After finals wrap up and the semester ends, students’ GPAs serve as some of the only concrete evidence of what they accomplished in the classroom—almost certainly all that a future employer will see. From ninth grade forward, grades often represent the quality of work a student can produce, but a new system called labor-based grading evaluates students based on the amount of work they exert, not their mastery of a subject.
In a recent column published by Inside Higher Ed, George Washington University professor Sandie Friedman argued for increased use of labor-based grading in light of the stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Right now, few places outside of college writing courses use the technique, but its expansion would bring about a major shift in schooling.
In labor-based grading, teachers and students form a contract at the beginning of the semester to negotiate the standards for final course grades. The class reexamines the contract at the semester’s midpoint to ensure it remains fair for everyone.
The contract details in clear, measurable steps how much work it takes to receive the baseline grade. As long as students arrive for class, turn in work on time, and meet the word count and reading requirements, they can usually count on a B.
Labor-based grading rewards everyone equally for completing the work outlined in the contract. Assignments may receive student and teacher feedback, but the grade ignores that feedback.
To earn a higher grade, students perform additional tasks that typically benefit the entire class, like giving lectures, writing evaluations of classmates’ work, and writing longer assignments.
Asao Inoue, a professor and associate dean at Arizona State University, has researched and written several books on labor-based grading. He said the system helps students turn from laboring for a grade to laboring to learn. He added it can avoid some of the bias inherent in English grading standards that reward students who grew up immersed in the speaking and writing conventions of white, middle-class families.
But labor-based grading naively suggests that everyone has the same amount of time to spend on schoolwork. In a book review for the Journal of Writing Assessment, Shane Wood pointed out that not all students “have the same affordances to labor.” If some students can produce A-quality work in a short amount of time, should teachers penalize them? What about students whose job or family schedules don’t allow them to complete more classwork to earn a higher grade? Wood called for more research on the subject.
If colleges detach grades from mastery or quality, employers might find it more difficult to screen job candidates fresh out of school. Students with high GPAs “must display some combination of intelligence and work ethic,” which are positive indicators of success, businessman Peter Gudmundsson recently wrote in U.S. News & World Report.
The practice has not spread widely in academia, but it could gain more traction as teachers look for ways to help students cope with the challenges of going to college during a pandemic.
“In the era of COVID, we must give ourselves credit for working toward a goal, if not always meeting that goal,” Friedman said.