free debate

January 20, 2012

Getting Students Invested

One of the hardest parts of teaching, especially in a K-12 classroom, is getting your students engaged. This is a huge issue because the difference between having a student engaged and having one just not care can be the difference between them asking thought-provoking questions or having them disrupting the rest of the class. In training, I was told to get students engaged you need to get them invested in their education. That is great advice but at the same time it can be really hard to implement. There are only so many ways to tell a student that their education is important before they start blocking you out. That is why I got really excited by a new paper published in Sage Open that came up with a new way to get students engaged: contracts.

I have seen teachers use contracts in the classroom before, but not like this. The basic idea is you show students the requirements for each letter grade at the start of the semester. Each assignment is pass fail and can be repeated a fixed number of times. So for example to get an A you needed to get above 80% on 4 exams, do 3 of 4 written assignments, and 3 of 4 activities. To get a B in the class you would need to get above 80% on 4 exams, do 2 of the 4 written assignments, and 3 of the 4 activities. The student gets complete control over what activities and written assignments to do but for whatever assignments they chose they need to show a very strong understanding of the material. The idea is to get students to set their own goal at the start of the semester and then focus on mastering the material throughout the semester, not just remembering a percentage of it.

I really like this idea for several reasons. Giving students more control makes them more responsible for their own learning. That alone can be really motivating for many students. I also like the idea of letting students retry assignments because it makes them look at their previous work critically and look for ways to improve on it. Lastly, I think it is really good for students to learn to set goals early with a clear idea of what they will need to do to achieve that goal.

As nice as it is that this kind of student contract caters to my philosophical notions about how we should teach students, the real question is, does it work? The answer appears to be a tentative yes. To test it researchers at Western Illinois University compared two freshman psychology classes. The teacher and content was the same in both courses but one is a traditional grading system and the other used this contract grading system. To quote the press release... the end of the semester, the group of students who were graded contractually were three times more likely to earn an A grade, one third as likely to fail or withdraw from the course, perceived a higher degree of control over their grade, and consistently rated their own effort, their instructor, and the course overall more favorably.
It is important to note that is was a small study and it was done on the college level so it is hard to say how well it would apply to a K-12 environment. We also can't rule out effects like the teacher being biased towards the contract grading system or the result being a statistical fluke. Still I think it is a really interesting idea. One that deserves more studies at more educational levels.

The full paper is titled "Use of Contract Grading to Improve Grades Among College Freshmen in Introductory Psychology" by Dana F. Lindemann and Colin R. Harbke and can be found at