March 9th, 2010

Pros and Cons of Rubrics


I had dinner with a group of faculty recently during which we had a prolonged and intense discussion of rubrics—I know, only college teachers could become impassioned about a topic like this. The debate centered on whether rubrics could capture all the aspects of an assignments or whether they constrained both instructors and students. “I want my students to be able to blow me away with something wonderful that I never expected to receive on an assignment,” one instructor proclaimed. Another at the table offered an example—a 45-year-old woman who spent time with some gay people to fulfill an assignment that tasked students to connect with an unfamiliar community. “Her paper met almost none of the assignment requirements, but all I could think of as I read it was how much she had learned,” her instructor explained. “How could I give her a C when she had learned everything I had hoped for in the assignment?”

The argument on the other side went something like this: “Say a student comes to you and says, ‘I’d like to blow you away with the assignment. How do I do that?’ Would you be able to tell the student how to do that?”

Then the discussion turned to whether the rubrics most benefitted teachers or students. There was more agreement that they helped students—that they took away the mystery of what the instructor wanted. These faculty teach at a two-year institution where many students come with very little knowledge of what college-level work looks like. Rubrics do help instructors by keeping them honest and focused on what they’ve said the assignment should be about. Not everyone agreed that was a good thing.

Like so many instructional strategies, rubrics have assets and liabilities. They can be used in ways that are constraining, ways that so dissect the details of an assignment that it’s overall shape and purpose are lost. They can be used in ways that help both instructors and students think clearly about the learning that should result from completing an assignment.