are, and to always keep an open mind to new ways of instructing, assessing, and interacting with our students. The ideal instructor, much like the ideal student, isn’t “perfect” but is always working hard to improve their skills, and is consistently attempting to adapt and to incorporate new information into a dynamic teaching practice.
One classroom experiment that I have been working on since Spring/Summer 2016 is the use of learning contracts to assess and grade student work. Each semester I have made alterations and improvements to the contract based on feedback from students and peers, as well as my own self-reflection. While working within a common curriculum, I have developed this learning contract because it more closely reflects my own values as an instructor more so than traditional methods of grading. Although traditional grading (on an A-F scale) is a practical and established way of assessing students, the learning contract method matches my own teaching persona better by shifting focus away from letter grades to written and oral feedback while also better serving the student population that I teach.
The learning contract that I use requires that students complete a certain quantity of work, but does not assign alphabetical or numerical grades based on the quality of that work. The learning contract breaks the requirements of the semester into separate categories (assignments, projects, peer review, etc.) and gives specific details regarding the quantity of work required to receive a passing grade in the class (ENG 1010: Basic Writing is pass/fail). Each major project for the course also has its own minimum requirements checklist that must be met for the student to receive a passing grade; for example, each project must be revised before submission, must meet a specific word count, and must adhere to the conventions of its genre (which we thoroughly discuss in class). Students are given a contract checklist with which they can track their progress throughout the semester, and are encouraged to make thoughtful choices regarding when to take advantage of lenience built into the system.
Not only does this ‘non-grading’ system challenge students to reconsider their own definitions of ‘success’ and ‘failure’, it also allows me to focus on developing my written and oral feedback. As the learning contract is such an integral part of my teaching practice, the remainder of my teaching philosophy will focus on the three main goals of the learning contract and how I see those being achieved:
Building Self-efficacy & Confidence:
On the first day of the semester, I give my students an anonymous survey asking them to rate how much they agree with a variety of statements related to the course (e.g. “I am a good writer”, “I do well in English classes”, “I can read at a college level”). Across 6 semesters of taking this survey, a statistically significant number of students have expressed a low level of confidence in their own ability to perform well as writers at the start of the semester. In reflective journals, essays, and in-person conversation, many students have expressed concerns about their writing based on poor grades they’ve received in previous classes. This lack of confidence sometimes translates to a self-defeating attitude and difficulty engaging in the course.
Although students may lack confidence based on many reasons, I’ve found that grades are an overdetermining factor. While some students are, at first, concerned about the lack of grading in the course, by the end of the semester they generally seem to appreciate the system. I have had many students mention in end of the semester reflections that they were uncomfortable with the lack of letter grades when the class started but saw the value in it over time. When giving students that same anonymous survey at the end of the semester, I have found that across the board students in my courses feel significantly more confident in their writing abilities after 14-16 weeks of working together. And while higher levels of student confidence can lead to positive changes in work habits in a general sense, this alone isn’t enough to ensure that students become adaptable and effective writers.
Confidence can be difficult to earn and easy to lose; this is why I focus on not just confidence but self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is what keeps students moving forward and working hard, even when they are not feeling confident in their work. Although I recognize that I can, in many ways, steer the conversation away from self-defeating and negative thoughts in the semester I work with students, I have no control over the environment students find themselves in once they’ve passed my class and moved on. Perhaps their next composition instructor will be less concerned with the affective elements of becoming a writer. Perhaps that instructor will use letter grades. Perhaps the student will struggle, will receive low grades, and will lose that confidence we’ve worked so hard to build up. But efficacious students are able to rebuild their own confidence because they have seen the intrinsic value in writing and fundamentally believe that they are capable of learning, growing, and adapting, even if I am not there to give them a pat on the back or a thumbs up. This is why I view the affective well-being of my students as a two step process: first, I work to convince them that they can improve; second, I help them work to internalize that positive outlook and growth mindset.
Encouraging Inventiveness & Adaptation:
For me, inventiveness and adaptation mean a willingness to try new things and take risks. This quality is both important for myself and for my students. I found that when I used a traditional grading policy, my students often seemed to write their essays based on what they thought I wanted to hear or would be interested in. Rather than focusing on their own ideas and interests, they would follow my feedback to the letter, which resulted in papers that were proficiently written but passionless and simplistic. With the pressure of letter grades removed from the equation, I’ve found that students are more likely to write about the topics that they find interesting, and are less likely to treat revision like a game of “do ____ to get an A”. In this way, the feedback loop between myself and my students has become more fruitful: rather than feeling obligated to “fix” every “problem” I mark in order to receive a desired grade, students are able to focus on the writing itself and choose to incorporate the feedback they personally find the most useful.
Since I have changed to the learning contract system, I have found an overall improvement in students using their own unique writing voices (rather than forcing themselves into stilted, boring ‘academic’ phrasing) and in students making conscientious decisions about how and when to revise their work. I have also found that once the pressure of a letter grade is removed, students are more likely to continue to work consistently throughout the semester, rather than become discouraged and give up (after a harsh grade) or become complacent and start coasting (after a high grade). By shifting the focus from letter grades to more extensive written feedback, students are encouraged to reflect regularly and deeply on their writing practices, making them more effective, adaptable, and confident writers overall.
Centering Feedback & Revision:
Although letter grades are a form of feedback, I’ve found that on their own they are an insufficient way to let a student know about the quality of their work. When I was using letter grades, I found that the majority of my feedback – on drafts, rubrics, and in end comments – was focused on justifying the grade that the student had received. As a newer instructor, I never felt very comfortable in grading intuitively, and assumed that the more I practiced the easier that process would become. However, that never happened – even after having graded hundreds of essays, assignments, and quizzes, I would still always second guess my assessment. This meant that grading was a painful and lengthy process. Upon further reflection, I realized that my issue wasn’t a lack of skill at responding to student writing or giving good feedback, but a hesitation to apply a letter grade to something as complex as a sample of student writing. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, in my classroom and with my teaching style, a letter grade just cannot convey what I need it to. This is when I decided to switch to a system that centralizes written and oral feedback, requires revision, and emphasizes process over product.
While my students no longer expect a letter or a number conveying how well or how poorly they did on a particular writing assignment, they do know that each piece of writing they turn in will be carefully reviewed and commented on. They also know that in order to get credit on major projects they must considered that feedback and incorporate it into their work, revising and improving. In this way I ensure that students used feedback as a starting point for revision and improvement, rather than seeing a low grade and feeling punished or as if they are being coerced into doing ‘extra work’ by revising. When revising is required for all drafts it emphasizes that the process of writing is circuitous and often lengthy. Rather than viewing revision as a punishment that you endure when you’ve received a low grade, students in my class now see revision as an integral step in the writing process.