by Asao B. Inoue
Imagine that this wasn’t an official course for credit at HowardCC, but instead that you had seen my advertisement in the newspaper or on the Internet, and were freely coming to my home studio for a class in cooking or yoga. We would have classes, workshops, or lessons, but there would be no official grading of omelets or yoga poses, since letters and numbers would be meaningless in those scenarios. But we all would learn, and perhaps in an encouraging, fun, and creative environment.
In considering this course and that home studio scenario, we might ask ourselves three questions: (1) Why are grades meaningless in that home studio setup? (2) How do grades affect learning in classrooms? (3) What social dynamics does the presence of grades create? In both situations, instructors provide students or participants with evaluative feedback from time to time, pointing out where, say, you’ve done well and where I, as the instructor, could suggest improvement. In the home studio situation, many of you would help each other, even rely on each other during and outside of our scheduled meetings. In fact, you’d likely get more feedback from your peers on your work and practices than in a conventional classroom where only the teacher is expected to evaluate and grade.
Consider two issues around grades. First, using conventional classroom grading of essays and other work to compute course grades often leads students to think more about acquiring grades than about their writing or learning; to worry more about pleasing a teacher or fooling one than about figuring out what they really want to learn, or how they want to communicate something to someone for some purpose. Lots of research in education, writing studies, and psychology over the last 30 or so years have shown overwhelmingly how the presence of grades in classrooms negatively affects the learning and motivation of students. Alfie Kohn (2011), a well-known education researcher and teacher of teachers, makes this argument succinctly. To put it another way, if learning is what we are here for, then grades just get in the way since they are the wrong goals to strive for. An “A” doesn’t build a good bridge for an engineer, nor does it help a reporter write a good story, or an urban planner make good decisions for her city. It’s the learning that their grades in school allegedly represent that provides the knowledge to do all that they need to. And so, how do we make sure that our goals aren’t about grades in this class, but about learning to write?
Second, conventional grading may cause you to be reluctant to take risks with your writing or ideas. It doesn’t allow you to fail at writing, which many suggest is a primary way in which people learn from their practices. Sometimes grades even lead to the feeling that you are working against your teacher, or that you cannot make a mistake, or that you have to hide part of yourself from your teacher and peers. The bottom line is, failure at writing is vital to learning how to write better. And we have to embrace our failures because they show us the places we can improve, learn, get better–and these are the reasons we are in college! Grades on our work and writing do not allow us to productively fail. They create conditions that mostly punish failure, not reward it for the learning opportunity it can and should be.
As you might already notice, what I’m arguing for here is a different kind of classroom, and even education. Sir Ken Robinson (2010), a well-known education researcher, makes the argument in a TED talk that typical schooling, with grades and particular standards, is an old and mostly harmful system that we’ve inherited, but now needs to change. One harmful aspect of this old system is that it assumes everyone is the same, that every student develops at the same pace and in the same ways, that variation in skills and literacies in a classroom is bad. It is clear the opposites of these things are more true. For all these reasons, I am incorporating a labor-based grading contract to calculate course grades in our class.
This contract focuses on the responsibilities we’ll assume, not the things to which someone else (usually the teacher) will hold you accountable. The pedagogical shift I’m suggesting is in part a cultural one, one that I would like you to control. Therefore, we will try to approximate the evaluative conditions of a home studio course. That is, we will try to create a culture of support, or rather a community of compassion, a group of people who genuinely care about the wellbeing of each other–-and part of that caring, that compassion, is doing things for each other. It turns out, this also helps you learn. The best way to learn is to teach others, to help, to serve. So we will function as collaborators, allies, as fellow-travelers with various skills, abilities, experiences, and talents that we offer the group, rather than adversaries working against each other for grades or a teacher’s approval.
Do not worry. You will get lots of responses on your writing and other work during the semester from your colleagues and instructor. Use these responses to rethink ideas and improve your writing and practices, to take risks, in short to fail and learn from that failing. Always know that your instructor will read everything, but you will not receive grades from the instructor. Sometimes, they will not even comment directly on your work. Attempt 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.
by David Buck
In my experience, when grades are removed, students tend to focus more on the learning rather than the collection of points that grades/averages encourage (this is the “game” of school with which we are all familiar). Learning is a product of trying, being assessed, receiving feedback, and then trying once again. Instead, grades/points tend to signal to the student that the learning opportunity has ended.
I’ll be focusing on your potential rather than on your deficiencies. I will not place a single letter grade on any of your work. Instead, I will offer meaningful, engaging, and progressive feedback that will encourage you to view your learning as a PROCESS that involves multiple attempts that may produce success and even failure (but with no fear of punishment). I’ll be asking you to participate in a compassionate learning community where we collaborate and create together–by responding to one another, by offering feedback to our ideas/interpretations, and by contributing to each other’s growth.
Since writing is a process whereby the more we write (labor) the more we improve, I will be using this labor-based approach to determine your final grade (since I’m contracted by the College to award a final letter grade). But that grade will have nothing to do with what I or your peers think of the quality of your work. Instead, the grade will be a reflection of the quantity of labor that you exhibit throughout the semester and the learning growth that you explain within your reflections & self-assessments. My goal here is to value the labor, the intentional, meaningful work/thinking that is involved in producing the learning products of the course. Traditional grades tend to focus upon quality only, often using a standard that advantages those who’ve been more exposed to it or have had more opportunities to interact with that standard; they fail to reflect the labor (or work) that quantifies student learning. If you labor in the spirit and manner for which the course assignments are presented, if you attempt to meet the expectations of each academic exercise, your labor will be rewarded.
The only way to fail this course is to not do the labor nor reflect upon it.
Please Note: If extenuating circumstances cause you to miss an assignment, do not panic. Try to communicate with me immediately so that I know what’s going on. Since there are no points/grades in this course, there are no penalties for late submissions. My due dates for assignments are basically *best by* dates — they are designed to keep you on track in the course so that your labor does not pile up. No one learns deeply when they are rushed are stressed out over missing assignments! Part of your labor expectation is that you will be an engaged, present participant in our learning community, one who regularly contributes to the growth of others. You won’t be able to do that if you disappear from the course.
- Inoue, Asao B. (2019). Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Perspectives on Writing. The WAC Clearinghouse; University Press of Colorado. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/labor/. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 International License.