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Why we stopped grading our students on their writing

A young woman writes on a laptop. (Getty)
A young woman writes on a laptop. (Getty)

In our many years as college writing instructors, we’ve graded thousands of student essays. This year, motivated by students' trauma during the pandemic, we stopped.

Don’t get us wrong: We still carefully read and comment on our students’ work. But we no longer place a letter or number on anything they write. No As and Bs. No 82s or 94s.

Their writing has never been better.

The pedagogical approach we’re using is called "contract grading," which is spreading across universities, particularly in writing programs like ours at Boston University. Although there are numerous ways to structure it, contract grading typically involves minimum expectations for students to earn a final course grade. These expectations are unrelated to performance: Attend class and participate, meet due dates, fulfill the criteria of every assignment, make substantive revisions and so on — the kinds of “activities and behaviors that will lead to learning,” as composition scholar Peter Elbow put it. In other words, do the work, earn the grade.

A politically conservative student said that she finally felt comfortable writing about her beliefs without getting dinged.

Contract grading is part of the larger “ungrading” movement, the subject of a recent anthology edited by anthropologist Susan D. Blum. The book’s subtitle — “Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)” —summarizes the premise at its core. Letter grades often play the role of motivational tool. But external motivations squash internal ones like curiosity and interest, the mindsets that motivate actual learning. Ungrading inspires — and enables — risk-taking. It encourages students to focus on process over product, inculcating habits of mind that matter beyond the classroom. Of the 100 or so instructors in my program, nearly half employed contract grading in some form this semester.

In the form we’re using, students who fulfill the contract earn a B+. Those who seek something in the A range — and many do — choose from a menu of extra opportunities that reinforce our course goals, earning bonus points for each: form a semester-long writing group, share a piece they’ve read on their own with the class, design and lead a peer workshop. Such activities encourage collaboration and community-building inside and outside the classroom. Students’ investment in the course (and each other) has never been more evident to us. Could this be because they no longer see themselves as competitors for the scarce resource of the A?

The approach can be used in any class. But it makes particular sense in a writing course, where assessment is highly unreliable, even by the same reader. Who hasn’t heard a student complain that they did poorly on a paper because their teacher disagreed with their opinion? Who hasn’t felt different about something we’ve read after a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee? There is no single formula for good writing. Instructors feel this in their bones every time they grade an essay, agonizing over how to reduce competing variables to a single score. Now, the comments that we leave for students aren’t written to justify a particular grade. They instead capture a real reader’s response to their writing, and students attend more closely to these comments to gauge their success. One benefit that we hadn’t foreseen: A politically conservative student said that she finally felt comfortable writing about her beliefs without getting dinged.

[C]ourse grades now reflect the work students put in, not the property values of their school district.

There’s a crucial equity piece here, too. Typically, the students who tend to get the highest grades on their writing are native English speakers with highly educated parents — those students who attended the best high schools, the kinds with smaller classes, teachers who have more time to give feedback and even private tutoring on the side. But as universities diversify their student populations, more of our students arrive from under-resourced schools. The architect of the kind of grading contract that many of us employ, Asao Inoue, has argued that all forms of assessment “exist within systems that uphold singular, dominant standards” should be dismantled. We’re still assessing student writing in our comments. But course grades now reflect the work students put in, not the property values of their school district.

We can relate to the naysayers because we were skeptical, too: Doesn’t this incentivize students to turn in mediocre work? Maybe, but a handful of students have always done so and gotten away with it. What’s striking is what such a concern says about us: Ranking and sorting are ingrained in our notions of education. It’s hard to shake, especially for our students, because focusing on the grade is what got them into these classrooms in the first place. We want to give them the opportunity to feel what it’s like to step outside that system and to learn for its own sake — to pursue their curiosity, experiment and fail without hurting their GPA.

Take one student, who, towards the end of her project, reached out to the artist she was writing about to get his take on the critique she was making of his public installations. She knew this late-game development could endanger the argument she’d carefully constructed; who knew what he would say, how his perspective might alter hers? We saw this time and again as our students tried new approaches with open minds, letting go of that fear of not getting the assignment “right.” And there’s something in it for us educators, too: All the practices we’re using resulted from collaborations with our colleagues at a moment when we needed to rethink our pedagogy.

Could there be a better time to institute contract grading in colleges? The current university model is in question. Undergraduates are increasingly skeptical of the institutions that burden them with years of debt and fail to fulfill their promises. Confronting an uncertain future, students’ anxiety and depression rates are soaring. Now is the time to return to one of life’s most fundamental joys: learning.

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Related:

Marisa Milanese Cognoscenti contributor
Marisa Milanese is a master lecturer in the writing program at Boston University.

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Gwen Kordonowy Cognoscenti contributor
Gwen Kordonowy teaches courses on migration, culture and public writing in the College of Arts and Sciences writing program at Boston University.

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