Are Your Students Career-Ready? Create a Rubric to Find out

Have you ever wondered if what you teach and how you teach it results in career-ready students? Have you ever wondered if your expectations for student learning outcomes match what the real world requires? In the Public Relations Studies program at Columbia College Chicago, we wondered, too. So, we set out to answer our own questions about the most basic skills professionals expect of entry-level candidates.

There was no question about the importance of PR writing. Public relations professionals and educators agree—PR writing is a specialized skill that is essential to a student’s academic and professional success, and the ability to write for the media tops the list. As one mid-level professional at a major public relations agency told me, “Writing a news release is the test we give to potential employees. I can teach them about our clients, but I don’t have time to teach them to write a news release. That’s the job for their college professors.”

So, in early fall 2005, professors in PR Studies elected to develop a rubric for teaching and assessing news release writing. As teaching tools, rubrics tend to clarify assignments and help students reach objectives. As a grading tool, a rubric provides a fair, reliable way to assess student writing. We wanted a rubric to identify and include best practices in our industry, and constitute a teaching protocol for instructors of this multi-section course. Connecting the rubric to professionals’ expectations mandates that we open the flap door to the tent of academe.

Because Chicago offers a big, broad community richly populated with public relations practitioners experienced in working with students, it was easy for faculty to collect data. We met one-on-one with professionals in agency and corporate practice to glean from them information on the practical, real-world skills and knowledge students must demonstrate to excel in news release writing. We met with fellow academics at other Chicago universities. The Public Relations Society of America’s Port of Entry Report also provided significant direction, as did a review of existing literature and research.

Faculty who teach PR Writing met repeatedly to hammer out a uniform pedagogy, including definition of terms and expectations, and texts and assignments. By fall 2007, we had a rubric structured in five broad categories with a binominal, yes-no rating scale. We subsequently adopted the rubric as a model of in-class instruction. To ensure consistency, we relied upon real-time, in-class observations of one another.

Observations led to questions. For instance, we wondered now if the grades we gave to student work were consistent across the many sections of the course. Some instructors argued that assigning points, instead of yes-no ratings, would result in richer feedback to students, and more reliable assignment of grades and assessment of learning outcomes. Their voices prevailed.

Back we went to the professionals. In spring 2008, we enlisted the support of seven professionals ranging from assistant account executive (an entry-level position) to senior vice president at a highly regarded, international public relations agency in Chicago. Using the Delphi method to facilitate group consensus among the professionals, we developed weights for each of the five categories. The faculty also adopted the Delphi method to reach consensus.

The Delphi method is essentially a method to converge differing opinions on relative weights of concepts. As facilitator, I handed each of the participants a rubric without weights, and asked them to rate each of the five categories with points from one to 20, for a total of 100 points. Then we discussed where there might be consensus on the specific number of points in each category. As we went around the circle, each individual in turn reported his or her determined weights. In five rounds, we had consensus on the weights among the participants.

Though professionals and the faculty were not in the same session, the Delphi process was the same, and differences were negligible. Only perspective varied. Faculty see the rubric as a teaching and learning tool, and professionals have a more go no-go approach. Even so, we are convinced collaboration is key. Ultimately, our combined efforts enable students to demonstrate career-readiness upon graduation, and professionals to hire top quality entry-level candidates.

Sandra Allen is the director of public relation studies and a full-time marketing communication faculty member at Columbia College Chicago.

Excerpted from Collaborating on Rubric Development: A Work in Progress, Academic Leader, November 2008.