What does a labor-based grading system afford you as a student and learner in a writing course?

This is a series of blogposts meant for students who are in courses using grading contracts of some kind to determine their final course grades, or those who just want to understand better what grades are, what they do in classrooms, and how they effect learning. This is the fifth post in a series of five blogposts meant to address questions about grading and grading contracts. If you're a teacher (or an inquisitive student), you might look at my Labor-Based Grading Contracts Resources page. 

This series is a collaboration with the really awesome podcast, Pedagogue  (@_Pedagogue_) with Shane Wood. You can listen to me reading this blogpost at Pedagogue, or use the widget below. But maybe you just want to read it on your own below, or follow along. 


Q5. What does a labor-based grading system afford you as a student and learner in a writing course? What are its benefits? 

There are many benefits to a labor-based grading system. Labor-based grading systems counter many of the destructive things that traditional grading practices tend to encourage, which I discussed in the previous blogpost/podcast that addressed question 3, “Do grades help students learn in classrooms?” 

What does labor-based grading in a writing course afford you as a student? 

  • It doesn't penalize you for taking risks since grades are not assigned to assignments, allowing you to try new things, even things you are unsure of in your work, particularly in your writing. 
  • It doesn't diminish your interest in learning because you are not distracted by the expectation of a grade on any assignment. 
  • It refocuses your attention on the labor itself, that is, the process of doing learning, and not on a product, such as a paper written exactly the way your teacher wants. Your labor can be more about your experience of learning, and less about what product you need to give a teacher in order to get a grade. 
  • It allows you to ask better learning-based questions about your work. That is, you can ask questions that focus on how and what you wish to learn, and not what you have to submit in order to get a certain grade. 
  • It encourages intrinsic learning -- that is, learning for learning’s sake, or in our case, learning about language because language is worth learning about. It offers us many benefits without the need for grades to draw our attention away. And of course, there are many intrinsic rewards and fewer extrinsic ones created in labor-based systems.

What most of these affordances in labor-based grading systems amount to is a really big benefit in writing classrooms. Without grades on individual assignments, you can feel free to take risks in your work, especially your writing. It means that you do not need to please the teacher or peers who read and respond to your writing, even though you’ll still get lots of feedback on your writing. You’ll want to listen to those readers for different and better reasons, reasons that actually help you write and communicate better, more critically, and in an environment that feels less anxious. In fact, you may feel more joy in writing and sharing your writing in this gradeless environment. 

And don’t worry. This system gives us the chance to talk a lot about how well your writing meets a variety of expectations and standards, not just one standard, not just the teacher’s standard. It is too limiting to have only one standard active in our classroom. The more kinds of expectations we can have on our writing, the more options you have to learn from. 

This kind of gradeless environment will allow you to listen more carefully to your peers, as well as your teacher. Why? Because you’ll be confronted with a variety of ideas, often conflicting, about your writing. A teacher’s grading power will not force you to have to listen to them alone. You get to listen to others too. You won’t be pressured to follow just your teacher’s feedback. You’ll be able to think about each reader’s ways of judging and languaging on their own terms and next to each other. This can happen because you are not beholden to simply please the teacher, their rubric, or their standards. 

In this kind of learning environment, one we might call a more democratic writing environment, you have lots of new opportunities as a student and writer. One might say you have more freedom to write the way you feel works best for you, to listen to others, to ask critical questions of others, while also learning other ways of communicating. This system allows you to make your own decisions about your writing, not simply follow someone else’s orders, and learn at your pace. 

It also allows everyone’s ways with language to be valued on their own terms, even if sometimes we make hard choices about how we wish to communicate. Labor-based grading systems provide conditions for all students to have the right to their own language, and a right to learn new ways with language. 

The bottom line is that if you want meaningful and useful information from readers, and if you want to develop as a communicator and writer, you have to listen carefully to a wide range of readers, each of whom practices different ways of languaging and judging words. We have to listen to everyone in this way, even when they disagree or when you disagree with them, because only then will you have a fuller sense of what all of your language options are when you communicate with others. This situation gives a critical and responsive writer important information to act on in ethical ways. 

Labor-based grading systems help you do all these things by getting individual grades out of the classroom in order to work from a different assumption about reading and writing than conventionally graded classrooms. This assumption is a benefit to you as a writer looking to develop yourself. Think of this assumption as a motto. Good writers make decisions; they don’t follow orders. This means that good readers do not give orders; they offer rich, thick descriptions of their experiences of texts

The absence of grades frees you of the obligation to follow your teacher’s or anyone else’s orders. But it replaces that obligation with an ethical and compassionate responsibility to listen thoughtfully and carefully to others in order to consider the full range of things possible for you to do as a writer and reader. A gradeless learning environment also takes away a lot of the competitive aspects of a classroom, which allows us all to work together better. It can even allow us to work for each other, laboring for others’ benefit, not simply our own. Ironically, I think we get more from our labors when we do them for others first. 

And so, our gradeless classroom provides you as a writer with the best chances at democratically cultivating ethical and flexible language practices for future success, while at the same time providing you and your peers with conditions that afford your right to your own language, the language gifted to you by your family, friends, and past experiences.


This blog is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.