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.