Social Justice in the Classroom: Geography Lecturer Leanne Roderick Pilots Labour-Based Grading in GEOG 100

An anti-oppressive approach that centres inclusion and rewards effort over output, labour-based grading can provide a helpful tool for instructors wishing to incorporate social justice within their teaching practice.

In 2021, SFU Geography Lecturer, Leanne Roderick, received a Teaching and Learning Development Grant to study how an ethic of care can be implemented in online learning environments.  Her interest in labour-based grading (LBG) grew out of this work, leading her to implement a pilot LBG project in GEOG 100 in the Summer 2022 term.

Learn more about the labour-based grading pilot in the Q&A below.

Leanne Roderick

SFU Geography Lecturer

September 01, 2022

Labour-based Grading | Q & A with Leanne Roderick

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Tell us about labour-based grading… What is it & why were you interested in piloting this practice within GEOG 100?

Labour-based grading reflects the labour a student puts into a course, rather than the quality of their outputs.  It is derived from Paulo Freire’s anti-oppression pedagogy.  Asao B. Inoue argues that labour-based grading is a compassionate practice for determining course grades, and is helpful for instructors that desire to do social justice work within their teaching practice.

Labour-based grading is an anti-racist, anti-bias approach that centres inclusion.  It gives students from different backgrounds the opportunity to  focus on process, reflection, and improvement.  Simply put: It honours effort and labour over the finished product.  Students know at the beginning of the term exactly what they will need to submit in order to receive a B, and - if the student so chooses - they can opt-in to conducting additional labour in order to earn a grade above a B. 

I received a Teaching and Learning Development Grant from the Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines (ISTLD) to support this exploration of how an ethic of care can be implemented in online learning environments, and its impact on student motivation and meaning-making.  The idea of implementing labour based grading in GEOG100 as a component of an ethic of care framework arose from a deep dive into academic literature on the subject, and through consultations with other instructors at SFU that have tried it out. 

I was driven to do this out of a desire to learn how compassion and care might be systematized into online learning, and from my own sense of curiosity.  The first question I asked my students in GEOG100 this summer was: “I wonder: what kind of student are you outside of all the things you've been taught that a 'good student' is?”

What is involved in implementing LBG and what sort of modifications, if any, did you need to make in order to have it work effectively within your class?

Labour-based grading really flips everything on its head.  All of the engrained ways of ‘doing’ in a course are challenged for both the instructor and the student.  The most important thing was clear, upfront and frequent communication with students about why and how we were embarking on this new way of learning together.  It was also important that there was also a lot of flexibility and student-choice built into the term - students could submit work late, or skip some assignments, and still have completed the requisite amount of labour to earn a letter grade of B.

Every task had to have very detailed labour instructions, and ongoing feedback is a really important element as well.  I chose to have students complete a lot of smaller assignments, so that each module had a learning arc of preparation, learning, engaging/applying, and reflecting.  This pattern was set throughout the course - so, although the content and topic changed with each module, the same types of assignments had regular due dates.  Once students figured out the course cadence (using a guide I prepared for them), many reported that the consistency was helpful and forced them to manage their time more effectively than they had been able to accomplish in the past.

On the back-end of things, many assignments needed to be reverse-engineered, the ‘grades’ settings of Canvas tinkered with significantly.  I am particularly indebted to Dr. Bee Brigidi with CEE, and Dr. Nicole Berry, who worked hard throughout 2021 to implement labour-based grading in other SFU courses, and share their experience (and short-cuts!) with others.

This practice is probably not one with which most students are familiar.  How did you introduce it to students and what was their reaction to it? Did you find any change in students’ reactions to and/or comfort with the practice as the term progressed?

Most students had never heard of labour-based grading before joining the course, and reported in the pre-course survey that they were a mix of nervous and excited to try it out.  It was really important for the first few assignments that students had quality feedback on their work, and were given the opportunity to resubmit when it didn’t meet the labour requirements.  Thankfully, students had the support of a fabulous team of GEOG100 tutor-markers that provided timely and helpful feedback.

What do you feel are the advantages/disadvantages of using labour-based grading (for students, instructors, or in general) and do you plan to use it again?

The advantage of labour-based grading is also its challenge: it forces you to approach learning and course design in an entirely new way, and therefore experience teaching and learning in a new way.  It is process-oriented and iterative in a way that encourages students to take intellectual risks, to not be afraid of getting it ‘wrong’.

An advantage that really struck me was the common sentiment from students that they never - in their wildest dreams! - imagined being able to earn an A, or even an A+ prior to labour-based grading.  They were extremely hard workers, but various structural disadvantages within the educational and social systems made that seem impossible.  To have these students experience, often for the first time, a new means of assessment that honours their labour and effort over a ‘final product’ was really something.

The disadvantage, I found, is that some students that have benefited from quality-based assessment throughout their lives experienced frustration with the system.  It is time-consuming, and there’s no way around that.  It’s impossible to ignore the course most of the time, and then cram everything in around 1-2 assignments or other forms of assessment.   

This fall semester, I plan on using a blend of labour-based and quality-based assessment in GEOG100.  Most of the ongoing, weekly assignments will be labour-based; but the semester-long end-of-term project will be quality-based (with multiple labour-based components leading up to the final submission).  Students seeking to earn a grade higher than a B will also have the option of submitting additional assignments throughout the term that focus on knowledge evaluation and creation.

What advice would you give to other instructors considering implementing labour-based grading in their classes?

Be prepared to put in a lot of your own labour in the beginning as you figure out how to adopt (and adapt to!) a labour-based grading approach that works best for you and your course.  I recommend figuring out what elements of teaching labour can be cut in order to make space for more communication and connection with students.  For example, labour-based grading allowed me to do away with a lot of things that aren’t my favourite aspects of teaching (creating rubrics, creating and invigilating exams, etc.).  Labour-based grading made space for the things that really motivate me as an instructor: deeper connections with students, observing the community of care that students co-created, and witnessing the full process of student learning and development in an ongoing way.

What did students have to say about the experience?

Hear how GEOG 100 students felt about their experience with labour-based grading in the comments below:

“Although I have enjoyed learning about many concepts and ideas directly related to the course, particularly environmental ethics and philosophy behind the ethical decisions made, the largest factor of influence in my own life from GEOG100 is undoubtedly the drastic change in motivation and learning that has resulted from labour-based grading. University grading has been a large source of my anxiety and stress in almost all course I have taken, but labour-based grading has taken some of the anxiety caused by grading that is out of my control and allowed me to focus on the actual learning process, thus resulting in more enjoyment and engagement through the semester.”

“The labour-based grading system has taught me to arrange my time more properly. It also helped me to confront my procrastination by asking me to plan for and take down notes about how long I have been studying. I also learned how to set achievable goals. All of these have improved my overall learning habits.”

“Something that I learned in GEOG100 that I can apply to my own life is to focus on the effort of my labour and not focus so heavily on the grade or outcome. This is my first class where It is labour based grading and I love it so far. I am motivated to do my work and hand it in on time while putting in the effort by completing the required labour.” 

“A part of my brain wants to just do the required assignments but the way this course is designed makes me want to keep going forward as this is the only class I can see myself getting an A+ in. I know grades are not everything but even getting an A+ in a class that hard work actually does pay off in really motivates me.”