Labor-Based Grading Gets a Solid C+


Midterm season is coming to a close as the university approaches spring break, and with it an enormous weight has been lifted off of students’ shoulders. The stress and time consumption of studying, writing or preparing for these exams has come and gone and now students can breathe a sigh of relief. That is until the realization of a new stressful time period settles over the student body: the limbo of waiting for midterm grades to be released. 

Every student feels differently about grades, but for most, there is some degree of stress surrounding them. Whether grades are tied to a scholarship, a graduation requirement or simply a source of pride, they tend to produce a sense of anxiety in students. In an attempt to alleviate some of this anxiety related to the outcome of a course and refocus that energy to enjoying learning for learning’s sake, some professors have implemented a labor-based grading system. 

In essence, the labor-based grading contract is setting a default grade for a class and if students complete their assignments according to directions they are guaranteed a certain grade in the course. For example, if a professor sets the default grade at a B, then the student should turn in their assignments in accordance with the instructions they are guaranteed a B at the end of the semester. Additionally, should a student want a grade higher than the default, there are opportunities to increase that score through additional, optional assignments.

Keeping this description in mind, labor-based grading sounds eerily similar to receiving a participation trophy. The methodology behind awarding a participation trophy is mirrored in the way that labor-based grades are given out. The purpose of a grade is not just a completion check mark, but a tool for students to use to monitor academic progress. 

Grades can be used as a tool to help students improve a skill or expand their knowledge. It is disheartening to receive a lower grade than expected or desired, but that lower grade can help springboard the student to a higher grade and they can learn something along the way. Using the feedback from the lower grade to see what went wrong and how to improve is the way students can build on their skills. Without that feedback, how will students know what needs to be improved for the future and how will they know when they have successfully incorporated those improvements? 

Additionally, a labor-based grading system is unnecessary. Professors using a traditional grading system outline their grading criteria in the syllabi at the beginning of the semester, meaning students have access to the expectations of their work. It is not a requirement for students to earn the highest grade possible. If a student is comfortable with earning a B or C, then they can self-select how much labor to put into their assignments based on their professors’ grading criteria. Furthermore, a student should be able to earn an A in a course without having to complete optional assignments. It should be possible to earn the highest grade in a course based on what is assigned in the course. 

Also, while grades can be a source of stress, they can also be used as a source of motivation. College is supposed to be a time of preparation for students before they graduate and are sent into the workforce or pursue postgraduate studies. There will be times in those paths that a task or assignment comes up that will not be appealing. It is necessary to build and foster internal motivation skills now in order to carry out those tasks. Now is the time to learn how to self-motivate and grades are one way to do that. 

Moreover, there is a psychological theory related to how moderate levels of stress can help people achieve their peak performance. This theory, the Yerkes-Dodson Law, proposes that there is an optimum level of stress needed for a person to perform well on a task. Any lower or higher than that level and the performance diminishes. Granted, individual levels of stress differ, but taking away the incentivization of grades which results in lower levels of stress could lead to a lower performance. 

Labor-based grading is nice in theory: decrease student stress about the outcome and increase their interest in the course material. However, there are many flaws to this method of grading. It can lead to poorer performance in students without the incentive of grades to motivate them, it becomes much more difficult to track student progress and improvement and it does a disservice to the self-motivation skills that students will need to have in the future.