Journal of Nursing Education

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Development and Implementation of A Contract Grading System

Louis C Kruse, RN, MA; Diane M Eager Barger, RN, MS

Abstract

Written assignments and quizzes are scored as satisfactory or unsatisfactory depending on whether or not the minima! level of performance is achieved, as delineated by individual instructors. Students who receive unsatisfactory on written work or quizzes are given an opportunity to rewrite the assignment or retake the quiz. This allows for each assignment tobe a learning experience in addition to an evaluative criterion. All contract projects are open to negotiation for alternative projects that relate to the general objectives. Students may use clinical hours for fuffilfing contract projects that require contact with agency personnel or clients.

Students write specific objectives for clinically related activities in a log which guides the student throughout the next week, informs the instructor of students' plans and progress, serves as a mechanism for weekly self-evaluation and for instructor feedback. Activities t he student plans to do related to contract projects are also recorded in the log.

The student-instructor conference has been identified as a crucial component in the success of the grade contract. Students are encouraged to discuss their strengths, weaknesses, career-goals, and contract plans with the instructor. This places the instructor in the guiding-counselingfacilitating role rather than an evaluative one. Initially, students meet with their instructors for one-half hour weekly but as student-independence and self -di ree ti on emerge, t he mee tings become less frequent.

The complete grade contracts are included in each syllabus. Students have 6-8 weeks to determine what grade they desire to achieve. This time allows for student analysis of his/her own performance and also instructor observation of clinical performance and evaluation of one written assignment, which provides a data base for a student-instructor conference regarding the grade to pursue. Once the grade contract is signed by the student and instructor the student is required to fulfill the contract, or receive a grade of incomplete. This stipulation allows for independent decision -making and studentcommitment to a decision.

Evaluation

To date, 438 students have completed our course by contract fulfillment. General response has been favorable. Evaluation data from 115 students who were graded by a contract-grading method indicates the following: 80% of the students felt the course required an appropriate amount of work for the credit earned; 92% felt the grading criteria were clearly defined and 81% indicated a desire to have contract grading in other courses. Positive evaluative student comments included the following:

"Excellent means of grading for senior ye jr."

"Coud Rrade distinctions; encouraged independence."

"Very reasonable - consistent with school's philosophy."

"Felt contrait relieved tension of competitiveness."

Negatively- toned comments, though few, have been directed primarily toward the amount of work required and instructor consistency. For example:

"Nice for students but is based on quantity, not quality."

"Need more consistency between instructors of what fulfills contract."

"Hardly any difference between an A and B grade."

The contract has been somewhat difficult for faculty and students who are comfortable in structure. Students are not lock-step in this specific grade con trac t and it is necessary for faculty to adapt to having 12-14 students involved in a variety of activities at different times and places. Students who are comfortable with scheduled, pre-planned learning activities are provided an experience to be creative and self -directing. Creative efforts by students have been demonstrated in a variety of ways in fulfilling their contracts.

The purposes of developing a contract grading method of our course were to decrease anxiety related tograde pressures, to enhance the sharing of learning experiences and knowledge gained, and to increase student self-directive ne ss and creativity. After eight semesters of use, we are satisfied with the contract…

The philosophy of the final core course at the University of Iowa, College of Nursing, provided direction for the development of a course in which students would be given the opportunity to be involved in identifying and defining his/her own specific learning needs. Because we wished to give the students as much freedom as possible in allowing them to choose their own learning experiences wherever feasible, a grading system based on a curve or a point system did not seem appropriate. Therefore, we began to explore the possibility of a grading system that would allow for flexibility, growth, and individuality- The possibility of using contract grading was considered and explored. This paper will describe the development, utilization and evaluation of a grade contract used in this course to guide students in specific learning experiences.

Before evaluation of a student can begin, the method of evaluation must be decided upon. Popham distinguishes between two methods of evaluative measurement: norm-referenced measurement and citerion-referenced measurement. He states:

At the most elementary level, norm referenced measures ace those which are used to ascertain an individual's performance in relationship to the performance of other individuals on the same measuring device. The meaningf ulness of the individual scoreemerges from the comparison. It is because the individual is compared with some normative group that such measures are described as norm referenced. Most standardized tests of achievement or intellectual ability can be classified as norm referenced measures.

Criterion referenced measures are those which are used to ascertain an individual's status with respect to some criterion, i.e., performance standard. It is because the individual is compared with some established criterion, rather than other individuals, that these measures are described as criterion referenced. The meaningfulness of an individual score is not dependent on comparison with other testees.1

Although norm-referenced grading is the method commonly psed in colleges and universities, there is evidence that this method ran be damaging to students. Cross states that there are basically two types of students; the achievement~oriented person and the failure-threatened person. Students who do above average work operate from an achievement motive, that is, they enjoy a challenge, are successful, and do not feel that failure is eminent. The student in the lower portion of the class functions from a different frame work. Rather than being an achievement-oriented person, he is a failure-threatened person. He has to fight to keep from being at the bottom of the class; he does not want to be challenged, he only wants to survive. This can be clearly demonstrated in a college which grades on a curve and has a moderate attrition rate. If a student is tenth from the bottom of the class, is in the "C" grade range, and five students drop out, he may become a "D" or even an "F" student. He may be doing the same level of work that he was doing as a "C" student, but he now has to Fight to survive in the system.

Criterion-referenced grading, unlike the norm referenced system, limits "failurethreatening" situations. With this method the student knows, at the beginning of the course, the level of achievement expected of him. The achivement level of the other students in the course has no effect on his grade.

The use of a contract, a formal written agreement between two or more parties, is an example of criterion-referenced measurement. The idea of "contract grading," or perhaps more appropriately, "contract assignments," is not new to education. In 1922, Helen Parkhurst published the idea of using con tracts for student learning; she christened her idea the Dalton Laboratory Plan (after Dalton, Massachusetts, one of the first places to use the plan). This plan was based on two main principles: freedom and cooperation. Under the plan, lhe student knew exactly how much work was expected from him for a given unit of time. It was then his responsibility to pace himself to complete the required work. Students were encouraged to interact with one another and to share their knowledge. The students were not separated from other students on the basis of intelligence, nor were they graded on a scale dependent upon t he grades of others. The student was judged entirely by whether he completed the work delineated in the contract.* However, by 1931, some educators were beginning to condemn the plan, stating that it stressed quantity rather than ouality, students were failing to distribute their time properly, and teachers were no longer creating an interest in their subjects.4

If this method of grading was once tried and failed, why try to revive it? Bockman states that it was not the contractual process that failed, but the contractual instrument. He states:

It is nut surprising that the Dalton Plan was subjected repeatedly tu abuse, misunderstanding, and misupplication by ill-informed, inexperienced teachers and administrators, as well as by mindless zealots. A rigid, unrealistic contract instrument, perhaps loo reminiscent of tKe "indenture, " was probably m the forefront uf such abuse.4

Bockman goes on to cite an instance where a contract meant to be completed in six months, would have taken a minimum of three years to complete. However, Bockman thinks tha t the proress of contracting can be very personalized, humanizing, and growth producing. He feels it is the process of contracting which must be stressed rather than the contract itself.4

The use of a contract tor the purpose of assigning a grade has been used quite successfully in nursing courses. 5~s Rauen and Wa ring see the con trac t as a device that allows the student more independence and places the teacher in a consultant role. They stress the process of contracting or the idea of a student and instructor working together to facilitate learning,

Because the student has the freedom to choose within set limitations, he feels responsible for fulfilling his goals. And since the student chooses hie own achievement goals and learning activities, the teacher is free to guide him toward fulfilling his goals through reference to helpful resources, counseling and encouragement. This system eliminates the grading "curve, "the teacher-dominated course, and ambigous objectives and requirements.5

Lindberg and Simms also see the grading contract as a method of increasing the independence of students. In addition, they propose that contract grading would decrease competition, thereby increasing the potential for individual growth and learner satisfaction.7

Both of these authors reported that the use of contracts was highly successful and gave examples of contracts. However, the nursing literature did not cite examples of clinical courses that used contract grading. And while they gaveexamples of contracts, they did not deal with the actual development of the contract.

So while the use of a written contract to be agreed upon by the instructor and the student seemed like the ideal grading method to opera tionalize our philosophy, the task of developing a workable contract became the challenge.

Development of the Contract

In the initial stage of developing the contract, we found it necessary to focus on the purpose of the contract. What would a contract do that a more traditional method of evaluation could not accomplish? The benefits we saw as being inherent in a contract method of evalutaion were: (l) The contract would free the student to work on material that he/she wished to learn without the pressure and anxiety of the traditional method of grading;5 (2) The contract would allow the student to share learning experiences because this form of evaluation decreases student competition and facilitates cooperative learning endeavors and a supportive learning environment; (3) The contract would allow the student to make an independent decision about what he/she wanted to learn, relative to course objectives. Permitting the student to set individual goals and levels of achievement would allow control over the amount of time, energy and effort he wished to commit to course objectives.

Choice, being the most fundamental of freedoms, cannot be exercised by a teacher in behalf of a student - each learner must exercise his own choke based upon his assessment of his own ability and motivation to attain.9

Three basic premises guided faculty in the development of the contract used in this course. The first premise was that because dimensions of professional nursing practice are broad and varied, students should be allowed the opportunity to explore areas of practice that are meaningful to them. This indicated that grade contract activities should be broad enough to allow for flexibility and alternative ways of being fulfilled.

The second premise was that clinical performance criteria at each grade level of A, B or C would guide the student into which grade he/she should pursue, thereby allowing the student the option of utilizing "clinical hours" in ways that best met individual abilities and interests after basic clinical activity requirement s were fulfilled. This premise was based on the program expectation that students be clinically competent practitioners upon completion of their final nursing course (Figure 1).

FIGURE 1CLINICAL NURSING PROCESS CONTRACT ACTIVITIES

FIGURE 1

CLINICAL NURSING PROCESS CONTRACT ACTIVITIES

The third premise underlying the development of the grade contract was that students do acquire additional learning by having more experiences (quantity) as well as through experiences requiring more depth of involvement (quality). Therefore, ill contract activities would be based on course objectives with the grade variation determined by the number of activities and depth of involvement of each activity thereby building quality into quantity.

Designing the Contract

According to Christen the six elements that are essential when designing a contract are:

(1) name of the student and the date the contrat! was agreed upon; (2) objectives, that is, understanding and communicating the estent of the contract; 13) provisions of the contract, that is, the work that is to be. completed; (4) due date; (5) signatures of student and teacher; and (6) evaluation section where the teacher can comment on the work completed.10

These elements are included in the contract designed for this course, however, several modifications were made. The written evaluation of the student's work was done on a separate evaluation tool based on the contract, and rather than stating objectives for each grade level, the activities that related to the course objectives were listed.

A two-page contract was developed with specific terms and activities for each grade on one page and a second page was designated for student/faculty signatures, dates, and negotiation notations (Figure 2).

Implementation and Utilization of the Contract

The grade contract in Figure 1 was evolved overa period of several semesters. As new faculty have worked with the contract and student evaluations have been analyzed, modifications have been made. As indicated in the contract, students are required to meet basic course objectives via specific activities listed in the course syllabus. Because all students meet these requirements, they are not listed on the contract, however, they are eluded t o in the blanket statement in each contract as "study the course ana unit objectives and demonstrate that I am able to meet them."

FIGURE 2SUMMARY: COURSE AND CONTRACT ACTIVITIES (REFER TO SYLLABUS FOR COMPLETE INFORMATION)

FIGURE 2

SUMMARY: COURSE AND CONTRACT ACTIVITIES (REFER TO SYLLABUS FOR COMPLETE INFORMATION)

Written assignments and quizzes are scored as satisfactory or unsatisfactory depending on whether or not the minima! level of performance is achieved, as delineated by individual instructors. Students who receive unsatisfactory on written work or quizzes are given an opportunity to rewrite the assignment or retake the quiz. This allows for each assignment tobe a learning experience in addition to an evaluative criterion. All contract projects are open to negotiation for alternative projects that relate to the general objectives. Students may use clinical hours for fuffilfing contract projects that require contact with agency personnel or clients.

Students write specific objectives for clinically related activities in a log which guides the student throughout the next week, informs the instructor of students' plans and progress, serves as a mechanism for weekly self-evaluation and for instructor feedback. Activities t he student plans to do related to contract projects are also recorded in the log.

The student-instructor conference has been identified as a crucial component in the success of the grade contract. Students are encouraged to discuss their strengths, weaknesses, career-goals, and contract plans with the instructor. This places the instructor in the guiding-counselingfacilitating role rather than an evaluative one. Initially, students meet with their instructors for one-half hour weekly but as student-independence and self -di ree ti on emerge, t he mee tings become less frequent.

The complete grade contracts are included in each syllabus. Students have 6-8 weeks to determine what grade they desire to achieve. This time allows for student analysis of his/her own performance and also instructor observation of clinical performance and evaluation of one written assignment, which provides a data base for a student-instructor conference regarding the grade to pursue. Once the grade contract is signed by the student and instructor the student is required to fulfill the contract, or receive a grade of incomplete. This stipulation allows for independent decision -making and studentcommitment to a decision.

Evaluation

To date, 438 students have completed our course by contract fulfillment. General response has been favorable. Evaluation data from 115 students who were graded by a contract-grading method indicates the following: 80% of the students felt the course required an appropriate amount of work for the credit earned; 92% felt the grading criteria were clearly defined and 81% indicated a desire to have contract grading in other courses. Positive evaluative student comments included the following:

"Excellent means of grading for senior ye jr."

"Coud Rrade distinctions; encouraged independence."

"Very reasonable - consistent with school's philosophy."

"Felt contrait relieved tension of competitiveness."

Negatively- toned comments, though few, have been directed primarily toward the amount of work required and instructor consistency. For example:

"Nice for students but is based on quantity, not quality."

"Need more consistency between instructors of what fulfills contract."

"Hardly any difference between an A and B grade."

The contract has been somewhat difficult for faculty and students who are comfortable in structure. Students are not lock-step in this specific grade con trac t and it is necessary for faculty to adapt to having 12-14 students involved in a variety of activities at different times and places. Students who are comfortable with scheduled, pre-planned learning activities are provided an experience to be creative and self -directing. Creative efforts by students have been demonstrated in a variety of ways in fulfilling their contracts.

The purposes of developing a contract grading method of our course were to decrease anxiety related tograde pressures, to enhance the sharing of learning experiences and knowledge gained, and to increase student self-directive ne ss and creativity. After eight semesters of use, we are satisfied with the contract evaluation system and plan to continue using it as a method to facilitate students' learning and professional growth in addition to assigning grades.

References

  • 1. Popham WI (ed): Criterion - Referenced Measurement An Introduction Englewood Cliffs. Educational Technology Publica Finns, 1971. pp 19-20
  • 2. Cross KP: Bfyumi lilt Often Door. London, Jossey[Saes Inc. 1971, pp 18-31.
  • 3. Parkhurst H: EAMahn an t ht Dallan Plan. New York. EP Dutton and Co, 1922.
  • 4. Bookman JF, Bockman VM: Contracting for learning outcomes: Potentialities and limitations. NASSP Bulletin. 57:370, 1973, pp 18, 20-24.
  • 5. Ldyton J: Students select their own grades, Nurs Outlook 20:5, 1972, pp 327-329.
  • 6. Kalten K, Waring B: The teaching contract. Nun Outlook 20:9, 1972, pp 594-596.
  • 7. Lindberg J, Simms LM: Contract grading: Incentives and rewards, image 7:1, 1974 pp 20-23.
  • 8 Valade? AM, Heusinkveld KB. Teaching nursing students to teach patients. J Nurs Educ 16:4. 1977, pp 10-14.
  • 9. Bevis EO: Curriculum Building in Nursery: A Process. St- Louis, CV Mosby Co, 1973. pp 137.
  • 10. Christen W: Contracting for student learning. Educ Technol March 1976, p 27.

10.3928/0148-4834-19820501-07

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