Grading contracts should be implemented in arts classes at Chatham University

Photo Credit:

Abigail Hakas

Grading is one of the most stressful parts of a student’s time at college. Uncertainty about exams, essays and homework assignments plague all majors, but what about the arts classes? Art is – uniquely – objectively subjective, so grading is based on each teacher’s personal discretion. This is where grading contracts should come into play.

A grading contract is a written agreement that a student and professor make. Grading contracts outline exactly what must be done to receive a certain grade, and each student will “contract” the grade they want. This means students know exactly what is expected of them, and

professors know exactly what the student wants out of the class. Grading contracts are based on labor rather than subjective quality of the art in question. 

In some classes, this would take the form of extra projects or out-of-class work. In other classes, it might simply mean spending more time working on projects. The default grade in classes with grading contracts is a B, and the requirements to get a B remain open for classroom negotiation.

The benefits of grading contracts in art classes are numerous. It allows students to take risks with their art and explore new techniques, rather than sticking to what they know best. This is especially important in college-level art classes where students are deciding exactly what they want to focus on in their work.

Grading contracts also allow for individual negotiation and compromise. For example, a student may have done more assignments than needed for a B in the class, in which case the professor and student could discuss what it takes to get to an A-/A grade. These contracts emphasize the importance of student-teacher communication by encouraging open dialogues regarding grades.

Implementing grading contracts also allows for a change in the way feedback occurs. Most writing or art feedback explains where points were lost and why, which can cause frustration given the understanding that art is inherently subjective. Grading contracts mean that individual assignments are not graded by quality, but quality is still discussed. Instead of justifying grades, the focus of the feedback is the strengths and weaknesses of the art, and how the student can improve their work. 

Another important reason why grading contracts should be used in arts classes is that students would not be penalized for coming into a class with no experience. With the current grading system, those with an educational background in traditional arts would have an advantage over those who have never been professionally trained. This is not conducive to fair and free learning.

Such contracts also encourage cross-disciplinary learning. Paintings can inspire pottery, which can inspire written works. Colleges should encourage this interdisciplinary exchange of students and ideas. Students may be less apprehensive about learning a new art if it were based not only on subjective quality but also on the effort and attention given to the work. College is a time for exploration, and art should be accessible to all without anxiety over it lowering a GPA.

Some in the administration may be apprehensive about this shift in grading from quality of work to labor. However, skill in art comes from enduring practice. Encouraging practice instead of perfectionism allows students to produce more art – and, thus, increase their skill. Students learn through making mistakes; they should not be punished for learning.