Making your grade: How Chris Carruth is breaking the traditional grading structure

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Your professors probably don’t trust you as much as Chris Carruth trusts his students. Trust is everything in Carruth’s Meaning of Information Technology class — it’s the basis of his teaching style, his solution to the problems of modern academia and the foundation upon which the class rests.

He teaches MIT in Atlas 100, a lecture hall so spacious that it’s sometimes hard to hear him, even when he wears a microphone. Carruth speaks softly and calmly as he walks students through concepts as concrete as the construction of a computer’s motherboard or as esoteric as an artificial intelligence’s ability to love. Each class is more like a TED talk than a lecture.

Carruth approaches education democratically; in his classroom, students and teachers are equals, and they treat each other like adults. That manifests in the most concrete way that Carruth demonstrates his trust in students — grading contracts.

There’s no rubric that the teacher assesses students’ work against. At the beginning of the semester, students sign up for the grade they want to earn, and they’re told how much work they have to do to get it. Do the work, get the grade. It’s a more subjective, process-over-results approach.

“It’s getting away from this sort of structure that seems to pit students, in some ways, against the instructor,” Carruth said. “They’re holding a grade above you, and you’ve got to work toward this, all these obstacles that seem arbitrary. The grading contract is one way to combat that. You want an A? You get an A, but this is what you have to do.”

In Carruth’s MIT class, it looks like this: if you sign up for a C, you need only submit five assignments and demonstrate a “basic understanding of course material.” You can have five unexcused absences and don’t need to participate much. Students who sign up for a B must participate regularly, submit six assignments, miss no more than four classes and write a personal essay about the confluence of technology and their field of study.

To earn an A, a student has to complete every B requirement, can’t miss any assignments, must demonstrate an “advanced understanding, analysis and critique of course material,” and has to participate in a challenge in which they give up social media for two weeks.

“You still have to do the requirements, you still have to attend, you still have to contribute,” Carruth said. “So it’s subjective, but if you don’t do those base things, then the grade goes down, and the fallback is, ‘Well, you signed up for this. It’s in the contract.’”

Carruth has been teaching off and on since 2004, when he was a teaching assistant at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He taught English in Korea in 2006, and was working in IT in 2009 when he survived a rollover car crash on Interstate 25 by Eden, Colo. The accident could easily have killed him, but he walked away wanting to pursue something more meaningful.

“Life is short and everything rests on a foundation of sand, even if we tell ourselves otherwise,” Carruth said. “This is my lyrical way of saying, yes, it caused an existential crisis that set me upon my current path.”

He came to CU-Boulder to pursue graduate studies with a focus on technology for humanitarian purposes. He taught digital literacy to at-risk youth and to soon-to-be-released inmates at the Boulder County Jail, then he got offered a professorship teaching one section of Meaning of Information Technology.

Carruth heard about grading contracts two years ago at a seminar for CU’s Faculty Teaching and Excellence Program. He’d taught MIT for a semester at that point, using a traditional grading rubric, and he didn’t like assigning grades based on subjective material — how the hell could you objectively evaluate how a student relates Baudrillard and Plato to modern technology?

Then, at the FTEP seminar, Carruth heard a professor rail against established academia and bring up grading contracts as a counter to tradition. He doesn’t remember her name — only that she was fiery — but she changed the way he taught.

Grading contracts differentiate themselves from traditional systems in that students have complete ownership over their grades. In any other class, a C would be punishment for not studying, for missing assignments or class, or for not grasping the material. In Carruth’s class, the criteria for that grade is the same, but he and the student have agreed upon the grade and the level of work ahead of time — a level playing field.

“Many students have signed up for Cs,” Carruth said. “Students sign up for courses for a variety of reasons and some acknowledge that they don’t have the time or interest to fully commit themselves. I appreciate that, actually.”

So do his students.

“Professor Carruth tells you exactly what you need to do in order to keep your grade you signed up for and it’s as easy as that,” said Amanda Knapp, a junior humanities and technology and digital media double major. “The grading contract definitely changed how I would normally approach a class.”

It could also be part of the solution for teaching the so-called ADD generation, another way to engage students directly. Carruth allows computers in his class — how could you not, in a class called Meaning of Information Technology — and most students use them. He peppers his lecture slides with GIFs and video to draw students back from Facebook, Pinterest and fantasy football.
“It’s meant to parse the lecture, to have points that’ll keep you coming back, coming back, like a cat following a laser beam,” Carruth said.

He prompts discussions throughout class, banters with students and bounces ideas off of them. When no one speaks up, he doesn’t raise his voice, and never seems more than mildly annoyed that people are still waking up at 9:30 a.m. His lectures — or TED talks — are open forums.
“Going back to academia, there’s a lot of artificiality,” Carruth said. “‘Let’s create this structure, and you gotta work within this little framework.’ I want to have a real conversation, I want to break that all down. It’s just you and me. I’m not above you, I’m in the same position. Let’s have a discussion; let’s talk. Let’s learn together.”

For that, you need trust. And in Carruth’s class, that’s what you sign up for.

Ellis Arnold

Ellis Arnold is the CUI’s editor-in-chief and a journalism and political science student. He writes about diversity issues, politics, student government, music and (sometimes) life advice. Is he qualified to do that? You’ll never know. He’s a senior from Aurora, Colorado, who’s been with the CUI for eight semesters.

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