Explaining Labor-Based Grading to Student Writers

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When Your Grades Are Based on LaborI have been working this year to shift my assessment practices toward grading students less on error and more on the labor that they bring to their writing for the courses that I teach. Ever since I heard Asao Inoue’s plenary on “Racism in Writing Programs and the CWPA” at the Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference last summer in Raleigh, North Carolina, I knew that I wanted to give the strategy another try.

What is Labor-Based Grading?

It is a pedagogical tactic that I have been developing on and off since my first year of teaching. At this point, I am in an in-between place: I am currently blending in some of practices that Inoue describes, and I am developing resources for a more complete conversion by the fall.

Recently, I have been focusing on that ways that the grading system is discussed. The contract that Inoue used at Fresno State is long and, well, contractual. It’s a three-page document that outlines everything about how the work in the course is assessed, beginning with the approach and ending with details on requirements and logistics. As you would expect of a syllabus-style discussion of course requirements, it is explicit and detailed.

Approaches for Students to Consider for Labor-Based Grading

Remind students that your course is based on your labor - which is the time and intensity that they put into their writing. Students will not be punished for making mistakes as long as they improve throughout the term. 

This grading system will not be what they are used to, so you can share the following guidelines on how they should approach their assignments:

Focus on Ideas

Focus on your ideas and what you are trying to say. Forget about the pressure to be perfect. Focusing on perfection can distract writers from developing their ideas. Because students are graded on labor, mistakes won’t undermine the grade. 

Write for Yourself 

You’re studying the kinds of writing that are important in your field and developing a sense of what makes that writing effective. Don’t worry about impressing me (the instructor). Write what will make you successful in the workplace. 

Take Risks

Try kinds of writing that stretch your abilities to help you learn new things. There’s no need to play it safe. After all, the safe, easy route doesn’t push you to improve your writing. 

Have a Do-Over

If you take a risk and it doesn’t turn out, you can always try again. Just as in a game, you have unlimited do-overs. Making mistakes is part of the learning process. As long as you are trying to improve your work, you can’t fail. 

Put In the Effort

You will write, rewrite, start over, and try again. All this work counts, as long as you listen to feedback, incorporate what you hear, and reflect on how to improve. 

Wrap Up & Additional Resources on Labor-Based Writing

Obviously, courses need this kind of document, but I wanted to break the explanation up into a series of shorter pieces. To begin, I wrote When Your Grades Are Based on Labor, a webpage that introduces the key aspects of the system from a student’s perspective. As I explained last month, I have been using Infographics as Readings in an effort to align course materials with students’ reading styles, so I also created the infographic on the right to present the ideas.

My goal is to list the basic details in the infographic, with additional information explained on the webpage. I would love to get some feedback on whether I’ve succeeded in the comments below.

Additionally, if you would like to know more about this assessment strategy, read Inoue’s publications on anti-racist assessment and on grading students’ labor on his Academia.edu page.

Credits: Infographic was created on canva.com. Icons are all from The Noun Project, used under a CC-BY 3.0 license: report by Lil Squid, Fluorescent Light Bulb by Matt Brooks, analytics by Wilson Joseph, aim by Gilbert Bages, Switch Controller by Daniel, and Gym by Sathish Selladurai.

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.