September 9th, 2015

Exploring the Advantages of Rubrics


Exploring the advantages of rubrics

“I don’t believe in giving students rubrics,” a faculty member told me recently. “They’re another example of something that waters down education.” I was telling him about a study I’d just read that documented some significant improvement in student papers when students used a detailed rubric to guide their preparation of the research paper. I wasn’t very articulate in my response to him and decided I’d use this post to explore some of the issues involved in sharing rubrics and grading criteria with students.

“I don’t understand what you want on this assignment.” It’s one of those comments teachers don’t like to hear from students, and rubrics, checklists, or the grading criteria offer constructive ways to respond. They identify those parts of an assignment or performance that matter, that if included and done well garner good grades and learning. If teachers don’t identify them, then students must figure out for themselves what the assignment needs in order to be considered good.

The objection to sharing rubrics is not groundless. If you give students a detailed rubric, behaviorally focused, like the one used in this study, you’ve essentially deconstructed Teaching Professor Blog (a descriptive term used by the study’s author) a research report. You’ve broken it down into multiple small pieces, enabling the student to do each piece, patch them together, and have a research report. In the study, research reports written using the rubric were significantly better than those written not using a rubric. It is fair to ask whether use of the rubric improved their research report writing in general or only this one time on this one assignment.

Not knowing how the work will be assessed definitely adds challenge to an assignment. But what’s challenging the students? The time and energy necessary to figure out assignment criteria or the intellectual richness of the work itself? If students get sidetracked by trying to figure out what the teacher wants and that ends up taking as much or more time than dealing with the content, then I don’t think that makes an assignment challenging for the right reasons.

A lot of students are obsessed with trying to figure out what the teacher wants. From their long years in school, they’ve learned that different teachers want different things. It’s not all random whimsy; there are any number of criteria that most of us would agree are relevant to particular kinds of assignments. But there’s lots of variation among us at the level of detail—appropriate fonts, number of references, and whether the first person can be used in essays, for example. Students mostly see this as a guessing game, and there’s not a lot of enduring, transferrable learning that comes from trying to answer questions that revolve around what looks to students like personal preference. I’m not advocating uniform standards here. Personal preference has its place, and some of what looks like personal preference to students isn’t.

I think rubrics have value if teachers use them to get students past what the teacher wants to what criteria make papers, projects, and performances excellent. First, seeing that delineation on a rubric is certainly more efficient than trying to figure it out on your own, and using a rubric often garners secondary benefits. In the second study reported by this author, students used the rubric to grade another student’s report. Their feedback was not shared with the report’s author. But that assessment activity alone was enough to enable 60% of the students to rewrite their own paper and receive a significantly higher score.

We continue to keep students out of the assessment process. No, we can’t let them grade their own work, but assessment should be thought of more holistically. It’s the ability to figure out what criteria others will be using to judge your work. It’s about being able to identify what’s good and what isn’t in your own work. Being able to accurately assess your work and that of others is one of those lifetime skills that separates successful professionals from those less so.

The ultimate goal should be students who don’t need teacher-constructed rubrics. The question is when and how we develop that level of assessment skill.

Reference: Greenberg, K. P. (2015). Rubric use in formative assessment: A detailed behavioral rubric helps students improve their scientific writing skills. Teaching of Psychology, 42 (3), 211-217.

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  • Katherine Robertson

    There are definitely advantages to using rubrics and this article talks about creative ways to use them. For people who are still concerned that rubrics may discourage independent thought – I'd like to refer you to another, similar article that addresses this issue directly:

  • Tim Michael

    Rubrics are good for creating consistency and telling students what areas to focus on, but they also have their disadvantages. One of the biggest drawbacks is that it trains students to depend on rubrics instead of internalizing standards and expectations of professional output.

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  • Jeni Patton

    Using student-generated rubrics helps students think about what constitutes a good response to an assignment.

  • Susan Spangler

    And don't forget to have students fill in evidence that they've met the criteria on rubrics.

  • Gloria Nouel

    I can see some of the advantages of using rubrics in creative ways and the article proposes. I will take, however, a different perspective than the comments above. I think training professors to help students think critically is more important. The focus on the improvement of grades seem misguided in a world that requires high levels of skills and thinking. Professors, of course, should also improve the clarity of their own thinking when giving assignments. Using rubrics do not seem like a good solution in my perspective. In my experience as student, professional, professor and higher ed administrator, my ability to think creatively and critically as well as being flexible and have good interpersonal skills have been key to my success. I believe that we should look at the process of learning as a way of dealing with an imperfect human situation which is what the world of work is all about….I could say more but this are my initial thoughts on the topic.

    • Rebecca

      So how do you propose to do that? Class lectures and feedback on drafts work well also. However, a rubric can serve as a concise guide to students, especially those who are still learning. For more mature writers, rubrics may also serve to reveal particular criteria that are important to the evaluator or the situation.

    • John_Solis

      Interesting perspective. In my experience teaching in higher education for 15 years at the undergraduate and undergraduate levels, the use of rubrics doesn't deter students from thinking and apply knowledge in creative ways. In fact, I have found rubrics support creative and critical thinking. One of the key reasons rubrics are highly encouraged to be used is that, as the instructor/professor, you have to have clear learning goals and/or objectives. Rubrics simply help you identify to what extent a student has met or not met a requirement or other expectation for an assignment, project, etc.. I agree with you that learning involves dealing with imperfect human situations, but we need to have evidence to show that students know how to deal with these imperfect situations via critical thinking, problem solving, etc.. Rubrics help up identify and track that evidence.

      • Ted Sykes

        I'm wondering how rubrics don't train students how to think. My experience as a post secondary educator is that a large percentage of students coming out of US public schools don't have critical thinking skills and spend most of their time in grades K-12 memorizing data to pass the exit exams. They have to be taught to think critically and rubrics provide students a structure to do just that; as well as, feedback on how to improve.

        • John_Solis

          Spot on. From my own prior experience working in K-12 and as a father of a 6 year old, I believe that standardized testing has diminished opportunities for students to engage in meaningful 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, technology literacy, collaboration, etc. in the K-12 sector. It will be critical for parents and higher education to step up on teaching children and young adults these key skills that employers continuously seek.

  • Mary

    I use them in the rubric I tell them what is required. But my comments are about the content and did this student research this topic.Are they taking away from the assignment something new or maybe just view it from a different perspective? We have times in which feedback is a necessary point.

  • Christine Ries

    What an insightful piece. Student requests for rubrics have troubled me for a long time and I am 'transformed' by the logic of your article. THANK YOU.

  • John_Solis

    Rubrics are an excellent tool to assess, clearly, what learners know or don't know about an outcome/content/concept at any given time. I use them extensively for all course projects and assignments at the undergraduate and graduate levels because I can clearly identify my expectations/requirements to achieve specific instructional goals and objectives. With competency-based education catching interest with the Department of Education and other accrediting bodies, it is essential that we, as instructors/professors, have data to show what our students are learning. Rubrics are great tools to do just that and track (overtime) areas of instruction and instructional practices we can improve on. In higher education, we are coming to the point where we will need data (especially quantitative data) that shows that our instruction is in alignment to specific curriculum goals/objectives/outcomes rather than relying on subjectivity to assess student learning. Excellent post!

  • sarahanderson563

    I watched rubrics used in high schools and hated them for a long time … But all the students I was seeing had been through that system and wanted rubrics for everything. I now give a detailed rubric for the first very small assignment, then a slightly less detailed one for the second, etc. until for the final assignment the students create a checklist that serves as the rubric (which we discuss in class and online and which they can review with me at any point). However, I also review drafts in some detail, so I can do that.

  • Julian de Meyrick

    Rubrics have a number of roles. For example, when co-ordinating a team of markers, a rubric is an essential tool to promote consistency across students' grades. In course development, they can be a useful check (like mapping assessment tasks to outcomes) to ensure that we really do understand the structure and the nature of the knowledge we aim to impart. They also provide guidance for the student when preparing a piece for assessment. And therein lies the rub. There is a tremendous temptation for teachers to "teach to the test", making sure their students know which boxes to tick. Similarly, the student could be more focussed on the ticking the required boxes than achieving a deeper involvement in the subject. Providing a rubric is not a proper substitute for communicating what we believe to be the crucial concepts and knowledge in the subject area but sometimes, especially in large, less-engaged classes, they are the best thing we have.

  • instructor Mengel

    I agree that rubrics are important. Students need to know what instructors expect from them. Perhaps if taken different student learning styles into the consideration, it would be a good idea for that faculty member to provide students with actual class/homework samples of accepted assignments and subsequently rubrics. I believe it is hard sometimes for educators themselves to define the entire product. This is where the desired outcomes come into place. As teachers, we basically give our students rubrics as guidelines, so that they can demonstrate what they’ve learned. Their products would be evaluated upon language appropriateness, format, style, etc., and elaboration. Bloom’s Taxonomy Wheel can also be a good reference tool for this purpose.

  • Cody K.

    Two thoughts here. First, rubrics are also very helpful when it comes to grade appeals and questions. When a student believes that his/her grade should be higher, I can refer to the rubric and say, "Please show me evidence that you did these things." Second and more importantly: the tendency for rubrics to make students dependent on them instead of think critically is partly a function, to me, of how the rubric is constructed. "Figure has a title; paragraph has an opening sentence; margins are no less than 1 inch" and such are prescriptive and serve exactly that purpose. Instead, I try to aim for statements like "logically sound reasons and well-chosen examples" or "minor errors that do not interfere with meaning." Those require the students to do more heavy lifting than strictly following a template. (And are taken verbatim from the GRE Writing assessment, for the record.)

  • Jack Mac

    The way I see it, rubrics are not answer keys and should absolutely be shared with students. Rubrics denote the criteria and standards by which student work is assessed and keeping these instruments secret is a step away from both good instruction and fair assessment. Critical thinking is enhanced, not hindered, when students are aware of the value faculty assign to each component of students' original work. Students achieve learning outcomes individually, but the criteria by which the standards are measured must be transparent and made accessible to all.

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  • Joshua Talarico

    The ability to utilize a rubric helps the student understand what is expected by the teacher. I have often been frustrated as a student when professors do not take any effort to tell me what they are expecting from the assignment. The teacher who has a clear grading criteria for the student before starting to write a major paper for a class helps to diminish the stress often associated with starting the research process. This gives the student a framework to help build the paper on and they can reference the rubric at any time to see if they are on the right path. I am always grateful when those who are instructing me take the necessary time to help give me a clear idea of what they expect by providing a rubric. I have also found it very helpful when other students will review the paper (based on the grading criteria) at the rough draft stage as this helps the student learn and see what they can improve on before turning in a final paper for grading.

  • Philip Boom

    When I started a new role as a professor of Business Administration several years ago, I initially considered the use of rubrics as an unnecessary control process, imposed upon me by overly zealous and controlling administrators. As a seasoned business person with decades of experience in the “real world”, I was confident that my teaching and the related assignments would be clearly understood. But my introduction to the actual world of undergraduate education was a little more complicated than I imagined, and I found that the development and use of rubrics helped me to focus on what I really wanted students to learn. It took some time to develop and document the intended learning outcomes for various assignments, and to add appropriate assessment rubrics, but the payoff was immediate. It quickly resulted in a much better educational experience for all of us. With more clarity and precision about the requirements up-front, students had greater understanding and confidence about the expectations, and required less help in setting up their projects. Additionally, with a more objective standard for grading the work, it took much less time to assess the assignments, and there were fewer discussions about the fairness of grades. My classroom evaluations improved as well!

    • Joshua Talarico

      Hi Phil,

      I can see how the utilization of rubrics has helped you tremendously as a professor at the undergraduate level. The ability for the teacher to focus on what they want the students to learn is so vital for both parties. It is really hard for a student to please a professor and complete a learning task when they do not know what is expected from them. The ability to have clarity and precision what you as the professor desired was wonderfully beneficial and as you noted the payoff was immediate for both parties. The task of the professor is much harder when students are not able to understand what is expected from them. For example, as a student it is much easier for me to determine why I scored low in a certain area when I have not met specific expectations for a learning task. I am not surprised that your evaluations improved as the student does not like to be left in the dark without clarity on what is required of them for each specific learning task.

    • Ken

      I entered the higher education arena in the same way, so understand your thoughts. I also learned to use rubric, but it took a little bit of trial and error to get a rubric which really developed and communicated to learner what was important and how to do it. I inherited a rubric for writing from the English department which they wanted instituted across the curriculum, but the only problem was it left very little room for the actual content of the paper which is what dealt with my subject being taught and measured the learning I had as learning outcomes in my class. In other words, they may do amazing good composition and score very well on the rubric, while not making significant learning of the course content! Needless to say, when I met with other faculty outside of the Arts and Sciences Division they were frustrated and had mostly discarded the rubric rather than seeking to use adapted ones which would help the students and remove the overly subjective evaluation which caused student questions. The rubric is a help for students, grading professor and course learning objective assessment.

    • Allan Vance

      It is wonderful that you experienced immediate and observable positive results from developing and implementing a rubric for your courses. I concur with the value of utilizing a rubric. It allows the student to know precisely what you, as the professor, will be looking for. It also provides a tool for easy explanation in those instances when a student may have received a grade for the assignment with which he/she may take issue.

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  • Arthur

    I think that rubrics also assist instructors in evaluating assignments when the assignment is subjective such as a reflection paper or other writing assignment, group activity, presentation. Not only does a rubric provide guidelines for expectations for students, but it also guides the instructor when she is grading. It allows me to focus on what I told the students was important.