Inoue: “Theorizing Failure in US Writing Assessments”

I am re-reading Asoe Inoue’s “Theorizing Failure in US Writing Assessments.” There’s a lot going on in this article, but I’m going to focus on his discussion of two types of failure, “quality-failure” and “labor-failure.” Quality-failure refers to grading systems that assess based on quality of writing, by measuring student writing to a standard. Such systems typically assume a particular version of Standardized Edited American Academic English (SEAAE). Inoue reviews some of the highlights in the significant body of research that problematizes such an approach as favoring some language users (white, middle-class) over others (students of color; multilingual students; working-class students). In contrast, courses that evaluate based upon labor-failure focus on how much work students do, upon the quantity. Such an assessment model is most often seen in grade contracts. I have addressed Inoue’s connection of labor to grade contracts in a previous post.

In this and other of his works, Inoue is clearly an advocate of using labor-failure as a way of assessing work in classes focused on learning to write. After explaining the types of failure, he responds to critiques of labor failure, particularly the concern that by focusing on quantity that quality will decline.

Inoue shares some fascinating results of a comparison of student writing quality from the First-Year Writing Program at Fresno State. He compares the results of blind assessment of student Portfolios collected when the program used traditional grading (classes using quality-failure based grading) and portfolios collected after the program switched to the use of a grade contract (classes using labor-failure based grading). The portfolio assessment itself used quality as a measure: whether students met certain expectations outlined in an assessment rubric, scored along a six-point scale where three indicates the minimum for success (341). Looking at student work submitted after the program shifted to a labor-focused grade contract, quality as assessed through the rubric not only did not decline, but increased in some areas (343). That is, in a class that focused on quantity of labor as its assessment standard, students maintained and in some areas increased the quality of their work.

Following this revelation, Inoue explains why this may be:

You may be wondering how it is possible to maintain quality, as measured cognitively based on a local SEAAE [Standardized Edited American Academic English], even though most teachers are not grading quality in classrooms. Simple. Students find reasons to learn and grow as writers when their labor is truly honored, and they listen more carefully to feedback when grades are out of the way, perhaps especially because their writing labor is being acknowledged and quality is assumed to be a consequence of that hard labor. (343)

The results of the data-driven comparison, and Inoue’s explanation of why a grading system based on labor (quantity) can maintain and even increase quality, resonates with my own observations in my section of ENG102R. ENG102R is a co-requisite course combining the second-semester First-Year Writing course focused on Research and Rhetoric (ENG102) with “developmental” Reading and Writing; completing this course, which follows upon ENG101R, meets the University’s First-Year Writing and Developmental Reading and Writing requirements. As I’ve indicated in other posts on this blog, I’ve applied a grading contract to ENG102 in the past; this semester I am using a nearly-identical contract for ENG102R, with some changes for the Course-Embedded Consultant (CEC) component of the course. Like Inoue’s contract, mine focuses on labor-failure.

Where am I seeing connections to Inoue’s article? At this point we’re about six weeks into the semester, and one of the major projects students have been working on is a running annotated bibliography. As is common in other sections of ENG102, the assignment requires at least 10 sources, with summaries and evaluations of each. Rather than being due all at once, the “running” bibliography is due piecemeal: two sources summarized and evaluated roughly every 1.5–2 weeks, with 5 separate due dates. In designing the assignment (which Maggie Frozena and I worked on together), I wanted students to be able to follow research “rabbit holes”—to adjust their research as they found sources, something that students don’t often have time to do with more traditional bibliographies.

This semester, ENG102R has submitted two sets of sources so far (4 sources from each student). What stands out to me is the amount of labor going into each piece. The summaries are more detailed and assessments more thoughtful than what I’ve often seen in annotated bibliographies. While the assignment prompt provides a minimum word count for each, several students consistently write much more, because they recognize that they will be able to use the entries as notes—that is, they’re taking more ownership of the assignment to make their work more useful for them. While from a quality perspective the entries may not be as polished as what I used to ask for when I was grading using a traditional grading approach, from a labor perspective students are producing more writing, and they’re engaged with that writing in a way much more akin to how expert researchers/writers do: they are using their writing as part of an extended invention process.

In his conclusion, Inoue develops an idea of “Productive Failure,” which he sees as being supported by classes that focus on labor failure. Drawing from the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” he argues that productive failure enables the following  habits of mind from the Framework:

  • Putting in time on drafts without considering quality (engagement)

  • Willingness to explore new territory, ideas, formats, or ways of under standing (openness and creativity)

  • Sustaining interest despite a lack of apparent results (persistence)

  • Taking responsibility for one’s own learning and that of one’s peers (responsibility) (346–7)

I see my students developing these habits of mind in their work as well. Students in my standard-admit ENG102 courses in previous semesters constructed impressive final projects developed from their research, using the same assignment sequence. The students in my ENG102R course are similarly on-track. In many of them, I see even higher levels of engagement, creativity, persistence, and responsibility than in my ENG102 sections. Perhaps this reflects something else Inoue notes in his article: that in his study, students of color, multilingual students, and working-class students seem to benefit the most and respond the most positively to courses that use a labor based grading system such as a grading contract. He argues that this added benefit is because these are students who have often been excluded by traditional, quality-failure based grading systems; indeed, several students in my 102R class are re-taking 102R for their second time, having failed or dropped out of previous sections for a variety of reasons. The labor-focus of the contract provides them more control and gives them time to just write and try things out. That this particular class is already more resilient is evident: they are choosing to come back to the course, having failed at a previous attempt in a different section. The contract gives them a different vision of the course, and I can see them embracing it, doing the hard labor of the course, and producing work they can be proud of—and in the process, by taking the focus off of quality, they actually improve that quality.

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