What is Labor-Based Grading?
Labor-based grading (also known as contract grading or a labor-based grading contract) is a type of alternative grading style where grades are based on the amount of labor that is agreed upon between students of the course and the course’s instructor. Labor-based grading involves the co-creation of a course contract at the start of the semester that is utilized to grade all members of the course. Faculty and students also return to the contract at midterm to review and make possible changes. This co-created contract only focuses on the labor required for learning, such as the amount of time spent on an assignment, rather than the “quality” of the work that is produced while learning.
In labor-based grading contracts, the course typically has a default grade, which indicates that if a student does all of the labor that is agreed upon in the contract, a student will receive said default grade, no matter what. In this framework, a student can earn an “A” by engaging in more than the baseline amount of labor for the course. The course contract establishes what kinds of labor that further supports student learning can be asked of, but not required, by an assignment or activity to result in a higher grade. For an example of a Labor-Based Grading Contract, please see Asao Inoue's example contract (2020).
Labor-based grading builds off of two key assumptions: 1) all labor can be quantified in words read or written or time spent on an activity/assignment and that 2) separating the course grade from how and what students learn in the course is ultimately beneficial to student learning.
What are the benefits of labor-based grading?
“Quality” is a subjective measure that can be opaque to students. Grading based on the “quality” of student work often does not provide room for failure and prevents students from taking risks in their learning. Quality-based grading incentivizes students to aim for a good grade and their instructor’s approval.
Labor-based grading addresses these issues by ensuring that students are focused on the process of their learning and the labor that goes into learning and skill development. By deemphasizing the letter grade, students are able to more fully think and reflect on the work they are doing. Rather than trying to determine what is considered high-quality work from the perspective of their instructor, students work toward clear goals that have been mutually established.
Because labor-based grading requires students to create a contract for what intellectual labor looks like in the classroom, it also encourages them to think about grading practices as a whole and how to measure learning holistically. Students and instructors are encouraged to engage with notions of fairness, what constitutes enough labor in terms of learning, and how much grace and rigor is required in a classroom environment.