For students writing and revising a semester-long research paper, the promise of a minimum grade of B can shift their focus from grades to effort.
Assistant Professor, Developmental Psychology, Macalester College
PhD and MA in Developmental Psychology, BA in Psychology
With pages of homework, frequent group projects, and high expectations from their professors, college students might be forgiven if they often think of grades as one more stressor in their busy campus lives. But Cari Gillen-O’Neel, PhD, feels it does not have to be that way. In fact, she has come to believe that grading “everything a student touches” tends to work against their natural curiosity and sense of academic adventure.
Gillen-O’Neel decided that what was of import to her as an educator was students’ improvements not only in grades but also in their ability to engage in the dynamic and critical thinking necessary to the study of psychology. She also felt it was critical that they strengthen their research and writing skills, primarily through embracing and implementing detailed feedback. However, she realized that this type of progress absolutely required students to remain excited to rise to the challenge and to view mistakes not as minuses but as opportunities for growth.
“It can be so demoralizing to get a low grade on something you’ve really poured yourself into,” she says. “It makes you not want to put forth that kind of effort anymore.”
So Gillen-O’Neel asked herself a question: What if cold, hard, and frequent numerical grading of quizzes, tests, papers, and projects were kept to a minimum—and what if that enabled students to work more collaboratively (and less anxiously) with their professors and classroom colleagues?
Challenge: Undesirable responses to low (and high) grades
Gillen-O’Neel’s class, titled Research in Psychology II, calls for each student in a four- or five-member classroom group to design a psychological research study and collect and analyze data related to it. Each student must then write a paper as part of a portfolio to submit to Gillen-O’Neel at the end of the semester for a final grade.
Through her own research into teaching and grading techniques, Gillen-O’Neel realized that grading drafts of students’ papers-in-progress continuously throughout the semester had unexpected and unintended results.
For one thing, she says, a series of low grades on such drafts can make students feel frustrated, hopeless, and defensive, especially if they feel they have been putting forth substantive effort. She also noticed that students tended to react negatively toward the feedback.
Further, through some honest introspection, Gillen-O’Neel realized a negative trend in her own assessments of a student whose grades were consistently low.
“Honestly, if I have to put a low grade on something, I’m often grading defensively,” says Gillen-O’Neel. “If I’ve put a C on something, often the comments I’m giving are like me feeling I have to justify this low grade that I gave, rather than feeling like, ‘How can I make this paper better?’”
Gillen-O’Neel notes that grading can cut the other way, too: Students may feel a warped sense of success if they consistently receive better grades. This can actually snuff the flame of their motivation and stifle further progress.
“If you get an A on a draft, you feel, ‘Great, it’s done, I don’t need to do anything with it,’” explains Gillen-O’Neel. “And that’s almost never true. We can always work to improve our writing, to make it stronger, to improve the flow.”
Innovation: Signing a motivational contract with students
To achieve a more positive dynamic in her classroom, Gillen-O’Neel has replaced traditional grading with a more forgiving method of continuous reward and collaboration.
Gillen-O’Neel drew inspiration from a strategy outlined in the book Embracing Writing: Ways to Teach Reluctant Writers in Any College Course, by Gary R. Hafer, a professor of English at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Specifically, she decided to implement an approach Hafer termed the “Contract for B,” a strategy for minimizing frequent grading while also assessing students’ effort and perseverance.
Under her “Contract for B,” Gillen-O’Neel grades her students’ research study papers just once: at the very end of the semester, after the papers have gone through numerous drafts and students have been able to benefit from continuous input from their professor and peers.
“My contract says, ‘I’m not giving you a grade [on your research paper] until the very end of the semester’—and that is terrifying,” says Gillen-O’Neel. “‘So to give you a safety net, if you do all these things I lay out for you, I will actually guarantee that, no matter what you turn in to me at the end of the semester, the lowest grade you can possibly earn in this course is a B.’”
Gillen-O’Neel believes that such a grading system works particularly well in courses like hers, in which students must constantly revise written drafts over the course of a semester. This is a complex and sometimes emotional process, which includes editing, rethinking, perfecting, rewriting, and listening to feedback from both professors and classmates.
“They work hard, and they really want to get high grades,” Gillen-O’Neel says of her students. “And my approach helps them shift that focus from [achieving a certain grade] to actually learning how to be good research psychologists.”
“I love helping students learn about psychology and develop as thinkers and writers. Too often, however, grading gets in the way of these goals. For writing in particular, grades can shut down the process of development: Students who earn low grades may give up out of frustration, and students who earn high grades may think that there is no room for improvement. In this class, therefore, we take a somewhat different approach to assessment and grades—a system called ‘Contract for B.’”— Cari Gillen-O’Neel, PhD
Frequency: Two one-and-a-half-hour class meetings per week for 14 weeks
Class size: 20
Course description: This course [for declared psychology majors] continues instruction begun in PSYC 201. We more closely examine key factors for planning and implementing research studies, such as validity, variable operationalization, and common ethical dilemmas faced by psychologists. Students gain in-depth experience in developing, interpreting, and communicating different types of empirical psychological research designs (e.g., experiments, surveys).
PSYC 301 Research in Psychology IISee materials
Lesson: Tips for implementing the “Contract for B”
Here are a few of Gillen-O’Neel’s tips for making the most of the Contract for B approach:
Ask students for their feedback
Gillen-O’Neel says that she occasionally solicits students’ opinions of the class, their own progress, and the meaning of the contract itself as a homework assignment; this way, she is sure they understand the needs of the class and their specific work groups.
For example, “be a good/productive group member” is one of the requirements of Contract for B. “However, I have them operationalize what this means within their own work group,” Gillen-O’Neel explains. “Some groups say, ‘Do not be excessively late to group meetings’ (which take place outside of class time). So, I make them define this more clearly: What constitutes ‘excessive’? Does the late person need to contact the rest of the group? How? I support whatever the groups come up with, as long as it is reasonable and they all agree to it. Then I check in with the groups throughout the semester to make sure that the group contract is still working and that everyone is adhering to it.”
Gillen-O’Neel’s version of Contract for B
To achieve a B or higher in Gillen-O’Neel’s course, students must adhere to the following specific codes of conduct and study laid out in the contract.
Attend class regularly. Students must show up on time and be fully prepared for classes and meetings.
Engage with material and classmates. Students must participate productively in class.
Complete the homework. Students must submit all assignments complete and on time, according to a prewritten checklist. Work must also conform to style guidelines of the American Psychological Association.
Maintain an 80% score on homework and quizzes. Apart from the one-time grade for their research study papers, students’ weekly quizzes and homework assignments are graded; the grading threshold for quizzes applies to the best of two efforts (one retake is allowed).
Rewrite and edit judiciously. Each draft—including the final draft—of a student’s paper must be thoroughly rewritten—and reorganized if necessary—following the feedback Gillen-O’Neel has offered throughout the course of the semester.
“Once they see the actual grade, they do get another chance to revise,” says Gillen-O’Neel. “It’s not like, at the very end of the day, you find out your final grade and you’re done.”
Maintain contract awareness. “I call this ‘How to Keep Cari from Being Annoyed,” says Gillen-O’Neel. “You need to keep track of your progress in the course. You need to keep track of whether or not you’re staying ‘on contract.’ And if you’re unsure, you need to meet with me.”
Be forgiving, within reason
Though Gillen-O’Neel rarely grades homework (she is most interested in simply having students complete the work), she notes that the Contract for B calls for a “good faith” effort on homework assignments.
“I don’t expect it to be perfect, but I really expect you to have put some effort into it and really thought about it,” says Gillen-O’Neel, “so when you come into your group, you’re ready to be a productive group member.”
That said, Gillen-O’Neel also observes a philosophy of tolerance and compassion by offering her students “forgiveness tokens,” which are four imaginary chits per semester that they can use in times of emergency or ill health.
“If students go off contract early, they do have a tendency to lose motivation overall,” says Gillen-O’Neel. “So the forgiveness tokens allow [them] to stay on contract even if [they] have had to take additional absences or needed extensions.”
Share your own experiences with feedback
Gillen-O’Neel adds a human touch to her teaching by bringing to class some of her own submissions to academic journals—papers that have been rejected for publication, many of which are filled with commentary on how she might improve them. This shows students that her authentic and honest reviews of their work are, in fact, something they are likely to find in the professional world that awaits them.
“What I tell them is, when I submit a paper to a journal, it doesn’t come back with a grade,” says Gillen-O’Neel. “It comes back with ‘We will accept this, and we will publish it,’ or ‘We won’t publish it, and here is all the feedback and all the things we think you should change to make this paper better.’”
“And so that’s really the kind of feedback I want to be able to give my students,” says Gillen-O’Neel. “I’m not really interested in putting a grade on their drafts. I’m interested in putting ‘Here’s what’s strong about this paper, and here are all the things that need to be done to make it better.’”
The Contract for B has allowed Gillen-O’Neel to create a positive atmosphere for her class, and it helps prevent students from sinking into despair if early quizzes, assignments, and written drafts are not up to snuff. “I would say, especially from the middle and struggling students who come into the class ‘hating writing’ and ‘hating research,’ this approach really takes the negative feeling out of the process and lets them put energy into improvement,” she says.
Further, Gillen-O’Neel says that she “absolutely” sees final papers of better quality with this approach. “The final projects, both in terms of their research designs and their written products, are so much better with this system than they were before,” she says. “And we enjoy ourselves while we do it. This way, the class is truly a joy to teach, which is not often said about research methods.”
“[My Contract for B] changes the whole dynamic of the classroom. And it aligns it with my goal of having this more authentic experience, of having the relationship I have with the students be more about them doing actual work rather than just busywork.”— Cari Gillen-O’Neel, PhD
“It changes the whole dynamic of the classroom. And it aligns it with my goal of having this more authentic experience, of having the relationship I have with the students be more about them doing actual work rather than just busywork,” she says.
The system also reminds the professor of her own days as a grad student in psychology, when unbridled group feedback and a spirit of collaboration filled lab meetings, class sessions, and one-on-one professor-student conferences.
“It really has that kind of dynamic, where we’re all just working together to do the best work we possibly can,” says Gillen-O’Neel. “And I am there in an advisor role for them to help them design the best study they can and to give them the feedback to have the strongest work they can.”
“I think the students are initially nervous,” says Gillen-O’Neel, “but they really do appreciate the approach, and they do see that we’re on the same team and that I’m here to help them develop as much as they can as young psychologists.”
Some students like the Contract for B more than others, as happens with any new system. However, the majority of the feedback Gillen-O’Neel has received has been highly positive, as these examples demonstrate:
“I liked having a contract for a B because as the courseload is heavy, it takes off some of the pressure and the chance to revise makes you more responsive to and accepting of constructive feedback.”
“I like it specifically because it allows us to focus on our work and editing and improving rather than being preoccupied with grades. It is a very refreshing system.”
“I love this, super great for focusing on learning and creating the best paper and learning how to be a ‘real’ researcher.”