When Avery Nixon started college in fall 2021 at Montclair State University in New Jersey, she was anxious about her writing proficiency after struggling academically in high school.
But on her first day of a freshman composition course in college, her professor explained he would not be grading on grammar, spelling, punctuation, vocabulary or even the quality of the work. Instead, grades would focus on tasks like regular attendance and getting work in on time. Students meeting such requirements would get a B.
“At that moment, I don’t think I had ever been so relieved in my life,” Nixon later wrote in her campus student newspaper, “The Montclarion.” “Without having to worry about getting a perfect grade, I worked harder on my writing than ever before.”
The professor called his approach “labor-based grading.”
What Is Labor-Based Grading?
Labor-based grading, also known as contract grading, is largely based on the ideas of Asao B. Inoue, a professor of rhetoric and composition at Arizona State University who has written books on the subject.
Inoue says the democratic approach of labor-based grading, which rests on a set of agreements formulated by the instructor and students, empowers students because their grade is based on their effort – which they control – rather than a teacher’s preferences, which may include linguistic and cultural biases. Labor-based approaches aim to remove the focus from grades without removing the focus on quality, he says.
Labor-based grading is among newer alternative-grading approaches designed to encourage students to engage with ideas instead of stressing over trying to achieve a certain grade. It’s largely used in freshman composition courses but can also be used in creative writing, philosophy, history, sociology and other courses in the humanities and social sciences.
Writing expert Peter Elbow, an emeritus professor of English and former director of the writing program at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst, encouraged Inoue to prioritize effort in grading. In the early 1970s, Elbow was a pioneer in the practice of “freewriting” – writing nonstop for 10 minutes or so without editing or self-censoring as a way to relieve anxiety and generate ideas.
How Does Labor-Based Grading Work?
In a sample grading contract Inoue posted online, he tells students that “conventional grading may cause you to be reluctant to take risks with your writing or ideas.”
In his writing classes, grades will be lower than a B if students only partially meet expectations and higher if they contribute more labor, such as revisions or creating handouts of use to the class. Students are guaranteed a B if they meet the following requirements:
- Miss no more than two classes out of 15 per semester.
- Come to class on time.
- Work in groups “cooperatively and collegially.”
- Turn in writing assignments on time, other than for exceptions spelled out on the syllabus.
In “hybrid” classes, the quality of additional writing is evaluated for students pursuing an A beyond labor-based criteria that guarantees a B.
Inoue encourages teachers to adapt the criteria of labor-based writing to suit their curriculum and the needs of their students.
In Nixon’s case, her freshman composition professor required three drafts of each paper plus reading a textbook that spelled out how to do citations and formatting.
“No writing is ever perfect, so he would give notes on every single draft,” she says, “and there were also quick 15-minute Zoom conferences.”
How Common Is Labor-Based Grading?
It’s unclear how many college professors use labor-based grading or a variation of it. Reliance on grading loosened during the COVID-19 pandemic at many schools, and an interest in Inoue’s approach is increasingly common – particularly among instructors of first-year students – at community colleges and institutions such as Middlebury College in Vermont, Boston University in Massachusetts and the University of California system.
Inoue says he is routinely contacted about labor-based grading and has spoken on the topic at colleges across the country. In Washington State, home to 34 technical and community colleges, Inoue was hired to train interested writing instructors.
“We estimate that about half of our community and technical colleges are either offering, or in the process of implementing, an English class based on labor-based grading,” says Laura McDowell, director of communications for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
“Labor-based grading is trending, even if everyone isn’t sold on it,” says Staci Perryman-Clark, chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and director of intercultural and anthropological studies at Western Michigan University.
Cultural Considerations of Labor-Based Grading
McDowell says the goal is to help college faculty “transform their instruction and assessment practices to eliminate racial bias.” She adds that more than half of the students at Washington State’s technical and community colleges are students of color.
Many proponents of labor-based grading say it has a social justice dimension, and that insistence on Standard English as the way students should express themselves in writing has an inherent cultural bias.
Inoue, who is of Japanese descent, says he grew up in poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods in North Las Vegas where Black English was primarily spoken “and where I first came to my English languaging.” He received remedial English instruction in college, which contributed to his interest in equity, linguistic bias and what he calls “antiracist assessment work.”
Inoue has written that “race is connected to the judging of English” and says he hopes to help spare his students from the self-doubt he felt in college. He was required to take remedial English not because of the quality of his ideas, he says, but because of judgment about how he wrote.
“A student from a marginalized community could say, ‘I want to learn the dominant code,’” also known as Standard English, “’and I want to be successful at that,’” says Inoue. That student may also recognize that variants of all languages have a grammar and that the designation of one as better than another is political, he says.
Is Labor-Based Grading Effective?
Information is scant on the success of students who have completed a class that employs labor-based grading as they move on to other classes that require writing. Complicating such an assessment is that research repeatedly shows that different professors may grade the same paper differently.
Perryman-Clark says labor-based grading is effective “because it empowers students to be more active in the choices they make about the kind of language education they want.”
“Having students understand that there are multiple linguistic systems, and the ones they used at home are equally valid, tells students that their merit and cognitive language abilities are no less sophisticated than others with more privilege, and that they have choices to learn and use the dominant codes associated with Standard English or not,” she says. “It is empowering to students to pick and choose how they use language as opposed to telling them what they should or should not do. Labor-based grading opens up these possibilities.”
Inoue’s work has generated interest and critique, particularly among college faculty who have become discontent with grading as a form of evaluation.
Ellen Carillo, an English professor at the University of Connecticut and author of “The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading,” says Inoue’s approach is important, “but he doesn’t go far enough. He looks to ‘labor’ as a substitute for ‘quality,’ as if ‘labor’ were neutral. Each assignment is broken down on the amount of time it’s expected to take.”
“But who says how long it’s supposed to take someone – especially with a disability – to finish something?” Carillo asks.
Carillo, whose academic specialties include writing studies and rhetoric and composition, has instituted what she calls “engagement grading,” where students are offered a range of ways to produce knowledge – from writing to video to infographics – and flexible deadlines.
Other critics suggest that labor-based grading lowers or eliminates standards and academic rigor – that “somehow standards and rigor have been thrown out the door, and that in such a class students don’t have to learn anything,” Inoue says. He contends that students in those classes work harder and “have a critical insight into institutional practices like grading that harm them.”
Nixon, who has ADHD, says labor-based grading works for her.
“Most people would probably think grading solely based on participation and just turning in the work would be a gateway for students being lazy in their writing,” Nixon wrote in her student newspaper article, “but for me, it’s been the complete opposite.”
While still a freshman, she was chosen as an assistant opinion editor of the paper.
“They chose me because I wrote so much,” Nixon, now a sophomore, says, “and I was writing so much because of my professor’s class and my new confidence in writing.”