Labor-based Grading

Sandie Friedman at Inside Higher-Ed on Asao Inoue’s “Labor-Based Grading System”:

Any rubric that evaluates students’ language according to a single standard — which is invariably a white, middle-class standard — is reinforcing racism, [Inoue] argues. Rather than evaluating students’ work according to a quality-based rubric, Inoue advocates grading students on the labor they complete. By “labor,” he means all the work that goes into writing: reading, drafting, giving and receiving feedback, revising, polishing.

Students receive a grade only at the end of the course, based on the labor they have completed.

To me, this feels like the kind of thing that will address structural inequalities in university teaching, which often falls into the “add minority content to curriculum” mindset.

Exploding Enrollments in Physics Based on Peer Tutoring and a “BA” in Physics

Again, The Chronicle, this time on a highly successful restructuring of a physics program at CSU Long Beach.

Physics professors at California State University at Long Beach have had remarkable success in turning out physics majors. The university is the largest producer of undergraduate physics degrees among master’s- and bachelor’s-granting institutions in the United States. It’s also above the national average in student diversity. About half of its 60 or so majors in 2019 were Latinx, one-third were female, and one-fifth were women of color.

The department created a peer-tutoring system in which students are trained through a three-credit course in physics pedagogy. And professors reimagined the tutoring center so that it is a regular part of the undergraduate experience, like going to the gym. “The normalizing effect,” Pickett says, “is that everyone is going to have a problem, and eventually everyone is going to be the one with the key insight.”

Those changes have given more students confidence that they can do physics, says Pickett. The peer tutors, for example, look like them and have done well in the given course. So why couldn’t they?

They also added a “B.A. in Physics,” which looks like a nice balance of key math and physics courses and room for exploration.

Peer tutors is something that is done (to a small degree) at my university, but it feels like an “extra help” kind of thing, rather than an integral part of any course. (Attendance hovers at around 6 or 7 out of 300 registered students.)

In addition, I have an ideological knee-jerk reaction to paying undergraduate students to perform instructional work. I’m concerned that departments could quickly become dependent on their relatively cheap labor in place of lecturers or graduate student TAs.

However, this article seems to suggest that peer tutors are brought in more as mentors for ensuring that a sense of community emerges among the students. This sounds like something worth paying for.

“Ungrading”: Students assigning their own grades

The Chronicle of Higher Education takes a look at Louis Epstein’s “ungrading” experiment:

Louis Epstein has long been frustrated by grades. Grading systems are somewhat arbitrary, says Epstein, an assistant professor of music at St. Olaf College, “even if we bend over backward to try to make them transparent and objective and fair.” Students, meanwhile, are conditioned to pay a lot of attention to their grades, sometimes at the expense of their learning.

In the beginning, students were anxious about assigning their own grades, Melby says — something I’ve heard from other professors who’ve tried ungrading. They asked questions, Epstein says, like: “How will I know what number I should give myself?” — a reminder that they’re accustomed to external evaluation. Throughout the course, the instructors emphasized that evaluating one’s own work is a useful skill in the professional world.

What isn’t mentioned is how the students’ self assigned grades deviated at all from what Epstein might have given anyway or if his university’s administration had any objections or concerns about ungrading. Still, I’m curious to try this.