Responding to Peter Elbow’s “Getting Along without Grades—And Getting Along with Them Too”

This semester I am teaching three courses with grading contracts, including two Composition Theory courses (one undergraduate, ENG405, and one graduate, ENG808). In both, I’m asking students to read articles about the use of grade contracts, so they can better understand why we’re using them, and will have the theoretical background to make their own choices whether to use a grade contract in their own future teaching. One of the texts on our reading lists is Peter Elbow’s 1996 CCCC paper, “Getting Along without Grades—And Getting Along with Them too.” In this paper, Elbow lays out ways of eliminating or reducing grades, ways of getting away from an evaluative mindset, and “ways to use grades better.”

To begin, Elbow identifies several problems with traditional grades, a primary one being that they don’t really tell students much–especially if that’s all a student is getting. Additionally, Elbow finds that they often create an adversarial relationship between students and teachers (think: arguing over/justifying grades) and between students (it can lead to unhealthy competition between students who are supposed to be part of a learning community). Grades also create anxiety–for teachers as well as students. For these and other reasons, he advocates ways of “taking a break” from grading, which can be on a large or a small scale. Freewriting and journaling can be small-scale—but, Elbow challenges us to imagine what would happen if we moved from 10 minutes of freewriting to ten days of freewriting: “weeks of required but nongraded writing has a deep effect on students’ and teachers’ relationship to writing, and has big effects on fluency, risk taking, and voice” (3). Portfolios, and grade contracts are other ways of taking a break from graded work. Advocating the use of grade contracts, Elbow notes, “the pedagogical principle in using contracts is this: ‘I don’t trust my efforts to measure learning, and I hate pretending to do so. I’d rather put my efforts into something I do trust and enjoy: trying to specify activities and behaviors that will lead to learning'” (3)—a grade contract being essentially a list of desired behaviors that the drafter believes will lead participants to learning. Something I find quite valuable in this section of the paper is Elbow’s explanation of what using a grade contract achieves:

A contract can be a way to minimize evaluation itself–and I often try to do just that. But what needs emphasizing is how contracts can enhance evaluation–can make evaluation healthier and more productive by untangling it from grading. That is, I find that a contract allows me to be more evaluative than I could be with conventional grading of papers. The contract allows me to make blunter criticisms or pushier suggestions because students know that my responses have nothing to do with the grade… Thus I think that a contract helps me put students into the ideal learning situation: they have to listen to my criticism and advise, yet they get to make up their own mind about whether to go along. (4)

Elbow also argues that grading, used as a stick, is less effective at persuading students to do work than a well-crafted contract, which lays out specific expectations.

In the second section of the paper, Elbow addresses the “mentality of evaluation” and how getting outside of it can lead us as teachers (and students as peer responders) to giving more productive feedback. Rather than responding to questions of quality, he advocates questions that have more in common with those we might ask of a published literary work. As he puts it, in the context of responding to a literary text, questions about quality are the least interesting, while questions such as “What does this text say or do? Why is this author interesting to read? What does this text have to say to us? How does it relate to what other authors are saying or what is going on in the culture or in us” Who does it speak to? How is it put together or how does it say and do what it says and does?” can be more illuminating—whether asked of a work of literature or a student’s draft (7).

In the final section of the paper, “Ways to Use Grades Better,” Elbow advocates moving from extremely vertical systems (A+, A, A-, B+, B, etc.) to systems that include horizontal elements; he also advocates make grading less vertical by reducing the number of levels. A two-level system (e.g. acceptable/unacceptable) or three point (e.g. weak, satisfactory, strong) can often work just as well and has less room for vagary than an 11-level scale. Horizontal elements are explicit criteria for each level—and here is where his advice overlaps with how a grade contract might be laid out. His description of putting such a system into action, though, looks much more familiar, as he advocates use of a grid, or what many today may recognize as a grading or assessment rubric. Elbow also argues that increasing the verticality of grading doesn’t make students work harder—rather, raising the stakes, by making the floor for “pass” more difficult, will. This is one way a detailed contract can yield more, rather than less, work from students: it makes very clear what is needed to achieve a grade (whether that’s “pass” or “B”), and gives students a clear target to aim for.


Thoughts:

In this paper, Elbow breaks down the binary between using or not using grades. The main point is that evaluation and grading should be implemented in ways that support student learning, and that traditional methods often risk undermining learning. An instructor might defer or delay grading, or reduce the frequency of grading, while still providing regular feedback that is more constructive to students when de-coupled from a grade. Reading this article, I’m reminded of two of my colleagues who are trying out grade contracts for the first time this semester—one in English, another in Anthropology. Both chose to use a grade contract for their major assignment sequence, worth a little more than 50 of the final course grade, while still retaining more traditional grading for the remainder of the smaller projects. Their plan opens up room for learning and risk taking as students work on their major projects. These projects are high stakes, and so students will likely work quite hard on them, while the contract can relieve their anxiety about it by making clear what labor is needed to achieve a particular score. Both professors wanted to find a way that they could focus more on giving tough, constructive feedback on a difficult project, without their students giving up. I think their approach is in the spirit that Elbow advocates rethinking how we grade in this essay.

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