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.

  • Larry Spence

    Isn't the problem the quality of the rubric? Helpful rubrics take work to develop and require many trials. Cooky-cutter rubrics are quick but deadly. Too often hasty rubrics become crutches for both instructors and students. And to be honest, we often don't know what we want from an assignment — having concocted them on the fly. Students suspect as much and resent it. I have found that useful rubrics require that I do the assignment first. But rarely have I had the time to do that.
    A more productive discussion would concern how to collaborative create rubrics, how to test them, and how to maintain some banks of exemplars.
    The nagging question remains — are they worth the opportunity costs?

  • Karen Shavin

    I find that most of my students want to know what they need to do to get an 'A'. Hence, the rubric. No matter how much I refine my rubric, students receive 'As' who do not deserve them simply because they meet the technical requirements of the rubric. A good student, who demonstrates understanding and deep thinking about a topic would get the same grade as one who shows only surface understanding. Often, a student with good understanding will miss some minor technical detail and receive a lower score, based on the rubric. I feel they are designed to provide 'objective' evidence, in the case when a student contests a grade, and not to encourage thinking and understanding. I long for the 'good, old days' when professors were respected and students went to school to learn.

  • Susan Williams

    This was a very interesting post. I have used Rubrics from the beginning of my teaching career in Nursing school. I have found they help me as an instructor and also make it very clear as to what I expect from a student. It also gives me something to stand on should a student grieve their grade. My issue is that even if you give students a rubric, many of them forgo using it and just do the paper the way they want to do it! Drives me insane when this happens. You can lead a student to "water" but you can't make them "drink."

    • Bob

      I completely agree. That is why I don't think we should have to give students all the details of the rubric BEFORE they hand in their paper. A list of criteria should be sufficient. That gives me the freedom to fine-tune the rubric as we use it…is the best work being rewarded, and is poor work explained by the rubric? I do print the detailed rubric and attach it to all papers when they are returned to students. A way to handle complaints is to allow students to rewrite their paper for a better grade — this becomes more of a learning experience for them (as well as for me).

  • Gary

    How can it not be a good thing to help keep instructors honest – from who, themselves. Rubrics allow instructors to set the rules of an assignment which is supposed to be a good thing for students. Yet these instructors feel constrained by students who simply are doing what the instructor has asked them to do in the first place? How can rubrics NOT be a good thing. Why not just ask the students to write a paper with no guidance at all and see if they can guess what the instructor wants on the particular day they happen to turn in the paper. That sort of attitude in any other business would be called fraud – yet in higher education we simply call it Academic Freedom.

  • Bob

    Maybe there is a more current discussion of this topic…or we can pick up where this left off.

    I usually go back to W. J. McKeachie's classic, Teaching Tips, when something doesn't work as expected. I agree with Karen that I end up giving average papers an "A" along with outstanding papers, because the student theoretically fulfilled all the requirements. So I need to include more points in the rubric for creativity, depth of research, etc.

  • Jill Van Alstyne

    I have gotten worse papers when using rubrics than when I did not use rubrics. The students lost their creativity and followed the rubric so closely that their papers almost looked the same. Also, it is much easier as a teacher to check things off a list (use a rubric) than to really interact with the paper and give individualized feedback. I am not a fan of rubrics.

    From a high school honors English teacher