What is Contract Grading?

Contract grading is a type of standards-based grading that incorporates the use of a contract between the student and the instructor on what must be completed and to what level of mastery to earn a specific grade in the course. There are two main types of contract grading: student-created contracts and community-based contracts (Litterio 2018).

For most types of contract grading, the student and instructor determine the number or type of assessments to be completed with the student self-assessing (usually through self-reflection) their level of mastery which the instructor uses to determine if the student has met mastery and therefore the assessment counts toward the contracted number of assessments (Litterio 2018). Often in student-created contracts, the instructor provides students with a menu of learning assessments (that are aligned to the learning objectives) that the student customizes into a contract to show their learning in the course (Hiller and Heitapelto 2001). The alternative form of contract grading is community-based contract grading where the entire class determines the requirements for each major assessment (Litterio 2018).

In this system, community-based pedagogy and democratic discussions are used to define criteria for the assessment and then self-assessment and peer-review are used to determine if a student’s work meets the requirements for mastery (Litterio 2018). Regardless of the format used to design the contract, one major aspect of contract grading is the ability for students to customize their own learning, select topics or assignments that help them learn the information, and incorporates resubmitting of assignments and assessments to show mastery or improvement over time (Hiller and Heitapelto 2001).

Benefits of Contract Grading

There are many benefits of contract grading for both instructors and students. For students, contract grading increases motivation, autonomy, and responsibility (Hiller and Heitapelto 2001, Strong et al. 2004, Danielewicz and Elbow 2009, Bonner 2016, Litterio 2018). In a study comparing self-grading (contract grading) to traditional grading, 52% of students reported higher motivation for learning and 66% reported increased responsibility for their own learning when using self-grading (contract grading) over traditional grading (Strong et al. 2004). Additionally, students in courses using contract grading showed increased focus on learning over grades, used critical thinking to explain their reasoning for their grades on assignments and the course, and expressed a preference for contract grading over traditional grading (Potts 2010, Bonner 2016, Litterio 2018). For courses that incorporate community-based contract grading, students reported increased transparency for grading expectation as they were included in developing the grading criteria (Litterio 2018). Students also reported that contract grading was less stressful than traditional grading because students selected the assignment to complete and had the ability to resubmit any work that did not initially meet mastery (Potts 2010, Litterio 2018). Students also felt they learned more by being able to work collaborative with their peers and resubmit assessments (Potts 2010).

Contract grading also benefits students by teaching them skills they can use in other aspects of their lives. Contract grading allows students opportunities to develop and show their ability to reach goals which is better aligned with work conditions in many fields (over traditional exams or essay writing that is often specific only to academia; Hiller and Hietapelto 2001). Because contract grading allows for a redistribution of power, students learn to negotiate and work through differences with the instructor for aspects of their grades in a course (Danielewicz and Elbow 2009) which teaches them a valuable skill for developing future work relationships. Additionally, students were encouraged to take more risks without having to worry about failure negatively impacting their grade (Danielewicz and Elbow 2009), thus students were more creative and developed a growth mindset.

Instructors benefit from contract grading in many ways. Instructors report that contract grading increases trust between students and the instructor which creates a more collaborative, cooperative learning environment (Hiller and Hietapelto 2001). The mastery design of assessments made grading easier and less time consuming while also providing students with better feedback than traditional grading systems (Danielewicz and Elbow 2009, Potts 2010). Thus, both students and instructors can benefit from using contract grading in courses.

Possible Challenges with Contract Grading

A few challenges associated with contract grading include student anxiety with the process, changing power dynamics, time management issues, and lack of rigor. Because most students are unfamiliar with contract grading, some find it difficult to switch to this new grading system and experience frustration and anxiety (Hiller and Hietapelto 2001, Strong et al. 2004). Students reported stress when designing their own contracts and needed reassurance for how they would be graded throughout the semester (Hiller and Hietapelto 2001). Additionally, Strong and colleagues (2004) found that students were frustrated by the open-ended format of the assessments even though the student knew they would be grading their own learning and effort on these assessments. Much of the student’s anxiety seemed to stem from the change in power dynamics within the course, the ambiguity with developing their own grading contract, and difficulty understanding the responsibilities of the instructor and student in the course (Hiller and Hietapelto 2001). Instructors also expressed concerns about the time required for explaining contract grading to students, having students create their learning contract, managing student meetings regarding feedback, and renegotiating contracts with students throughout the semester (Hiller and Hietapelto 2001). Thus, addressing issues regarding student anxiety, changing power dynamics, and time management are important when using contract grading.

Once aspect of contract grading that can be challenging is the perceived lack of rigor associated with using this grading system. Since students are creating their own learning contract for their grade, some instructors find that students design contracts that only include tasks or assessments that the students already has competency in and thus do not learn new methods for interacting with course content (Hiller and Hietapelto 2001, Litterio 2018). Additionally, some students can achieve the requirements for an assessment, but based on their self-reflection fail to understand the deeper ideas in the course or improve their skills (Litterio 2018). Although, some instructors report grade inflation with contract grading (Strong et al. 2004), Potts (2010) compared contract grading and traditional grading in an English course with 188 students and found that only 16% of students had grades that were different between the two grading systems with a third of these students earning lower grades in contract grading over traditional grading. And of those students that earned higher grades with contract grading, the difference was only 4% points higher compared to traditional grading (Potts 2010). Thus, grade inflation may occur with contract grading, but this is not always the outcome.

How to Implement Contract Grading

Although contract grading is different from other forms of standards-based grading in that students negotiate the requirements for their grade, the process for implementing contract grading begins with the same steps of other standards-based grading systems. First, the learning objectives for the course need to be written and aligned to any predesigned assignments or assessments. If a menu of items is given to students to select from to build their contract, each assessment needs to explicitly state which learning objective the assessment achieves and provide instructions to students to ensure that they include all learning objectives in their contract. An alternative to this approach is having a base contract already determined that contains all the requirements for students to meet the learning objectives and earn a B in the course (Danielewicz and Elbow 2009). Students can then select additional assignments to add to the contract to earn an A or can show outstanding effort or advanced mastery for some assignments (meet additional requirements for assignments of their choosing; Danielewicz and Elbow 2009). In this way contract grading and competency-based grading are intertwined to allow students more autonomy while ensuring that all learning objectives are met by students. No matter which method is used, the contract is written by students (or collaboratively by the entire class when using community-based approaches) and approved by the instructor within the first weeks of the semester (Hiller and Heitapelto 2001).

Once a contract for grading is devised, students can begin to work toward achieving the outcomes required to meet the contract. Students can work on completing the required assignments, receive detailed feedback on their work, resubmit the assignments to show mastery, and then selecting a new assessment to begin working on to complete the contract. In addition to instructor-generated feedback, many instructors that use contract grading also require self-assessment of learning (either associated with each assignment or as a larger self-evaluation of a student’s portfolio at specific times during the semester) and peer-review to help students improve their work and fulfill the requirements of their learning contract (Hiller and Heitapelto 2001, Danielewicz and Elbow 2009, Litterio 2018). Usually, the student will conference with the instructor multiple times during the semester to receive feedback, discuss learning, and possibly modify or renegotiate aspects of the student’s contract (Hiller and Heitapelto 2001, Danielewicz and Elbow 2009). If at the end of the semester, the student has fulfilled the requirements of the contract then the student earns the grade associated with the contract (usually an A or B depending on the structure of the contract).

Although these instructions will help with developing a course using contract grading, the following resources may also be helpful when first designing and implementing contract grading.

Bonner, M. W. (2016). Grading rigor in counselor education: A specifications grading framework. Educational Research Quarterly 39.4: 21-42.

Danielewicz, J., and P. Elbow (2009). A unilateral grading contract to improve learning and teaching. College Composition and Communication 61: 244-268.

Hiller, T. B., and A. B. Hietapelto (2001). Contract grading: encouraging commitment to the learning process through voice in the evaluation process. Journal of Management Education 25: 660-684.

Litterio, L. M. (2018). Contract grading in the technical writing classroom: blending community-based assessment and self-assessment. Assessing Writing 38: 1-9.

Potts, G. (2010). A simple alternative to grading. Inquiry: The Journal of the Virginia Community College 15: 29-42.

Strong, B, M. Davis, and V. Hawks (2004). Self-grading in Large General Education Classes: A case study. College Teaching 52: 52-57.

"What is Contract Grading" was written by Michelle Larson. Published to the website January 30, 2023.

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