Contract Grading


This is a written reflection about contract grading.  The idea was touched on by Bowen (2012) when he outlined a course designed using the nomenclature of a multiplayer game (p. 67).  Essentially, students are awarded experience points for fighting monsters (quizzes, exams), completing quests (presentations, research), and crafting (analysis papers, concept documents).


This idea is really fresh in my mind as I have recently completed a course in which I implemented my first version of contract grading.  I developed thirteen assignment options that ranged from unit tests, to lab assignments, to interviewing an expert, to creating a digital project, and even a final exam.  Each assignment was worth a different point value depending on the time commitment, effort required, and perceived difficulty.  Students had to set an objective for themselves and chart their paths through the course material.  Effectively, they chose their own adventures through the assignment options.  

The students chose a wide range of options that involved vastly different paths.  Another point that Bowen (2012) touched on was evident in my class:  The fact that females are more collaborative and males are more competitive.  While this was certainly a small sample size, it was interesting to note that the four females in my class decided to work together to navigate the course material while the five males each set off on their own individual paths to see how much they could improve their GPA.

Overall, I was pleased with the results of this class.  I could sense a higher degree of motivation in my students as a result of them being in complete control of their learning and their evaluations.  Every student had to summarize their learning from each assignment and share it with the rest of the class, which helped create a strong sense of community.  I liked how students used prior knowledge and experience to take advantage of their strengths.  For instance, one student who is a videography enthusiast decided to interview an expert and sought permission to record the interview, which he then edited into a digital project that he posted online for his classmates.  End of semester feedback indicated that students enjoyed this format and that they would like other courses to be set up in a similar fashion.  It was definitely positive.  

But there were also some issues that need to be addressed in the future.  One example is student marks were inflated in comparison to a typical grading structure.  Students with average GPA’s finished with a very high grade in this class, which was a result of the volume of the evaluations they chose.  They did accomplish much more than would have normally been expected of them through this course.  So while I thought it was fair, there were some questions from my administrators about why the marks were so high in this course.  Also, I think the point values need to be revised as some of the assignments seemed over- or under-valued.  


Further investigation into the theory and application of contract grading in higher education has resulted in key new insights into this strategy.  

Hendricks (2012) notes that this theory did in fact start as a contact between the student and teacher which promises a certain grade based on the students living up to their end of the bargain.  This idea seems to have evolved into various incarnations.  The version that I used was noted by Hendricks, and used by Gerald Herman, a professor of History at Northeastern University, who “lets students choose how many assignments to complete out of a range of assignments.  Each one is worth a certain amount of points, and to get an “A” students have to get a total that could be reached by doing very well on a few assignments, or less well on more assignments” (Hendricks, 2012, par. 6).

Dr. Andy Johnson (2010), in a YouTube video titled, “assessment contract grading” discusses the idea of giving a certain letter grade based on meeting a certain number of objectives.  The objectives are things like, “attends and does the work for any 11 sessions with his or her writing group, participates in two individual conferences with the instructor, and contributes to the writing group and group journal.”  Students have to meet at least 5 of 7 of these objectives to earn an “A”.  

Another approach has been proposed by Elbow and Danielewicz (2009), which was covered by Billie Hara (2010).  They indicate that students can earn a “B” on the basis of completing a list of tasks, but if they want to earn an “A” then the quality of their work comes into play.  They state, “contract grading focuses wholeheartedly on the processes whereas conventional grading focuses much more on products, outcomes, or results” (p. 260).

Dr. Kathy Sanford, in a YouTube video titled, “Contract grading by Dr Kathy Stanford” discusses the fact that contract grading actually allows for a different relationship to form between the student and teacher, where the foundation of authoritative evaluation is replaced with trust and understanding.  I thought that was the case in my course this past semester as I noticed the interactions with students were much more focused on bouncing ideas off of each other and really guiding them rather than being demanding of them.  She also discusses the importance of learning community and how contract grading really aligns with that vision.  I would have to agree and I also noticed that in my course.  Rather than students believing they were ranked and ordered in accordance with the typical approach to grading, I thought students felt as though they were equal contributors to each others learning.


These key new insights have led to a decision to incorporate several revisions into the contract grading evaluation plan I use.  Firstly, I will make certain evaluations mandatory.  An example is the final exam.  There are certain constraints within the course outline that I simply won’t be able to stray from.  Also, while I like giving the students the control of exploring course content in whichever way they choose, a summative evaluation of their learning through that process is a valid piece of evidence of whether or not the approach worked for them.  In this particular course, the final exam was to be 35% of the final grade, which still would have given students the opportunity to determine the remaining 65% of their evaluations on their own.

I will continue to use the points system whereby students can earn a good grade by either doing a few assignments very well or by doing a greater amount of assignments at an average quality level.  I really think the points are a huge motivating factor and their relationship to gamification is a big part of that.  I agree with Warner (2016) in that I’m happy to trade slightly higher grades for more student work.  But I am interested in putting some thresholds on this approach.  I’m now thinking about incorporating more quality into the final grade.  For instance, if students don’t produce anything above an average quality then they can’t earn more than an average grade regardless of volume of work.  A score of 90 and above would be reserved for students who have completed one or more exemplar works.  This might help avoid everyone in the course earning 100%.

In an effort to focus this approach more on the process than on products, I am going to incorporate the frequency of contributions to the learning community into this grading system.  For instance, if a student doesn’t complete any assignments until the very end of the semester when he decides to hand in 5 or 6, there should be a penalty for that because this contribution is less valuable to the learning community.  One way around this will be a better “contract” at the beginning of the term.  Students will set their objective (i.e. the grade that they want), develop a plan to reach that goal (choosing the assignments they want to complete), and indicate the due dates for each of those assignments.  This will help hold the students accountable for making frequent and consistent contributions to the learning of their classmates.

Overall, there is a lot of merit in the contract grading approach to evaluation.  I witnessed it first hand in my initial attempt at this strategy.  While there is certainly room for improvement in how it was implemented my first time, with a few tweaks I think I can better align the concepts of this theory with the constraints of my institution. Ultimately, this is in line with the ideas that Bowen (2012) discusses in regards to games, customization, and learning and I’m confident that this approach can increase student motivation and help to develop a strong learning community.


Bowen, J.A., (2012)  Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology out of Your College Classroom will Improve Student Learning.  John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Jossey-Bass; San Francisco

Danielewicz, J., and Elbow, P., (2009)  A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching.  College Composition and Communication, 61(2), 244-268

Hara, B., (2010)  Using Grading Contracts.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved from

Hendricks, C., (2012)  Contract Grading, Part 1.  You’re the Teacher. Retrieved from

Johnson, A. (2010)  assessment contract grading.  YouTube. [Dr. Andy Johnson channel] Retrieved from

Sanford, K. (2017)  Contract grading by Dr Kathy Sanford.  YouTube.  [Foliozone research channel].  Retrieved from

Warner, J., (2016)  I Have Seen the Glories of the Grading Contract.  Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from


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