New Thing: Labor-Based Grading

by James A. Bacon

The more we dig, the more we find. Last week the Jefferson Council highlighted University of Virginia art-history professor Christa Robbins, who caused a stir for cancelling class so students could vote on the Israel-divestment referendum. In her public utterances, she employed the rhetoric of intersectional-oppression theory, so we wondered whether she used the same ideological framework in her teaching.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, my colleague Walter Smith obtained a syllabus of one of her courses, “Engaging Aesthetics,” which numbers among the Engagement seminars designed to introduce first-year Wahoos to the liberal arts and sciences.

There are hints of intersectional theory — students are asked to reflect upon the “historical, geographical, and cultural differences that shape cultural expressions and hierarchies” — but we stumbled across something totally unexpected. In the syllabus Robbins gives a detailed exposition of “labor-based grading.”

It turns out that labor-based grading has become a thing in higher education. Bing’s AI describes it as “an 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. This approach assesses the quantity of work students do rather than the quality of the work.”

According to labor-based grading pioneer Asao Inoue, an English professor at Arizona State, this alternative approach to grading avoids the subjectivity and unfairness of grades based on traditional academic standards. “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 in Tech & Learning. “We’re usually talking about an elite white, middle-class English.”

Robbins tells students in her syllabus, “you enter into an agreement with the professor about what you have to do in order to earn a particular grade in the class.”

In some ways, the ground rules are tougher than under the traditional laissez-faire approach.  Regular attendance is required in the course. Students must sign in at the beginning of each class. Students are allowed only one unexcused absence, and four tardy arrivals counts as an unexcused absence. Documentation must be provided for excused absences. “Work-load, general forgetfulness and job duties do not count as valid excuses,” says Robbins.

However, the work expectations appear none too rigorous. To pass the course, students must meet the following minimal criteria:

  • Miss no more than two classes.
  • Complete the visual analysis exercise (around 300 words)
  • Complete one writing exercise (200-500 words)
  • Complete the final assignment.
  • Complete the required Engagements Experience.

To earn an A, students must do all of the above plus:

  • Miss no more than one class.
  • Post a response to the reading of at least 200 words for any missed classes within 3 days of the missed class.
  • Submit no more than three late assignments within three days of the deadline.
  • Complete all the writing exercises.
  • Miss no more than one homework assignment.
  • Participate in class discussions (this means coming to class having read the texts and prepared to discuss them), workshops, and the occasional in-class writing exercise.

Robbins demands that students complete readings before coming to class and be prepared to discuss them in detail. “This also requires having relevant documents open on your devices (when you are noticeably looking at non-class materials or chatting, I make note of it and factor it into your final grade.” She emphasizes that the quality of class participation factors into students’ grades.

To make sure students are doing the reading, Robbins conducts two “surprise reading quizzes” over the course of the term.

Otherwise, Robbins is willing to cut students some slack. If students submit a substandard assignment, they get to make it up. But only once. Future substandard assignments get a 0. She does not define what constitutes a “substandard” work product.

Students who do not participate regularly in class automatically receive a minus added to their final grade (A-, B-, C-, etc.).

Advocates of labor-based grading argue that it lays out clear expectations of the work effort demanded of students and does not result in grade inflation.

We at the Jefferson Council have seen no evidence to assess the validity of this argument, although we do view the practice skeptically against the backdrop of generalized grade inflation at UVa. The average grade point average has risen from 3.1 in 1992 to 3.6 in 2021, with the upward drift accelerating in recent years.

We do think that this grading measure is worthy of attention by the Board of Visitors. Board members should be curious to know how prevalent labor-based grading is, the grade distribution of courses in which the method is employed, whether students expend more effort or less than in other classes, and whether the practice elevates or diminishes expectations of academic excellence.

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UVA FourSquare Male
UVA FourSquare Male
1 month ago

Wow! The Arizona professor is dismissing the fact that the formal language spoken in the United States is English. If one attends a foreign university where courses are not offered in an individual’s native language, then s/he has the choice not to attend. Such individuals should not be held to a lesser standard.

Anne Carson Foard
Anne Carson Foard
1 month ago

This produced the same reaction I have when dreaming about arriving at class for a final exam in physics, having neither attended classes nor studied anything about physics for the entire semester. In reality, that never happened (well, once) and students were generally invested in being students back in those long ago days. Labor-based grading seems an overwrought attempt to address what may have become a common situation of increasing complexity in student lifestyles and/or a general breakdown in willing involvement with the structured classrooms approach to teaching. Perhaps the Covid pandemic has played a major role in this, or perhaps some students are arriving at university unprepared for its rigors. I can’t say I blame Professor Robbins for trying to address the situations she’s describing with her remedial rules, and I don’t see that she’s left quality out of the equation entirely, but in the final analysis, I’d be afraid to take her classes.

Jim Kovalchick
Jim Kovalchick
1 month ago

I recall an introduction to psychology class that was graded a little like this. If you attended class and completed a number of activities, then it was hard not to get an A. We called it a “gut.” To be honest, I learned in the course, but had anyone needed to know how well I learned, that wasn’t going to happen.

1 month ago

In the real world the result of your work is all that matters. No one cares how hard you worked. And, for sure, no one will reward you for working hard to produce something useless.
Teaching students that working hard is a substitute for good results produces useless graduates.