Science-- there's something for everyone

Sunday, February 5, 2012

To do well in school, sign a contract

Most people are familiar with traditional classes in which the teacher chooses and grades assignments.  However, there is another grading system known as ‘contract grading’, that, though rarely used, seems to have a number of benefits.  Dana Lindermann and Colin Harbke of Western Illinois University found that contract grading significantly outperformed traditional grading among a small group of college freshmen.

There are a few key components to a contract grading system, most notably that the student decides which grade he or she is aiming for and signs a contract to that effect.  After that, the student can usually choose from a number of assignments, each of which is graded pass or fail at the discretion of the instructor.  Students are sometimes allowed to resubmit assignments or exams.  The number of satisfactorily completed assignments determines the final grade.

Forty first-year university students were randomly divided into two groups.  Each group of twenty took the same introductory psychology class with the same instructor and the same exams and assignments.  One group (traditional) received points for each assignment and a final grade based on the total number of points received.  Members of the second group (contract) were asked to sign a contract specifying which grade they planned to achieve and what that would require.  For example, to get an A, a student would need to get at least 80% on four exams, and complete three writing and three activity assignments.  B’s, C’s and D’s required fewer assignments. Interestingly, one of the contract choices specified what to do ‘if you want to earn an F’. I wonder how many students chose that option.

The amount of work and mastery required to get an A was equivalent in both groups. Nevertheless three times as many students in the contract group received an A.  The contract students also graded their instructor, the course and themselves more highly than the traditional students.  Remember, all students had the same instructor and assignments. 

The authors suggest that the difference was largely due to the fact that the contract students felt more in control of their own learning.  However, they don’t discount the possibility that the traditional group, in noticing that some of their peers were allowed to choose and resubmit assignments, simply became demoralized.