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Revisiting Letter Grades: Reflections on Course Grading Contracts

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Michael A. Reyes teaches first-year writing and literature of the Americas at Cal Lutheran University and Cal State LA. He specializes in rhetorical genre theory and contemporary Latinx docupoetry. He’s also the Assistant Editor of Poetry at The Offing and a former member of the Bedford New Scholars Advisory Board.

 

Two years ago, a Cal State LA student petition circulated around social media. It was a petition to grant all students at the university A’s. The reason? The coronavirus pandemic had made any equitable learning, and therefore fair distribution of grades, impossible. The petition was thesis-driven and so well-organized with diverse appeals and sources. It was truly a great demonstration of the critical thinking and writing I hope to inspire in my students!

It was this spring 2020 petition that sparked my interest in seeking alternatives to traditional grade and point systems. I agreed with the students’ argument that the difference between a passing and failing grade is less about being apathetic and instead much more to do with resources and accessibility. So, I spent the summer developing my own version of Asao B. Inoue’s course grading contract, which I was assigned to read during my graduate studies. My goal was to introduce to students a new way of being motivated that didn’t include the pressure and standardization of letter grades on their assignments. The outcome would be the same: receive a final course grade. But, how I guided them to that outcome would be extremely different. Instead of receiving a letter grade or point value, all assignments would receive a “Complete” or an “Incomplete.” In doing so, I imagined that I would further open my classrooms to a pluriversality of writing and reading levels, especially when a student’s “best” may look a lot different during the pandemic.

I presented the grading contract to my classes on day one of the fall 2020 semester. It included my rationale for the contract: to decentralize my role and instead place students as authorities in their own reading and writing growth; to acknowledge labor over expertise and understand that one semester is not enough to dictate “meeting” or “advanced” reading and writing skills; and to have students be motivated by feedback and collaboration. The grading contract also included the table I’d use to determine their final course grades:

Final Course Grade

# of Missing or Incomplete Assignments

A

0-2

A-

3

B+

4

B

5

B-

6

C+

7

C

8

C-

9

No Credit

10 or more

 

To my surprise, no students protested (and haven’t during my 2 years of using it). They each accepted the terms, and saw it as a chance to, as one first-year student noted in a post-grading contract reflection assignment:

“. . . take your time and try to write as well as you can without fear that everything has to be perfect. For this class you will find your writing style and your voice. It sounds cheesy I know but I’m being serious.”

My obvious concern was that students would take it for granted and submit haphazard work, but that was never an issue. I credit my use of a TILT framework that clearly communicated what would constitute a “Complete” for each assignment. Additionally, this called on me to revise a few of my weekly reading responses and rhetorical précis assignments to be less frequent but a bit more challenging. For instance, I only assigned one homework assignment per week, which would ideally allow for student comprehension and transformation to sink in. Students would therefore not be punished for taking natural pauses to work through difficulties. The quality of my assignments seemed to also improve since I had to design them for productive difficulties. I anticipated that the less frequent and more manageable the assignments were, while still promoting productive struggle, the more students had a real chance to think about their thinking and then submit.

It’s been two years since first implementing a course grading contract in all my classes, from developmental to advanced composition, and even in inter-American literature courses. Summer breaks seem to be my reflection periods. So, as a new one approaches, I’m committing to working through a few realizations I’ve made—some good, some not so good:

  • In an access-oriented institution with no corequisites, this allowed for students to be comfortable with where they were at—truly living up to the age-old motto of meeting students where they’re at.
  • My grading anxiety reduced so much. I no longer worried about the high stakes implications of giving a student one point more or one point less on an assignment.
  • Students were more encouraged to read the feedback to see how I and their peers were interpreting their choices. I also saw a lot more risks!
  • Although I tried, not all assignments required the same amount of “labor,” so some missed assignments were higher stakes than others. To be honest, I’m still unsure about how to address this. Can and should a final draft of an essay carry the same weight as a 200-word reading response?
  • I concluded that students, particularly in my composition classes, should check in more frequently with the grading contract (not just at the beginning and end) via journal reflections to build a more thorough understanding about the value of this system. In other words, I want to build more feedback loops for me to see how students are processing their growth and not associating this with the discourse of grades.
  • I wondered how a course grading contract’s value changes depending on the course. I found it valuable for creativity and risk-taking in my upper-division courses where students already had a stronger grasp of university rhetorical genres and had less confusion about “hidden curriculum.” However, I found it valuable for inspiring affective approaches to my first-year composition classes. These students could freely unlearn and learn academic assumptions and writing conventions. In other words, learn academic conventions through play.
  • The grading contract did not interfere with course outlines nor department common reading and writing assignments, which was always my leading pitch to my department chairs and program directors. My approach, after presenting it at an end-of-semester English department showcase, was adopted in the Graduate Teaching Associate’s Program at Cal State LA and moved tenured faculty to have informal and formal conversations about assessments. The talks, however, have slowed down. I imagine next steps would be the chair forming a committee.
  • This entire move was DEIJ-motivated—a desire to move away from the arbitrariness of grades and points. However, how can I better rationalize my final course grade table? At the moment, to be honest, it does read a bit arbitrarily – the line between three missing assignments and four, between an A and a B, can be a thin one.

Achieving equity can’t happen in one semester. Equity is urgent, but I’m finding it okay to be slow-paced to allow for deeper reflections along the way. And, to allow for more energy into making one strong and detailed contribution, as opposed to many mediocre ones during a semester.