Getting Started 6: Contract Grading and Peer Review

[Cross-posted from HASTAC]

Part One: How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom Part I

Part Two: It’s All About You

Part Three: The Syllabus

Part Four: Students

Part Five: Collectively Writing a Constitution

Part Six: Getting Started 6: Contract Grading and Peer Review


Why Student-Centered Learning Needs An Alternative Credentialing Mechanism

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts I’m writing based on my own experiences with student-centered, open, peer, or connected learning (you can choose whichever term suits you: I’m agnostic about the terminology).  My purpose is to offer step-by-step advice about the thinking, methods, assumptions, and practical choices that go into redesigning a classroom inspired by equality, not oppression (to use Paolo Freire’s famous terminology).  A pedagogy of equality aims to support and inspire the greatest possible student success, creativity, individuality, and achievement, rather than more traditional hierarchies organized around a priori standards of selectivity, credentialing, standardization, ranking, and the status quo.

That, of course, is the most binaristic way of framing the redesigned student-centered classroom.  However, in the real world in which most students live, if they are paying tuition, they also want something more concrete than a sense of their own learning: they want some formal, institutional recognition of the effort they have invested in their learning.  (Otherwise, why not just learn from a friend or from a book or online?)

That is where contract grading and peer evaluation come in.  To my mind, they are the most expansive alternatives to conventional grading while still offering the student a meaningful, documentable, responsible credentialed form of credit for learning attainments.

Thus, contract grading is both an idealistic, student-centered way of writing one’s own learning goals–and it is, quite overtly, a workaround, a better alternative to conventional grading and credentialing.  By adding the peer review component, contract grading is also an act of community.


My first rule for contract grading:  talk to your registrar first.  Some colleges and universities do not allow it.  As with all student-centered learning, remember the rule on airplanes: put on your own oxygen mask first.  Always make sure what you are doing meets the formal rules of your institution.  As David Theo Goldberg and I wrote in The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (MIT Press, 2010–and available for free download here:, institutions are “mobilizing networks.”  They offer places of organization, activism, networking, support.  They are launching pads.  They also come with their own restrictions and rules, and you have to learn to work around them.

Size may matter: I don’t personally know if it does or not but it may.  I myself have never used contract grading in a course where I have had more than 30 students.  I would love to hear from people who have used it in lecture courses and would love to know more about how it works there.

Institution and level doesn’t matter, in my experience. I believe contract grading, combined with peer review, works well at any kind of institution and any level of student. For example, I’ve observed it used exceptionally well in a highly diverse middle school class with a number of students with learning and attention issues, for example (I wrote about this in Chapter Five, “The Epic Win,” of Now You See It).  I myself have used it in classes I’ve taught for students primarily at Duke University, although before I moved to the Graduate Center CUNY in September 2014, my courses increasingly included students from the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University, and sometimes North Carolina Central University, and Durham Tech.

(But remember:  institutions matter.  The students I taught from NCCU and Durham Tech were both essentially auditors; we were not able to make the course credits work, not because of contract grading but because of difficulties working across the different systems at Duke at NCCU and Durham Tech having to do with credit and course equivalency, contact hour requirements, and many other bureaucratic factors.  The arrangements with UNC, NCSU, and Duke worked partly because I and other administrators had worked out systems of making these arrangements work–it didn’t happen by chance, in other words.)

Why–Again.  Never Forget the ‘Why’

But the problems were not the level of students or the kind of institutions but, quite literally, institutional requirements.  I have found students respond to the challenge of taking their own level of learning seriously if they believe that the instructor takes that challenge seriously, consistently, and for a reason:  as I’ve tried to underscore throughout this series, always explaining why is hugely important when you are changing the status quo.

A Real Model (from 2011):  Contract Grading for “21st Century Literacies”

Rather than a hypothetical contract grade, below you will find an actual contract I used in a course I taught on “Twenty-First Century Literacies.”

This is a reblog of a HASTAC posted in Spring 2011:…


For those interested in the mechanics of this version of contract grading + peer review, here’s a first pass at a contract for A, B, C, D, and F grades in my “Twenty-First Century Literacies” class.   I suspect I’ll be updating it many times—and I’m very happy for your feedback.

I hesitated even to write in a Failure clause but, in the end, have done so, reverting to professorial judgment on that one since “failure” is breech of contract, in essence.   Quite frankly, I will be surprised if many students contract for a grade below A.   The nature of this class is that it self-selects not just A students but highly confident, inventive, experimental A+ students; it is not for the faint of heart.
By the way, I have spent several days designing the basic documents for this course.  That needs to be acknowledged up front.   Thinking through new forms of assessment is not for the faint of heart either.  I hope you find this document useful.  Feel free to pilfer—I certainly have borrowed ideas from many smart people who have gone before me!  That is, after all, some of what we mean by peer-to-peer learning, acknowledging that none of us is ever entirely independent in our thinking, however original we may think ourselves to be.
Here’s the url for the parallel post on the syllabus and assignments for “21st Cerntury Literacies”:

21st Century Literacies:  Contract Grading + Peer Evaluation
Spring 2011  MW 1:15-2:30 MW
Humanities Lab, Smith Warehouse Bay 4, Room C105, First Floor
Professor Cathy N. Davidson
Contract Grading + Peer Evaluation:  Explanation and Contract
Evaluation Method:
You determine your grade for this course by fulfilling a contract that spells out in advance the requirements as well as the penalties for not fulfilling the terms of your contract.   Peer evaluation comes in when students charged with leading a unit assess (Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory) how well their classmates fulfill the assignment they give them.   Peer leaders for the given unit will work with the other students in English 90, giving feedback to each student and working to achieve an S grade.   If  student fails to submit an assignment or does not submit a satisfactory revision after being given careful feedback, the peer leader will record a U grade for that assignment.   (The same method will work on assignments graded by the professor.)   Every student will be in a position of peer-grader (working two students at a time) once this semester.  Learning togethergiving and receiving feedbackis a subject we will discuss in depth.  It is the single most valuable life skill you can take away from this course.

Contract Grading:
The advantage of contract grading is that you, the student, decide how much work you wish to do this semester; if you complete that work on time and satisfactorily, you will receive the grade for which you contracted.  This means planning ahead, thinking about all of your obligations and responsibilities this semester and also determining what grade you want or need in this course.   The advantage of contract grading to the professor is no whining, no special pleading, on the students part. If you complete the work you contracted for, you get the grade. Done. I respect the student who only needs a C, who has other obligations that preclude doing all of the requirements to earn an A in the course, and who contracts for the C and carries out the contract perfectly.   (This is another one of those major life skills:  taking responsibility for your own workflow.)

Grade Calculating:
On January 19 (our second class session), each student will sign, with a classmate as a witness, a contract for a grade.  I will countersign and we will each keep a copy of your contract. In addition, you will be given an individualized online and physical grade reporting sheet.    There will be both a Teaching Apprentice (TAP) and a Teaching Assistant (TA) in this course; the TAP is Mary Caton Lingold, a doctoral student sitting in on this course to learn new teaching methods.  The TA is Anna Rose Beth, our HASTAC intern, and a recent Duke alum in BME. Both will help you to keep track of what is required to fill your contract this term.  They are the ones to whom you should go to make sure your reporting sheets are up to date and accurate, but you are responsible for bringing any discrepancies to their attention as soon as you see them.   All requirements and penalties for each grade are spelled out below.

There are only two grades for any assignment.  Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory.   Satisfactory is full credit.  Unsatisfactory (poor quality, late, or not submitted) is no credit.   At the end of the course, we tally.   If you fail to do a contracted assignment or your peers do not deem your work satisfactory, you will receive the grade penalty spelled out in the contract.

Peers (details below) who are in charge of leading a class unit will determine if the blogs or other assignments posted each week are satisfactory.  If not, they will give extensive and thoughtful feedback for improvement with the aim of collaborating toward Satisfactory work.   The goal is for everyone to produce satisfactory work, and the peer leaders will work with students to achieve that goal.

(1) CLASS ATTENDANCE/PARTICIPATION (includes reading/viewing/listening to all assignments, participating in guest lectures and field trips)
Class attendance is required.   If you contract for an A in the course, you may miss two classes (and the corresponding blog posts) without an official (doctor or pre-approved) excuse.  Penalty:  If you have more than two unexcused absences, your grade for the entire class automatically will drop 0.5.  If you miss four classes, it will drop 1.0, and so on.

Excused absence is either a doctors note or deans emergency note. Or, in the case of other official absences, you must submit a request in advance to the course TA, who will consult with the professor and return a written acceptance or decline of the request.

If you are missing for a non-medical/emergency reason, you have to have approval in advance and, at that time, state your plan for making up the missed work. You are still responsible for the readings and filing the weekly blog.
Think of this as an evolving research paper.  It has the same importance and weight and seriousness.   It will be on our class WordPress site, visible to all the other students, the prof, the TA, and the TAP in the course but not to the general public.   There will be a comments section where you will receive public feedback from the prof, any of the other students, and the two or three students leading and assessing that particular unit.
Blogs must be completed by midnight the night before the class session.  All students are required to read the blogs by their classmates before class and are encouraged to comment in writing as well as in class discussion.   Blogs are substantive, should use secondary sources where appropriate, and can use video, sound, images, animation as well as text.  Penalty: If you are late and/or miss more than two blogs over the course of the semester, your grade will automatically drop by 0.5.  If you miss or are late for four, it will drop by 1.0 and so on.

These blogs will not be available beyond our class.  For a discussion of privacy issues in class, see:… Students may choose to reblog their work in a public place or on their own blogs, but do so at their own risk.

Students will work in teams of two (or, in some cases, three) and will be responsible for a literacy, a unit of work that will occupy us for two or sometimes (when there is a visitor or an event) three class sessions.   Typically, students will make a presentation, guide a reading, or conduct a field trip one class and then will do follow up, with the help of the professor, on the second class.  NO TALKING HEADS PLEASE!    Think of ways to make your presentation as interactive, engaged, thoughtful, and inspiring as possible.

Prof. Davidson will lead the first unit, which will entail an in-class experiment, a trip to the Nasher Museum of Art, a collaborative wiki-based writing assignment, and engagement (arranged in advance) with an author.

For peer-led sessions:
Begin by settling on a reading assignment for the class.  You may order books or decide on articles, websites, or other readings.  All readings must be assigned in class and then posted on the class blog a week in advance of your class. Please check in with the class TA about readings, assignments, reserve, movies to reserve, field trips, and other details.
You will make arrangements, with the help of the TA, for any trips or screenings.
You will construct a class presentation that is as interactive as you can make it.
You will also make some kind of writing/other media assignment, a 400-500 word blog or some equivalent.
You will be responsible for reading all of the blogs (or the alternative assignments) by your peers and writing substantive feedback on each one, viewable by all in the class.
You will file the S or U grade for each students work with the TA.  If a student receives a U, it is your responsibility to offer constructive feedback and an opportunity for the student to turn that into a Satisfactory piece of work.
After or before your session, post your lesson plan on our GoogleDocs public syllabus to document what you did as a peer leader and to serve as a model to others around the country who are following this class and learning from what we learn, as we learn.

You will fulfill your contract only if you do all of these.  Penalty:   Failure to do so will result in an automatic 0.5 deduction from the total course grade.

Each student is required to make two substantive and different contributions to a significant public resource such as Wikipedia.  One contribution can be a detailed comment on a New York Times or other major media outlet, including a significant blog post on the HASTAC site.
The contribution to public knowledge should stretch you in a different direction.   If you have any questions, please talk to the instructor or the TA to confirm acceptability.  You will also reblog on the class website.  In some cases, you will be contributing specialized knowledge from your own research.
Penalty:  Failure to make these two public contributions will result in an automatic 0.5 deduction from the total course grade.

In lieu of a traditional midterm exam, the class will, collectively and using a wiki, create a concise blog post tying together key lessons and insights about 21st century literacies studied in the first half of the class, will post the finished blog on the website, and then will work on a social media campaign to draw attention to the blog through your own various social networks.  The instructor will open the wiki on March 2 with the challenge topic:  What are 21st Century Literacies? and students are invited to change the topic in the course of the online discussion.  By midnight March 2, the blog must be ready to be posted

This is an exercise in collective thinking, leadership, and project management.   Everyone must contribute but remember our method in this course is “collaboration by difference,” the HASTAC methodology based on open web development that we all have something in which we are excellent and we do best by learning how to pool resources wisely.   At the end of the assignment, you will need to let the instructor and TA know what and how you contributed.  It could be anything from organizing the outline for the entry to managing flaring tempers to being the chief writer or the chief proofreader ( or maybe you are the person who recognized the need for pizza and brought it in at the  11th hour so everyone succeeded in finishing the task).

Students can decide to meet together physically in the room during the regular class time and assign tasks.  Or you can do this entirely by distance.  You can begin on March 2 or you can start plotting in advance (and even petition the professor to open the wiki early).  By this point in the semester, you will have read many blog posts and other assignments by your classmates; you will have a sense for one another’s strengths.  You can plan your collective blog post to take advantage of those.  The post should be significant, between 500 and 1500 words. Disagreements (in the manner of Wikipedia), rather than consensus, are allowed.   Secondary sources should be used  in the manner of a Wikipedia entry.  You might want to check out a wikipedia entry on a similar topic to gain a sense of how you may or may not want to organize your own contribution:

Each student will be responsible for weighing in with the TA about his or her own contribution to the wiki.   (NB:  Be prepared.  This is a much tougher assignment than you might think!  You will not all equally appreciate the process or the end result but the requirement is, to quote Tim Gunn, Make it work!)     Penalty: Failure to make a significant, identifiable contribution to the process will result in an automatic 0.5 grade deduction for the course.


You will turn your work on your peer-led literacy unit into a video that will be hosted on the HASTAC YouTube Channel and open to the public at large.   The rough cuts will be viewed during the last week of class as a recap of the entire class, will receive feedback from the class, and then final versions must be submitted for uploading to the YouTube Channel by final exam tie, Noon on Thursday, May 5.  Penalty:   Failure to complete or contribute to the final collaborative literacy video will result in an automatic 0.5 deduction from the total course grade.

CONTRACT:   By signing this contract for an A in English 90, I agree to all of the terms above.
Your name:  ____________________________   Signature: _________________________
Witness name:_____________________________   Witness Signature:
Co-signed by Professor Cathy N. Davidson __________________________


I wish to earn a grade of B in English 90.   To fulfill my contract for a grade of B, I will complete satisfactorily #1, 2, 3, 4, and 7 above.   I will not miss more than four classes.   If I do, I understand that my grade for the entire class will drop by 0.5 for each absence beyond that.
Your name:  ____________________________   Signature: _________________________
Witness name:_____________________________   Witness Signature:
Co-signed by Professor Cathy N. Davidson __________________________
I wish to earn a grade of C in English 90.   To fulfill my contract for a grade of C, I will complete satisfactorily #1, 2, 3, and 7 above.   I will not miss more than six classes.   If I do, I understand that my grade for the entire class will drop by 0.5 for each absence beyond that.
Your name:  ____________________________   Signature: _________________________
Witness name:_____________________________   Witness Signature:
Co-signed by Professor Cathy N. Davidson __________________________
The professor reserves the right to award a grade of D or F to anyone who fails to meet a contractual obligation in a systematic way.   A D grade denotes some minimal fulfilling of the contract.  An F is absence of enough satisfactory work, as contracted, to warrant passing of the course.  Both a D and F denote a breakdown of the contractual relationship implied by signing any of the contracts above.


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