What is a labor-based grading system and how will it produce a final course grade 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 fourth 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. 


Q4. What is a labor-based grading system and how will it produce a final course grade in a writing course? 

To counter the problems with conventionally produced grades, this course uses a labor-based grading contract. This means that there are no grades put on any individual papers, assignments, or activities. While the quality of the products of your learning and labors in this course are always carefully and rigorously discussed, those judgements are not used to determine your final course grade. 

You don’t have to worry at all about pleasing the teacher or anyone else in order to get the course grade you want. Your grade is already figured out by how much work you are willing to do. This means that you’ll have to find other reasons to listen to what others say about your writing. And we’ll work on doing that. But rest assured, you will receive a final course grade. That grade is the only grade produced in the class. All of the rest of the evaluations on your work will be in the form of language, since this is a language course and that language can speak directly to what you’ve accomplished and what your readers’ expectations are for your writing. 

Now, a labor-based grading system produces your final course grade by focusing on how much labor, or effort, you do in this course. The more labor you do, the higher your final course grade will be, regardless of what anyone thinks of the products of that labor. Why focus on labor to determine a final course grade in a course like this? Simple: If your learning is closely equated to your laboring, to your working in a course, then using your labor to determine a final course grade is the closest, most democratic way to determine your final course grade. Your labor -- that is, your efforts and work -- is the closest thing we have to directly understanding your actual learning, not just its products, like a paper. Both are important, but your labor -- your actual experiences of reading and writing -- is your learning and it is a more democratic measure of learning in diverse groups of students than a teacher’s grades of so-called quality on papers. 

One way to understand this focus on labor and effort is to consider what this course really is about. This is a writing course, not a paper course. Writing is a verb, a practice. It is labor. A paper is at least one step removed from that labor and learning. It is a product of your labor, not your labor itself. So our grading system should align with what this course is mostly about, which is your acts of learning, your labors of writing. 

You may be wondering why this system is more democratic than other grading systems? Simple, it is a grading system based on a set of social agreements that the class negotiates together. The grading contract’s agreements come from initial discussions about how much labor or work will constitute each final course grade possible. In labor-based grading systems, you, the student, get more control over what makes your final grade than in conventional systems, where a teacher’s judgements of your writing dictate most of your grade. In labor-based systems, how your teacher feels about your work has no bearing on what course grade you get, but of course, it does have bearing on what you might learn or what you might do next in your writing. 

This really means that labor-based grading is designed to help you listen to your colleagues’ and teacher’s feedback on your writing and other work. Only now, your goal cannot be to follow orders in order to get a higher grade, instead you are free to listen, consider things, ignore ideas, or ask more honest questions of your readers. You are now free to make your own decisions on your writing. 

There will still be general guidelines for assignments in order for them to count as complete labor. These are simple things like: How much time you spend on a task, whether you followed the labor instructions, and how many words you produce or read. But beyond these basic guidelines, that’s it. While the teacher or others may say they don’t agree with your ideas or find problems with your writing, these concerns will not affect your course grade at all. They will be the material of our conversations about your writing. 

So we’ll work from agreements about our available time in order to make our labor-based grading contract. We’ll consider everyone’s schedules and time available, as well as the course goals and our individual goals for learning. Because we’ll negotiate together our expectations of time as well as the other terms of our grading contract, our grading system is by definition more democratic than ones controlled by the teacher alone. For instance, we’ll negotiate the answers to questions like: 

  • How much access to time each week do we feel is appropriate for this course, given what we hope to accomplish and what is expected of each of us? 
  • How much labor each week will constitute A, B, or C progress? 
  • How will you know when you have completed the labor of an assignment adequately?
  • How will the teacher know that you’ve followed the labor instructions for any reading or writing assignment? 
  • What are the markers of your labor that can be used both for our contract purposes and for your own reflection purposes? 

Understanding and coming to agreements about these kinds of questions make for a more democratic and fairer grading system, especially in a writing class where our judgements of each other’s writing will vary widely and require us to use our biases and differing standards. And to grow as writers, we will all need to be brave, take risks, fail at things, and learn through all that. Our contract keeps grades out of the way in these important and central learning tasks. 

To ensure the fairest and most democratic contract, we’ll renegotiate our grading contract at midpoint in the term. This is because lots of things happen between the first day of class and that midpoint. We just cannot know all that life will throw at us, and if we want our grading contract to be fair and equitable for everyone, we need to reexamine it, reflect on how it has been working for each of us, and perhaps adjust it. 

Most of the time, there are few adjustments to be made, but what is most important for us is that we work together as a class, a community of learners helping each other learn and grow, to determine the best possible learning and writing conditions for all of us. And of course, this will allow us to set aside the negative and bad things that grades tend to create in classrooms when we come to expect them on our work. 

The bottom line is that our labor-based grading contract is a set of social agreements about how much work we will do in order to get any particular grade. This contract allows us to avoid many of the negative side effects of grades on our learning and psyches. To make sure it’s as fair as possible, we’ll renegotiate it at midpoint, after which the contract cannot be changed. This kind of grading system -- that is, a gradeless course -- allows us to write and respond to each other in better conditions than conventional courses offer. And it allows us to pay meaningful attention to how much labor we do for each other in this course. 


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.