What is Labor-Based Grading? Its Pioneer Explains

labor-based grading
(Image credit: Image by Sly from Pixabay)

Labor-based grading is an alternative approach to grading in which final grades are based on a contract agreed upon between an instructor and their students. This contract assesses the amount of work students do rather than the quality, or perceived quality of the work. For instance, in a labor-based course, students might receive an “A” for submitting 10 papers of a certain length and a “B” for submitting only 8 papers. 

The method eliminates the randomness and unfairness of grades in liberal arts courses and takes away the structural inequities that can be built into the grading system, Asao Inoue says. Inoue is a professor of Rhetoric and Composition in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State and pioneered the use of labor-based grading, which has become more popular in recent years. 

“While the quality of the products of your learning and labors in this course are always carefully and rigorously discussed, those judgments are not used to determine your final course grade,” Inoue informs his students. 

He shares his inspiration for starting the practice of labor-based grading as well as tips for other educators who are interested in implementing it. He also addresses some misconceptions.

What is Labor-Based Grading and What Inspired It?  

Early in his career, Inoue became concerned about the unfairness of grades overall and, in particular, the unfair way a grade could be applied to a student from a non-white middle-class background. “Many people have been harmed or oppressed or hurt by courses that have a standard of English that they do not already come into the class with, or have practiced with in their homes or neighborhoods,” he says. “We're usually talking about an elite white, middle-class English.” 

Inoue was also concerned about the potential unfairness of grades for all students, and was inspired by Alfie Kohn’s research on the topic. “We know from research that goes back a century or more that the grades that professors and editors and lawyers and others who deal with language put on to a random set of papers are almost random,” he says. 

Finally, Inoue was inspired by the work of Peter Elbow, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who had instituted some aspects of contract grading into his courses. 

But Won’t Students Start Producing Substandard Work? 

The idea of students starting to produce substandard work is a common concern with labor-based grading. However, in practice, Inoue says, students’ work is energized. 

“What I knew as a teacher was that students were overly focused on the grade and that detracted from them thinking about revision, thinking about what I was asking them to dialogue with me and their colleagues about,” he says. 

As a result, many students were encouraged by grading culture to attempt to get the grade they wanted with the least amount of work, which Inoue says is a detrimental mindset. “It keeps students from learning in ways that I think most educators encourage and think are valuable, like taking risks or trying to do as much as you can and fumbling around and exploring, and seeing what you don't know, instead of displaying what you already know.” 

Won’t it Lead to Grade Inflation? 

Labor-based grading does not result in more students getting top marks or in an easier class, Inoue says. 

While working at Fresno State University, Inoue was co-director of the first-year writing program and instituted labor-based grading program-wide, which led to pushback from the dean and the faculty senate. 

“I looked at grade distributions in the English department, from before we instituted the programmatic use of contracts to after. What we found was that there was no dramatic difference,” he says. 

What About Due Dates?  

Inoue has worked due date flexibility and penalties into the contract he agrees to with students in different ways. “For the longest time, I set up due dates as one typically did in the schedule, then pointed students to those when we negotiated our contract in week 1. Did they seem fair and okay to all?” he says. “If not, we talked about them and altered those we felt we could or adjusted them. The same thing happened with the number of late assignments possible before a student wasn’t meeting the contract for the default grade we agreed upon.” 

He adds, “More recently, I’ve moved to having groups of assignments all due at the same time on one day, so that I can have more flexible and generous due dates. It’s usually every two weeks. This is supposed to help students with disabilities or who are neurodivergent and may need more time to accomplish work or who have lives that conflict with my suggested days to turn in work.” 

How Can Educators Learn More About Labor-Based Grading? 

The first step for educators interested in learning about labor-based grading is to do their research, Inoue says. He has materials available through his website and in other writings, but points out that there are other educators with their own labor-based models that are worth researching. In addition, he recommends looking at some of the research that has been done on the ungrading movement overall. He recommends the work of Jesse Stommel and Susan D. Blum.

Educators who institute the practice also need to do some self-reflection. “Be in touch with how you feel as a teacher,” Inoue says. “It may be increments for some people. It may not be a full labor-based system, it might be a hybrid system where grades up to a certain point are purely based on labor, but after that, it's based on quality. I find problems with that, fundamental ethical problems, but I'm not going to cast that on to everybody. I'm going to say you do your own work and figure out, what does that mean for you?” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.