How Do You Do Labor-Based Grading In Pre-Existing Curricula?

As many universities go to pass/fail options in their courses to address the COVID-19 pandemic, this may be the perfect time to try out labor-based grading contracts safely. In one sense, our needs to dramatically rethink our classrooms and grading practices can give an opportunity to try the practice now, and allow our students to exercise extra patience with us, which many I'm sure are accustom to in these trying times. Your department chair, principal, or program director may be more willing to let you try the practice in times like these, since it can easily offer students some reduced stress in already stressful times. So, if you feel you can, and you think your students will benefit from your trying, I offer some ideas.

What's Labor-Based Grading Contracts

For those who may not know about labor-based grading contracts, let me offer a short explanation. If you know already, you can skip this section.

While I'm about ready to abandon the term "contract" in the name, I still feel that it best describes to the most people what this practice is and how it's different from conventional grading systems. But if you prefer, and some do, you may think of this as a labor-based grading agreement that is written down, negotiated with the entire class, and renegotiated at mid-point of the term. It uses ONLY labor, or time on task and amount of words read or written, as a way to determine if a student has achieved the designated course grade negotiated. While you still provide formative feedback on all assignments and writing, you don't attach any grades to any writing or assignments, and you don't use the acquisition of grades or points to determine final course grades. The contracted grade is a final course grade only.

If the student does all that is asked in the spirit asked, then they get full credit, and the course grade contracted for. My contracts are ones that contract for a B-course grade, and they are corporate contracts, meaning they apply to everyone in the class. However, I take time each week in a variety of ways to remind students about our agreement and ask them to reflect upon their labor and the amount of it that I'm asking from them. I use these reflective moments to take note myself of any problems, adjust, and let them know how I'm hearing them and how I'm adjusting.

I can also imagine a labor-based contract that may have be slightly different for some students in the class, depending on my students' circumstances, and what develops in our negotiations.

CoverThere is a lot more. If you want to dig into labor-based grading contracts, you can read my last book, Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom (2019). Chapter three of that book, "What Is Labor-Based Grading Contracts?" is the most direct explanation of what this system is. To read an earlier account of labor-based grading contracts as antiracist classroom assessment, see chapter four in an earlier book of mine, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing For a Socially Just Future. Both books are free online. And for an even older account of mine, see "A Grade-less Writing Course that Focuses on Labor and Assessing."

Most important to know about labor-based grading contracts is that I use them as a way to create antiracist assessment ecologies in my classrooms, ones that avoid the white supremacist and racist outcomes that grading by a single standard causes in writing classrooms. They have provided my students and I with ways to meaningfully engage with standards, our own ways of judging language, and the expectations of language outside our classroom imposed by others. All the while, everyone gains more confidence as communicators.

Doing Labor-Based Grading With Pre-Existing Curricula

@AJonesDaly asked me a good question:

I'm reading @AJonesDaly asking me about labor-based grading contracts as antiracist work amid COVID-19 and within teaching conditions that may be constrained in a number of ways. Many writing teachers work as adjuncts or contingent labor. As @AJonesDaly suggests, these situations, like those of many GTAs (graduate teaching assistants), may have set curricula, assignments, and policies for the writing courses involved. Of course, I think it is wise always to talk to one's director, chair, or whomever is in charge of setting policies and curricula, but I would not let this be a barrier to ethical grading practices. And if your chair or director is reasonable, then they will listen.

If you go to such a person with the request to do labor-based grading contracts, it likely will mean that your class is gonna have to break free of the structural boundaries set by the program or department, like grading policies and how some common assignments are evaluated or used. My first strategy would be to make that request with some concrete ways to show the benefits of contracts in your classroom and other writing courses. That is, what information from your course can you show afterwards that will reveal how successful the experiment is, or how meaningful and perhaps beneficial the practice is for the program and its students?

No one teaches on an island. And this is at the heart of @AJonesDaly's question. I think it is a compelling argument for a teacher to say, I want to try this new grading practice that has been used in many other places with much success. I can collect some information from my experiment here, and see how effective it is for our students and our writing program. So the ask is really one not about what you want to do in your course, but what you think your course can do for everyone's courses.

Concretely, this means go to your chair or director with a short list of measures or data you'll gather from your course that will help you decide how successful contracts were after the term is over. I'd make a list of maybe 3-4 data points, ones not too onerous to gather and ones that can be easily folded into the students' course work. You might even ask the director or chair what they think would be most convincing evidence for them.

If I were pushed, I might also ask what evidence the department or program currently has that proves its current practices are effective for the students it serves today.

Just off hand, some possible data you could collect are:
  • Grade distributions: Administrators always want to know these things. They can help understand institutional impact, but they will tell you very little about what students learn. Related to this is pass/fail rates, and if you are really eager and have institutional support, I'd ask for retention data too. You gotta get that from your office of institutional research and assessment. They can run those numbers at the end of the year or in the fall, depending on how they define "retention." 
  • Independent measure of the nature of students' writing from your course: This is not the same as quality measures like portfolio ratings or holistic scores of essays. Those use a single standard. I'm talking about capturing the rich ways students end up doing language in your course. I've used course "journals" or "collections" in the past to capture this, but one could also have portfolio swaps with another teacher, where you read theirs and they read yours, and what is produced is only a thick description of what the teacher/reader sees in each portfolio. From these thick descriptions from an outside reader, you can distill what your students are learning and doing in writing that is independent of your reading of your students' work. You may also have a comparative measure (what students are doing in a similar course that does not use grading contracts). 
  • Time on Task measures: How much time (in minutes) in writing and reading tasks do students spend on average in the class, or during the first half and the second half of the term? We all want students to spend more time reading and writing. I use my labor logs to capture this. Those logs turn out to be a great reflective tool for students. But do not use them as a way to make students accountable to labor requirements. I'm explicit about this. I'd rather their logs be honest records of their labor for our class. They are more meaningful when they are honest. 
  • Surveys of students' feelings about the practice near the end of the term: Did they like contracts? Did it help them in their learning or writing in some way? Do they feel more confident in their writing? Do they prefer contracts over conventional grading? Getting this information from the pens or minds of students is often more compelling than you discerning it, but it is nice to triangulate this survey data with another measure, like the independent measure of the nature of students' writing or grade distributions. 
  • Reflections at key points in the term (early, mid, late): I ask directly about what they understand is useful or not about contracts in the opening week, midpoint, and end of term. It's a way for us to talk in class about our concerns, and celebrate together what we love about the course. It's a kind of surveying that is more pedagogical, and if you do this formally in class, not only is it useable data to understand how successful contracts are in your class, but it is a way for students to keep present in their minds the fact that this class is a contracted class, that it requires us all to think and act differently. This helps a lot. It's the reminding that is useful. 
Be careful. Do not fall into the trap of assuming that the standard or conventional ways of grading in your writing program or department, say by points or grades, is a benchmark by which you must somehow match or beat. That is, I think a labor-based system requires different assumptions about what makes them valid enough and meaningful to students experiences and learning. Grades and points seem so convincing, but they are a smokescreen. They are not a universal benchmark. They do not tell you the kind of things that most of the above data can. However, the temptation will be to try to understand how well your students did at learning the dominant, standardized English. Some likely will learn that, but if that's the goal, then it may not be a good idea to use labor-based grading contracts.

So I like to ask up front: What will be an ideal, meaningful, and ethical outcome if everything goes well? What measures will help me understand how close I came to this outcome, or how off I was in understanding what meaningful and ethical outcomes are for my students?

For instance, I've never seen a writing program have an outcome like: Students will reflect upon and articulate how confident as writers they are, and how meaningful their writing practices and products are to them today. Imagine if most of your students left your classroom or program feeling confident about themselves as writers. Is that a meaningful and ethical outcome? I think, it can be. I know, more students would leave more interested and excited about language. Isn't that significant?

Photo by Kiyoshi Inoue, "Hummingbird"
The bottom line is that labor-based grading contracts just are not always compatible with pre-existing grading policies, so they require some adjustments. But this is only because the biases in labor-based grading systems are not the same as those of conventional ones. And that is why I use them. I find the biases that are wedded to conventional point- and grade-systems to be racist and white supremacist, so I have let them go.

If you are interested in thinking more about how to assess your course's grading ecology, you might look at chapter 7, "How Effective Can Labor-Based Grading Contracts Be?" in my last book.