Using Contract Grading as an Anti-Racist Practice

Written by: Jessie Kwak

When Theresa Hice-Fromille greets her students on the first day of class, she hands them a syllabus and asks them a question that often throws them for a loop: Do you have any feedback on the proposed syllabus and assignments?

“Usually, they’re like, ‘Are we being tricked?’” says Hice-Fromille, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and incoming Assistant Professor of Geography at Ohio State University. “It’s unusual to have an instructor ask for their opinion at the beginning of the quarter.”

For Hice-Fromille, asking for feedback is critical to getting buy-in from students and is a key part of the contract grading practices she uses in the classroom. Together, she and her students work to identify the criteria for receiving a specific grade, taking into account the amount of labor involved and the goals for the course. Hice-Fromille’s students then vote on the syllabus and go into the course understanding exactly what the requirements are to hit a specific grade. 

“The idea behind contract grading is that as long as students are spending time working on these projects, there's learning happening,” says Hice-Fromille. By emphasizing the time and effort a student puts into the work, instructors are focusing on the learning process rather than the outcome.

Contract grading can also be a useful tool for instructors doing anti-racist work in their classrooms, because it challenges traditional grading standards, which are historically based in middle-class, ableist, White, and patriarchal norms.

Hice-Fromille notes that for many disciplines, meeting biased standards to get a grade doesn’t demonstrate a student’s learning. Instead, it demonstrates how well a student is “performing whiteness.” Contract grading can shift the focus, allowing minoritized students in particular to develop their own strengths while also supporting all students. 

Related reading — A Paradigm Shift to Equity-Minded Teaching in Higher Education

What Does Contract Grading Look Like?

Sylvane Vaccarino-Ruiz, a graduate student instructor and PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, also uses contract grading along with narrative evaluation in his classes. His grading contract is based on a student’s labor in the class, which includes project labor (time and effort spent on projects), practice labor (reading responses and other building blocks leading up to projects), and community labor (working in groups, doing peer reviews, or creating tutorials for future students in the next class). 

“It’s a way of creating a community of learning where I don’t have to focus on giving them a letter grade for their engagement,” he says. 

Vaccarino-Ruiz teaches classes in writing studies as well as research-focused upper-division courses in psychology. The way he gives feedback to students on their projects depends on course objectives. 

When evaluating an essay, for example, he goes through a detailed rubric to make sure the assignment is complete. If a student hasn’t hit all the requirements, he sends the essay back with a note about what else the student needs to submit. If they have hit all the requirements, he gives the students conversational feedback to help them develop their ideas and improve the next draft. 

“If I have to give them a letter grade, I’m spending more time trying to justify their performance than supporting their thinking and their work.”

This focus on labor over product doesn’t mean students turn in inferior work. Vaccarino-Ruiz says students have written in their evaluations that they were used to going through the motions in previous classes, writing formulaic essays they knew would achieve the grade. In his course, they actually felt challenged and learned in ways they hadn’t before.

Related reading — An Equity-Centered Look at Common Classroom Ground Rules

Making Space for All Students

For Hice-Fromille, contract grading is a way for instructors to recognize the amount of labor students are doing in the class, as well as a way to include students who may have historically been sidelined by traditional education. 

“A lot of students are taught that they’re not good at something,” says Hice-Fromille. Because contract grading emphasizes the learning process over being “good” at a subject, it encourages students to pursue subjects they might be interested in, even if they’ve historically been excluded. 

Hice-Fromille says that contract grading can also change the types of conversations instructors have with students. Instead of showing up at her office worried about earning a grade, students come to talk about the material and their excitement about the topics at hand. “Taking that pressure off them to be so obsessed with earning a grade really changes the conversation,” she says. 

Vaccarino-Ruiz notes that students who are used to succeeding in a traditional grading system will still often be anxious about their grades in his classes. 

Establishing mutual trust is critical, so that students know they can trust the instructor and so that the instructor can trust students to engage in their own learning. “I make space for it and let them know I’m not going to pull the rug out from under them,” he says. 

Related reading — Why Disaggregated DFWI Rates Matter for Equitable Learning

First Steps to Contract Grading

Hice-Fromille includes some of these practices in a contributed chapter, ”Teaching for Black Girls: What Every Graduate Student Instructor Can Learn from Black Girlhood Studies,” in the open-access book Exploring How We Teach: Lived Experiences, Lessons, and Research about Graduate Instructors by Graduate Instructors. She and and Vaccarino-Ruiz recommend several other resources for classroom instructors beginning to explore contract grading:

Instructors interested in using contract grading to support anti-racism in the classroom should start by finding support, says Hice-Fromille. She began by collaborating with other graduate students through her campus teaching and learning center. 

Instructors can also talk with students who took the class in earlier terms to get a sense of which assignments and readings they enjoyed and which they struggled with. This inside perspective can help give instructors ideas for how to shift their grading practices. 

Vaccarino-Ruiz recommends considering how to reach the most students possible. Instructors should ask themselves: Who is the norm in the classroom? Who is being marginalized in that assumption? What shifts can be made to center the most marginalized students?

In addition, Vaccarino-Ruiz cautions instructors not to think of anti-racist practices in the classroom as being just for minoritized students. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” he says. “A hostile grading system is harmful to most students, even those who are already represented in the grading systems that privilege whiteness.”

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