Some Thoughts on Moving into Labor-Based Grading Contracts

For a long time, I’ve been moving in the direction of ungrading. I’ve long known that grades, traditionally-defined and used, don’t reflect actual learning, and indeed often get in the way of said learning. Moreover, they harden structures of inequality and exacerbate the inequities that bedevil students throughout our teaching and learning spaces. But in the last half-dozen or so years, I’ve had the great fortune of getting to know and interact with an entire community of thoughtful, critical teachers who’ve spurred my thinking in this direction even further. Jesse Stommel’s work on ungrading and the communities of practice I’ve engaged with at Digital Pedagogy Lab helped cement my foundation. The new collection on Ungrading edited by Susan D. Blum is one of the most important books I’ve encountered for my own pedagogy and practice. I’d encountered the work of Alfie Kohn before, but wasn’t in a place to fully appreciate its imperatives. It took me being introduced to the work of Asao B. Inoue for all of this to click together for me in a way that was both tangible and ethically compelling. I finally arrived at the point where I could no longer ask “why should I move away from traditional grading,” but rather had to demand of myself, “why am I still using traditional grading?”

And then, COVID-19. And everything about teaching and learning went into survival mode. My world became dominated by Blackboard and HyFlex Teaching and Learning. Without the time to properly plan and design for ungrading, my plans went by the wayside. This is not a change to make lightly or implement half-assedly, and I didn’t have either the time or bandwidth to do any better.

However, college in the time of covid also laid bare the urgency of pedagogies and pedagogical techniques that promote compassion, equity, and justice while they center meaningful (as opposed to rote, superficial, or compliance-oriented) learning. So even though we are by no means in a “post-pandemic” world, I’ve finally made the move to what–after a lot of research, conversation, and reflection–I see as the best way for me to center equity and justice in my praxis, especially at an institution that requires me to report grades for every student at the end of every course. Following the example of some of my Grand View colleagues, I am embarking on a labor-based grading model, as developed by Asao Inoue. For me, this model offers what I see as the best way to reject traditional grading and all the inequitable and unjust baggage it carries, while honoring the labor involved in “doing History,” as aimed at in all my courses. It has a number of advantages, in my view, not least among them its clarity and honesty. Moreover, it is a model that seems truly aligned with the type of learning I hope to foster in my courses–process over product, thought and deliberation over frantically-produced quantity, space for ambiguity over an insistence on simple but fragile certainties.

So what does it look like? In putting this together, I’ve been influenced largely by Inoue’s own construction of a labor-based grading contract, as well as the writing he’s done about the system (both linked in the above paragraph), and those resources decisively shaped some of what I’ve incorporated. I’m also indebted to all the authors in the Blum anthology on Ungrading (seriously; y’all need to check it out). In the spirit of open collaboration and resource-sharing, I’m putting my syllabus explanation and contract below. I’d be interested in hearing reactions, especially from folks who are taking similar paths in a grading-critical or grade-free direction. I hope it’s helpful, or at least generative. Hell, if nothing else, the act of writing it out and throwing it up on the internet has certainly helped my own class prep.

Here’s to a new year where we continue to dismantle the structures of inequity and injustices which try to confine so much of what we do in higher education.

Grading and Learning in History 104

Think about something you’ve learned really well in your life, something you’re really good at doing. Maybe it’s a particular athletic skill, like consistently hitting a curveball or a doing a bicycle kick. Maybe you know how to rebuild an engine, or perfectly broil a steak. Maybe you are an excellent dancer, an expert welder, can teach yoga, or recite every word of every episode of Saved By the Bell. Every one of you has learned something to this level of expertise, something you’re probably better at than anyone else in this class.
Now think about how and why that learning worked. Most likely, you kept working at your thing because you loved doing it–loved the challenge of getting better, of perfecting your craft, of being able to do it just right. That’s what the psychologists call “intrinsic motivation”; your motivation came from inside you, and it was powerful enough for you to keep working at your thing, even when it got really difficult and/or time-consuming.
The opposite of intrinsic motivation is “extrinsic motivation,” which is–as you might have guessed–motivation that comes from the outside. Sometimes extrinsic motivation can act as a positive force; for example, you want to make your family proud. But if there’s only extrinsic motivation, it can get tough to sustain your effort when things get really difficult. To use an example from sports, which of these do you think would be a more powerful motivator when it’s double-overtime in a championship basketball game: you want to make the shot so that your hard-ass coach doesn’t scream at you in the huddle again, or you want to make the shot because you know you’ve practiced hundreds of hours and thousands of shots to train your body for precisely this moment? Extrinsic motivation can be powerful, but if that’s all you have, its effects definitely have a ceiling.
So what does this have to do with HIST 104? Well, a lot, to be honest. Like every other course you’ve taken, this class will result in a grade, which will calculate into your GPA, go on your transcript, all of that. But grades are extrinsic motivation. Furthermore, ask yourself: what does that grade represent? Does it tell the world how much you actually learned? Or is it simply a way you’ve been “sorted” into a category based upon snapshots of your “performance?” In other words, do grades equal learning? In over twenty years of teaching in higher education, I’ve become convinced the answer to that question is most often “no.” In fact, I think grades can actually get in the way of your learning.
I’m not the only educator who’s arrived at this position. For example, the writer and teacher Alfie Kohn has been making a case against traditional grading for several decades now. According to Kohn, grades actually limit creativity and the type of cognitive work necessary for meaningful learning. Instead, he argues, they have become a source of de-motivation. Grades increase anxiety, they promote competition instead of collaboration, they make students afraid to take risks and try new challenges–again, they are extrinsic instead of intrinsic motivators, and as a result work against the stuff that we know constitutes meaningful learning. And the ideas about education that gave us the grading system we operate under today are ideas that have outlived their usefulness (if they ever had it). Those ideas assume everyone learns the same way, at the same speed, and we’re all heading to the same place–but in fact, it’s the opposite that’s true.
The way we’ve done school and education for the last century–a system dominated by sorting and grading and ranking–now seems like inadequate preparation for whatever will come next for you. (The British educator Sir Ken Robinson has a really cool short talk on this subject, which I highly recommend.) Think back to the first question I asked here–when it comes to something you’ve learned well, something you’ve gained expertise in, how and why were you able to learn like that? Was it because of grades? External judgments? Written reports on your performance?
Probably not.
So if the goals of this course center on your learning the material and getting better at things like academic writing and historical thinking, maybe grades, as they’ve traditionally been used, aren’t the way to measure our progress towards them. I don’t think they are, and I think the negatives of traditional grades outweigh the positives. I care, most of all, about your learning. And it seems to me that our typical idea of “schooling,” with the grades and rankings that come with it, is all sorts of problematic when it comes to learning. Traditional grading is an outmoded system that reinforces rather than eliminates societal inequities–and, again, we have a bunch of research (like the books and articles linked here) that pretty convincingly tells us so.
So if traditional grades are outmoded, if they don’t reflect your actual learning, and if they actually work against the goals for this course…what are we going to do? I am required to enter a final grade for you at the end of the semester, after all.
In a course like this, it’s really the work that matters. Many of you may have had prior history courses that emphasized rote memorization (names and dates!). But this isn’t that type of course–you can Google specific dates; hell, I do that frequently and I’m paid to know this stuff. In this class, we’re going to do history, not simply passively absorb, then regurgitate, it. If you look at the course goals on the first page of our syllabus, you’ll notice that only one of them revolves around specific course content. The rest have to do with your growth and development as a student, a writer, a thinker, a historian, a human being living in community with other humans. And that growth comes from work–close reading, and re-reading; writing and revision; critical thinking and taking intellectual risks–that takes time.
Our work as historians is not always as clear-cut as people might assume. For example, we can say that in 1095, in a sermon preached at Clermont, Pope Urban II called for Christians to “retake” the Holy Land, thus setting off the First Crusade. That’s a simple statement of fact. But History is more than just facts! Why did Urban issue this call to arms when he did? Why did European nobles decide to go crusading? What effects did the crusades have on both Europe and the Islamic world? In what ways did religion and politics intersect and shape one another during the era of the crusades? What do the Crusades mean for what comes later–even up to today? These are all questions historians ask, and they’re questions that don’t have simple or single answers. In other words, it’s complicated. The work of historians is to make meaning from “just the facts.” It’s not so much about being either “right” or “wrong,” but rather thoughtful, analytical, and willing to challenge our prior assumptions. This is hard intellectual and cognitive work! It involves, among other things, thinking deeply, careful research and reading, figuring out what evidence to use and how to use it, and carefully constructing analyses and arguments. In the immortal words of Britney Spears, if you want to be a historian, “you better work, bitch.”
Therefore, grades in this course will be determined by the work you do and the time you invest in that labor.
This is what’s called a labor-based contract grading system. Here are the terms of the contract, which covers every one of us in the course:

The default grade in this course is a B-minus. You are guaranteed this grade if you meet the following criteria:

  • You miss no more than 4 of our in-person class sessions this semester. Much of the work we’ll be doing in this course depends upon engagement and collaboration, which is hard to do if you’re not present. So this type of absence will be noted as a “non-participating day.” If you miss class for a university activity, military obligation, or personal/family illness, that absence will not count as one of these four non-participating days…but please communicate with me to ensure I’m aware of why you won’t be attending that day. If you are forced to miss class/quarantine because of Covid-19 or contact tracing, you will not be counted as “absent” for the purposes of this portion of the contract. Let me know if this becomes your situation and I will make whatever accommodations necessary to assist your progress in the course. Your health and well-being is the first priority.
  • You submit the required assignments (as outlined in the course syllabus), on time and in accordance with the labor expectations outlined in each assignment. For each assignment, there will be a description of the expected work involved, as well as suggestions for success and the due date, available on our Blackboard course site. During the course of the semester, there may be occasion where you submit work late; you can do so up to four times and still fulfill the terms of this contract for a B-minus. But please note that much of what we’ll be regularly doing during this class requires your contributions by certain times in order for your classmates to contribute their work as well (this is particularly true for both the course blog and Hypothesis assignments). Any incomplete work–that is, work which does not meet the labor expectations or criteria for the assignment–will be counted as “late” until it is fully completed. Any work that’s more than one week late becomes “Ignored Work” (see below).
  • You don’t have any ignored work during the semester. I define “ignored work” as an assignment for which I don’t have anything turned in from you, or any record of your completing the work involved. I do not assign “busy work”; every assignment in this course is designed to help you progress toward the course goals. Therefore they are all important parts of this learning environment, and an expected part of the work for the course.

Using this baseline, here are the terms by which B-minus (the default grade), C-minus, and D-minus grades will be earned in this labor-based system:

Grade Number of Non-Participation Days Number of Late Assignments Number of Ignored Assignments
B-minus 0-4 0-4 0
C-minus 5-6 5 1
D-minus more than 6 6 or more more than 1

So now you’re probably wondering, OK, Dr. Gannon, what if I want to earn more than a B-minus? Is there any way to get an A in this course? And the answer is “yes,” of course; the B-minus grade is simply the baseline, and you can improve your grade by one increment (B-minus to B, B to B-plus, B-plus to A-minus, etc.) every time you do one of the following optional items of labor:

  • You may write an additional Lead Author post for our course blog. Everyone is required to be the Lead Author on the blog twice during the semester; you may do up to three additional Lead Author posts and earn a grade increment for each one.
  • You may revise and resubmit your essays after reviewing and processing the feedback you received on the initial submission. If you choose to do this revision/resubmission, there will be a brief reflective component you’ll need to complete as well; the instructions for this reflection–and for your revision/resubmission in general–are available on Blackboard.

Even if you only meet the terms for a C-minus or D-minus, you can still move up the ladder with these additional labor opportunities. For each one completed, you’ll earn one grade increment (i.e., C-minus to C; D-plus to C-minus; etc.).

Exemplary labor: If by our final meeting at the end of semester, you do not miss any classes and have no late or ignored assignments, then you will earn an extra grade increment (equal to one extra labor item) to your final course grade. This rule is meant to reward those who engage in all the work of the course in the fullest spirit asked of them and demonstrate themselves to be exemplary class citizens.
There is one final point I want to emphasize: you will get lots of assessment and feedback on your writing and other work during the semester from me (and sometimes from your class colleagues). Use this feedback to rethink ideas and improve your writing and practices, to take risks–maybe even to fail and learn from that failing. Always know that I will read everything and shape our classroom assessment activities and discussions around your work, but you will not receive grades from me. Instead, I will record whether the labor has been completed in the spirit of the task assigned. Sometimes, I will not comment directly on your work, except in class when we use it or discuss it. I want you not only to rely on your colleagues and yourself for assessment and revision advice, but to build strategies of self-assessment that function apart from a teacher’s approval.
We will take as much time as we need at the beginning of the course to talk about this labor-based system and ensure that everyone fully understands the whys and hows of how things will work this semester. However, I highly recommend this online resource from the Writing Commons about contract grading systems and what students need to know about them.
By staying in this course and attending class, you accept this contract and agree to abide by its terms. I (Kevin) also agree to the terms of this contract, and to administer it fairly and equitably.

4 Replies to “Some Thoughts on Moving into Labor-Based Grading Contracts”

  1. I like this a lot! I share a lot of your values and have been thinking about ways to motivate students to do meaningful work, which in intrinsically motivated. The questions that come up for me are these. Will my students read something this long or care to listen well enough? Can I take on the additional labor that something like this would take to do well? Probably, not at the moment, because I am still very much in survival mode, but I too have been thinking about the ungrading and ways to make it work. Thank you for writing this. Would love to see your whole syllabus, if you are willing to share. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  2. I teach physics, which is very different than history, so I’m looking at your labor contract and trying to translate it into my own teaching terms. If I give a problem set, and my expectations are that students write out general formula, known information, substitution into the general formula, and answer, with correct units in the appropriate places, and a student does NOT include the known information, you would mark it as incomplete or late, and the student would have one week to meet the expectations, or it would become ignored work? Am I understanding that correctly?

  3. Very interesting approach – I find the focus on student-led retrospection in particular very interesting as this is definitely something that I would love to foster more actively, but it often seems to fall to the wayside.
    That being said, what would your suggestions be in terms of managing this for larger classes? I feel like a key concern would be the amount of both initial feedback and re-evaluations; are you finding that the amount of time spent on returning assignments is much greater than in more traditionally designed courses?

  4. Thanks! This was really helpful! I especially like what brings the grades up, especially revising past papers. I used a model very close to Elbow’s last semester and liked it, but this one gives a little bit more flexibility to the range of student labor I’m seeing.

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