The grading policy in this course may seem a bit surprising at first.

The Problem with Grades

Our policy in “Speaking of Bicycles” is based on the work of scholars who argue that the most common grading policies are not very effective for a few reasons. For example, they often seem arbitrary or unfair, they are vulnerable to bias, and they rarely provide students with information needed to improve. Additionally, traditional grading often pits students against each other, rather than encouraging collaboration.

Throughout the history of the modern grading system, opponents have argued that:

  • grades are poor measures of how much or how well students learn
  • grades suppress important parts of the learning experience, such as fun, excitement, and risk
  • grades discourage independent thinking and self-motivated learning

What can we do about it? Unlike a few colleges and universities, USF requires grades.

Contract Grades

One solution is a “contract” or “specifications” grading system. This system rewards students for hard and persistent work — in other words, it rewards students for a behavior that is valuable in learning and in life.

Following models proposed by Elbow, Inoue, and Nilson, this course uses a contract grading system. Students are given a list of tasks necessary to achieve grades (A, B, or C). If they complete the tasks in good faith, they are awarded the grade. To achieve an A requires a substantial amount of work demonstrating understanding of course materials.

For Further Information

Prominent Writing Studies scholar Peter Elbow has written extensively on the use of grading contracts in writing courses. In “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching,” Elbow and his co-author Jane Danielewicz write:

We seek not only to help students learn more and function better as learners; we also want a grading system that encourages them to be the kind of persons our world needs; furthermore, we want to make our own teaching easier and more satisfying. That’s all.

Adam Grant, an organization psychologist who teaches at teh Wharton School of Business, wrote a recent op-ed on grading in the New York Times: “Why We Should Stop Grading Students on a Curve(11 September 2016).

Asao Inoue, a professor at Fresno State University, is one of the foremost advocates of contract grading. For Inoue, grading is a social justice issue, and he has made his book Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies (2015) freely available.

Linda Nilson’s book Specifications Grading summarizes research on grading practices in an accessible and practical way.

Elizabeth Barre of Rice University has written thoughtfully about her attempt to use “specifications” grading, inspired by L. Nilson’s work.


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