Litterio, Lisa M. “Contract Grading in a Technical Writing Classroom: A Case Study.” Journal of Writing Assessment 9.2 (2016). Web. 05 Apr. 2017.
In an online issue of the Journal of Writing Assessment, Lisa M. Litterio, who characterizes herself as “a new instructor of technical writing,” discusses her experience implementing a contract grading system in a technical writing class at a state university in the northeast. Her “exploratory study” was intended to examine student attitudes toward the contract-grading process, with a particular focus on how the method affected their understanding of “quality” in technical documents.
Litterio’s research into contract grading suggests that it can have the effect of supporting a process approach to writing as students consider the elements that contribute to an “excellent” response to an assignment. Moreover, Litterio contends, because it creates a more democratic classroom environment and empowers students to take charge of their writing, contract grading also supports critical pedagogy in the Freirean model. Litterio draws on research to support the additional claim that contract grading “mimic[s] professional practices” in that “negotiating and renegotiating a document” as students do in contracting for grades is a practice that “extends beyond the classroom into a workplace environment.”
Much of the research she reports dates to the 1970s and 1980s, often reflecting work in speech communication, but she cites as well models from Ira Shor, Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow, and Asao Inoue from the 2000s. In a common model, students can negotiate the quantity of work that must be done to earn a particular grade, but the instructor retains the right to assess quality and to assign the final grade. Litterio depicts her own implementation as a departure from some of these models in that she did make the final assessment, but applied criteria devised collaboratively by the students; moreover, her study differs from earlier reports of contract grading in that it focuses on the students’ attitudes toward the process.
Her Fall 2014 course, which she characterizes as a service course, enrolled twenty juniors and seniors representing seven majors. Neither Litterio nor any of the students were familiar with contract grading, and no students withdrew on learning from the syllabus and class announcements of Litterio’s grading intentions. At mid-semester and again at the end of the course, Litterio administered an anonymous open-ended survey to document student responses. Adopting the role of “teacher-researcher,” Litterio hoped to learn whether involvement in the generation of criteria led students to a deeper awareness of the rhetorical nature of their projects, as well as to “more involvement in the grading process and more of an understanding of principles discussed in technical writing, such as usability and document design.”
Litterio shares the contract options, which allowed students to agree to produce a stated number of assignments of either “excellent,” “great,” or “good” quality, an “entirely positive grading schema” that draws on Frances Zak’s claim that positive evaluations improved student “authority over their writing.”
The criteria for each assignment were developed in class discussion through an open voting process that resulted in general, if not absolute, agreement. Litterio provides the class-generated criteria for a resumé, which included length, format, and the expectations of “specific and strong verbs.” As the instructor, Litterio ultimately decided whether these criteria were met.
Mid-semester surveys indicated that students were evenly split in their preferences for traditional grading models versus the contract-grading model being applied. At the end of the semester, 15 of the 20 students expressed a preference for traditional grading.
Litterio coded the survey responses and discovered specific areas of resistance. First, some students cited the unfamiliarity of the contract model, which made it harder for them to “track [their] own grades,” in one student’s words. Second, the students noted that the instructor’s role in applying the criteria did not differ appreciably from instructors’ traditional role as it retained the “bias and subjectivity” the students associated with a single person’s definition of terms like “strong language.” Students wrote that “[i]t doesn’t really make a difference in the end grade anyway, so it doesn’t push people to work harder,” and “it appears more like traditional grading where [the teacher] decide[s], not us.”
In addition, students resisted seeing themselves and their peers as qualified to generate valid criteria and to offer feedback on developing drafts. Students wrote of the desire for “more input from you vs. the class,” their sense that student-generated criteria were merely “cosmetics,” and their discomfort with “autonomy.” Litterio attributes this resistance to the role of expertise to students’ actual novice status as well as to the nature of the course, which required students to write for different discourse communities because of their differing majors. She suggests that contract grading may be more appropriate for writing courses within majors, in which students may be more familiar with the specific nature of writing in a particular discipline.
However, students did confirm that the process of generating criteria made them more aware of the elements involved in producing exemplary documents in the different genres. Incorporating student input into the assessment process, Litterio believes, allows instructors to be more reflective about the nature of assessment in general, including the risk of creating a “yes or no . . . dichotomy that did not allow for the discussions and subjectivity” involved in applying a criterion. Engaging students throughout the assessment process, she contends, provides them with more agency and more opportunity to understand how assessment works. Student comments reflect an appreciation of having a “voice.”
This study, Litterio contends, challenges the assumption that contract grading is necessarily “more egalitarian, positive, [and] student-centered.” The process can still strike students as biased and based entirely on the instructor’s perspective, she found. She argues that the reflection on the relationship between student and teacher roles enabled by contract grading can lead students to a deeper understanding of “collective norms and contexts of their actions as they enter into the professional world.”