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Davis, California

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Writing classes turn to contract grading

The benefits of contract grading and students’ response towards the system


By LORENA ALVAREZ — arts@theaggie.org


This far into their education, college students are no strangers to traditional grading, but what happens when they are met with new methods of assessment? A popular method that has surfaced is contract grading, gaining recent popularity at UC Davis. While it is predominately used by professors in the writing department, the advantages are worth exploring beyond English classes. 

Defining contract grading, Dan Melzer, the director of first-year composition, explained contract grading’s purpose and value.

“The focus of contract grading is less on the quality of students’ writing and more on the labor that they put into the writing and their growth. It is a tool, hopefully, [for] a more equitable assessment. [Since] it’s less about the teacher’s subjective evaluation of the quality of the writing, and more about trying to measure the effort and the labor that the student has put into the work,” Melzer said. 

Melzer further spoke on subjectivity as he noted his own work as well as his colleagues’ research looking at how students respond to contract grading.

“The research shows that in general, students feel like contract writing is more fair because they’re being assessed more on the work that they put in and less on subjective ideas about what writing is an A, B or C,” Melzer said. 

Providing a student’s perspective, Sydney McMakin, a fourth-year English and linguistics major, referred to contract grading as a “double-edged sword,” noting the level of discipline required for such courses.

“ It’s really self-reliant, you kind of get what you put into it,” McMakin said. 

McMakin went on to compare the feedback she receives with contract grading to traditional grading.

“The professors normally give a lot more substantial feedback than just a letter grade. It’ll normally be, ‘Oh, you can improve here, here and here.’ But because you’ve done the work, if you make mistakes, it doesn’t necessarily impact your grade. It just gives you room to improve,” McMakin said.

Regardless of these benefits, contract grading can be met with uncertainty because of its novelty in academia. Liliana Espinoza-Martinez, a second-year managerial economics major, spoke on her feelings towards contract grading. 

“When I first heard about it, I was kind of iffy towards contract grading just because I didn’t know exactly what that meant. But after it was explained, and I understood it better, [I felt like it is] a better way for me to learn at my own pace,” Espinoza-Martinez said. 

Espinoza-Martinez furthered that contract grading allows students to explore their writing styles. 

“I actually put more time into my work and my writing just because I was able to express myself how I wanted to, and not in a way that I thought the professor wanted me to write,” Espinoza-Martinez said.

When interviewed, Mikenna Modesto, an associate instructor and Ph.D. candidate commented on her observation that contract grading brings students together. 

“Across the interviews [for my dissertation], students have been sharing that contract grading really helps the classroom interactions. [Students report that] interactions with peers feel more authentic as well and less secretive, less competitive, which is […] way more conducive to authentic learning,” Modesto said.

Modesto noted students’ requests for contract grading across departments.

“I know from my research that contract grading is predominantly used in English writing classes. […] I’ve heard students express a desire for [STEM] instructors to use this type of grading,” Modesto said. “I think it would be great if there was some more cross-discipline collaboration when it comes to this type of grading.” 

Introducing contract grading to STEM classes would allow students to feel more control with their learning, allowing them to take more risks without the fear of a bad grade. That said, given that this new form of grading relies on educational maturity, students need to be aware of what form of grading they are registering for.


Written by: Lorena Alvarez — arts@theaggie.org


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