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Taking ownership of learning through contract grading – featuring Jill Heney

How can you improve transparency, collaboration and student agency within your classes? At Boise State’s College of Innovation + Design (CI+D), Jill Heney’s course, COID 301 Design Your Life, does just that. Heney, a long time lecturer in the English department, incorporated an assessment strategy called “contract grading” where, at the beginning of the course, students negotiate a contract with her that outlines the expectations, goals and criteria for success. This is not the first time she uses contract grading; Jill has been implementing this grading system successfully since 2014 in her WRITE 201 and WRITE 204 courses, also taught at Boise State. In preparation for the COID 301 course, dawn shepherd, the program launch director for the bachelor’s in Digital Innovation + Design, kindly provided her COID 490 capstone rubric, grading philosophy statements and performance tracker. These resources were shared with Heney, who adapted them for COID 301 with the intention to equip students in COID 301 with the necessary tools and knowledge to excel in shepherd’s capstone course.

Jill Heney
Jill Heney

Choose your grading plan

“This is my favorite way to grade and for my own work to be graded when I was a student,” Heney says. “That is right; you get to choose your grade. This system is called contract grading and has been used and researched by educators since the 1970s. In fact, I experienced learning plans (contract grading) while completing my undergraduate work at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. With the guidance of Fred Kempf, a former professor of mine at the University of Nebraska, I had the opportunity to choose the grade that I wanted to accomplish. I poured myself into the projects and met my goals.”

Contract grading typically includes a contract with a list of assignments or tasks that the student must complete along with specific performance criteria and grading rubrics for each one. Students are evaluated based on whether they meet the specific criteria outlined in the contract rather than on a letter or number grade assigned by the instructor. This approach can help students better understand the expectations for success in the course and take ownership of their own learning. Additionally, contract grading can reduce anxiety and promote a growth mindset by encouraging students to focus on learning and improvement rather than simply achieving a certain grade.

I forgot about this grading method until 2013 when I heard Andy Goodman at Boise State’s Center for Teaching and Learning suggest that faculty consider using contract grading/learning plans,” Heney continues. “I remembered my own positive experience and decided to try contract grading in my classes. Students like it. I like it. It matches a project-based class like ours well. Consistent positive feedback from students has encouraged me to continue.

In COID 301, students track their own performance throughout the course. They complete check-ins at the end of each module where they rate their performance on the module learning outcomes and reflect on the wins and challenges of that week. About halfway through the course, the students also submit a midterm performance evaluation and meet with their instructor to discuss it. At the end of the course, students will submit a final evaluation and assign themselves a final grade. In the meantime, Heney provides the students with a performance tracker they can use to record their progress and mark items as complete or incomplete. Heney includes success factors on all course activities to help students evaluate their performance and meets with them at midterm (or any other point) to discuss their progress. 

Particularly within CI+D’s Digital Innovation + Design (DI+D) program, the degree path may not be as immediately recognizable compared to more conventional majors like engineering, teaching or nursing. It is crucial for all students, particularly those in DI+D, to possess a clear understanding of their learning progress. The ability to conduct honest self-assessments and effectively communicate one’s knowledge and capabilities provides a significant advantage for various post-graduation opportunities. Similarly, in most professional settings, individuals are expected to evaluate their own performance. While receiving evaluations from supervisors, they are also granted the opportunity to reflect on their own achievements and share their perspectives. Active participation in the performance evaluation process can initiate discussions concerning personal goals, professional development and potential prospects within the organization. Furthermore, self-evaluation can be employed persuasively, such as making a compelling case for a salary increase or promotion.

“The feedback from students about their experiences with contract grading in my courses has been very positive. Several attribute their learning growth in part to the contract grading approach because all of their work, the grade they received and their achievements were entirely their own doing,” Heney stated. “They take pride in the fact that their accomplishments in the class resulted from their diligent efforts and genuine desire to excel, and that their final grade will not be a mere outcome of blindly following rules or adhering to syllabus expectations, but rather a true reflection of their hard work and their ability to take responsibility as a learner.”

While contract grading can be a valuable tool for promoting student engagement and learning, it does require a significant amount of planning and collaboration between the instructor and students. It also requires a high level of student responsibility and accountability which can be challenging for some students who are not accustomed to this level of autonomy. Lastly, it may not be appropriate for all courses or all students, and instructors may need to provide additional support and guidance to help students navigate this approach to grading. 

General guidelines for grading

Heney reminds the students to think about both their labor and their performance when assessing their work in her course. As this may be new for some students, she includes a guide, adapted from dawn shepherd, for evaluating their own performance in COID 301. 

She begins the guide with a note to students, saying, “Your labor matters in this course. In other words, just getting things done counts. To help you think about your labor, here is a simple breakdown. You could think of this as a kind of rubric for the course.” The guide describes what performance at each grade generally looks like in a course when the instructor does the grading. 

Announcements, module overviews, and weekly updates Read, attend, or view all Read, attend, or view almost all Read, attend, or view the majority Read, attend, or view less than half Read, attend or view few or none
Readings, videos, discussions, journal, and prep work Complete about 95% Complete about 85% Complete about 75% Complete about 65%  Complete 55% or fewer 
Course module check ins Complete about 95% Complete about 85% Complete about 75% Complete about 65%  Complete about half or fewer 
Midterm and final performance evaluations Complete both Complete both Complete both Complete one Complete neither
Final projects: odyssey plans, prototypes, and website Complete Complete Complete Complete Not submitted

Students should also consider their performance on course learning outcomes when assessing themselves.

In Heney’s course, each module includes its own learning outcomes, referred to as module learning outcomes (MLOs). Those MLOs all build toward the course learning outcomes (CLOs). Students assess their performance on those MLOs at the end of each module, at midterm and the end of the course. 

Is this new at Boise State?

Contract grading is certainly not new to Boise State. In the Center for Teaching and Learning’s newsletter from April 2022, the article “Alternative grading frameworks” gives an overview of several alternatives to traditional grading. The article also highlights various instructors across campus who use these different methods in different disciplines and for different reasons. If you would like help thinking through this or want to learn more, feel free to contact the Center for Teaching and Learning at or contact eCampus Center and request a consultation.

Article Credit

Thanks to Jill Heney and Nicole Holten Baird, the eCampus instructional design consultant who worked with Heney to design the COID 301 course.