February 15th, 2016

Rubrics: An Undervalued Teaching Tool


using rubrics

English teachers know a few things about managing the paper load. But managing isn’t leading. We should do more than manage the load; we should lead our students through the writing process (invention, drafting, and revising) to help them become independent thinkers who can effectively present their ideas to an audience.

Rubrics offer an effective way to guide thinking and learning in any writing-intensive course.

HINT: Distribute the assignment sheet and rubric at the same time that you introduce a writing assignment. Students need this concrete information from the onset for self-improvement at all stages of the writing process. Your rubric should be clear enough that students understand your expectations even when you are not available for consultation.

Here are five different ways to apply the same rubric in your classroom.

1. A Rubric for Thinking (Invention Activity)

  • Immediately following the initial discussion of a writing assignment and its corresponding rubric, allow students to work independently for a few moments, generating their initial ideas for their papers.
  • After brainstorming, direct students to reflect on the rubric to encourage additional responses to the topic at hand. The rubric should spark thinking.

Hint: Work with struggling students during this process. Demonstrate ways to use the rubric to flesh out their initial responses. This is your time to answer authentic questions one-on-one.

2. A Rubric for Peer Feedback (Drafting Activity)

  • Vomit drafts. Teachers don’t like to read them, so let the students read each other’s and score them against the rubric.
  • Use rubrics for peer feedback at all stages of the writing process. If today is the day to review use of secondary sources and subsequent citations, pair students and set them to work.
  • Students should respond to each other’s work using the verbiage in the assigned domains. Based on peer feedback, students should make adjustments and enhance their use of sources.
  • Students can score their use of sources/citations against the rubric and discuss why these elements earn the grade they do. Remember, grades are earned, not given. Students should be able to align their essays and their components with established rubric categories and indicators.
  • Use guided peer feedback throughout the writing process as homework or in class.

Hint: Rubrics should contain a discrete space for the name of the peer editor.

3. A Rubric for Teacher Feedback (Revision Activity)

  • In this use of the rubric, you are offering a mulligan, a “do over”—students will appreciate this. Don’t worry about attributing points or grades to each domain on the rubric; instead, simply provide feedback. You are telling students, in so many words, “what works” and “what needs work.”
  • Use symbols to convey quality of work. Stars and checkmarks indicate areas of strength. Or consistently use three emoticons: smile, meh, and frown. The emoticons speed up your response time, and while they provide authentic feedback, symbols don’t carry the same weight as a red-inked D. Reserve comments for clarification/remediation or indication of remarkable insight.

HINT: Student projects should include multiple drafts (look for development of ideas). Also collect peer feedback rubrics; “eyeball” these to ascertain the quality of student responses. Remember, teaching students to be good editors takes time and training.

4. A Rubric for Mini-Lessons (Data Indicate a Teachable Moment)

  • Most teachers miss this use of rubrics. Prepare mini-lessons for authentic and immediate feedback to the entire class based on data gleaned from the rubric.
  • After you respond to a set of papers, scan the rubric for the categories where the greatest number of students demonstrated proficiency and, conversely, showed need of remediation. Prepare mini-lessons to refresh or reteach the skills in the weakest category.
  • Use students who excelled in this category to lead the discussion of the element being remediated.
  • After a mini-lesson, students will have a better understanding of ways to improve the skill being discussed in the context of their own essays; this should lead to higher scores in that category and in subsequent revisions.

HINT: Return papers before the mini-lesson so students know that this lesson is for them.

5. A Rubric for Making Grades Visible (Student Investment in Grading)

  • When students submit projects for grading, they should attach the rubric they used to score themselves. This combats the erroneous idea that grading criteria is vague or invisible.
  • With this use, students assess their own strengths, weaknesses, and areas for revision.
  • The teacher, in turn, responds to the projects on the same rubric. This is a check for inter-rater reliability. If the teacher and the student are close in their assessments, only moderate intervention is needed. But if the teacher and the student issue markedly different scores for a category, then remediation is needed—usually in the form of a quick in-class conference.

Hint: Always respond in a signature ink color. It should stand out against the students’ writing.

How often have we heard that students believe grades to be arbitrary or capricious? Repeated use of a single rubric is good for both students and instructors. Switching roles between author and editor results in students’ increased familiarity with the process and the components of good writing. Over the course of the semester, students will synthesize the rubric’s components into effective communication. The instructor, too, will shift from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side,” answering fewer questions (and answering the same question fewer times). In other words, students will gain greater independence as writers and thinkers. And this is good for all of us.

Stephanie Almagno is associate dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Piedmont College.

  • Howard A. Doughty

    A rubric is a cookie cutter. It can be used to shape cookies or mud pies.

    A rubric is a "check-off" list of little boxes that ensure conformity.

    A rubric is a predetermined method of organizing predigested information.

    As for shifting the professor from being “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” (a hideous cliché that I first heard 46 years ago and which hasn't improved with age), "answering fewer questions and answering the same question fewer times," is not so much evidence that students have gained "greater independence as writers and thinkers," but that they've learned how to "game the system."

    • Jen Lamkins

      I disagree with you on several points and it may just be a point of view. If your rubric is cookie cutter or a checklist, then it is a limited rubric or at best a subpar rubric. A rubric can be a guide and create concrete milestones in the development of a written product or any product if you open the demonstration of learning to the student preference. What most professors don't like is that good rubrics take away a lot of subjectivity in grading that has nothing to do with the student performance.

      A good formative rubric guides the student, informs as to criteria and gradations in meeting that criteria, and provides weighting as to import of the various parts of the assignment. It should be a communication between student and teacher as to expectations and it should be objective.

      • Johnny

        "What most professors don't like is that good rubrics take away a lot of subjectivity in grading that has nothing to do with the student performance."

        The hypocrisy in this sentence is astounding. Is this a statement of fact backed up by solid objective data or a statement of opinion supported by flimsy subjective views? Given that you appear to favor objectivity over subjectivity, you may want to revisit how you present your ideas.

      • Anthony

        In what world is a rubric objective? I will accept that a rubric (as with ANY grading system) can be applied either objectively or subjectively, but otherwise the weight and balance of the assessment remain at the whim of the designer.

  • Kathrine Schlageck

    I think I would expect college level students to be beyond this – sound more like high school (and for students at that level, a good learning and teaching tool).

  • With accreditation and competency-based learning becoming a prominent theme in higher education, the use of rubrics will be invaluable to assessing what students know or don't know. Going by "gut feeling" will become an outdated form of assessment when departments, schools, colleges, administrators, etc. begin asking faculty to show evidence of student learning and progress. That's difficult enough for many faculty as it is. I've been teaching in higher education for approximately 16 years now (online, blended, and face-to-face) and rubrics have never been a hindrance to creativity in the classroom. In fact, rubrics can help instructors assess how students apply that creativity in their writing and overall coursework. If a rubric is viewed as a "cookie cutter" then reshape it to fit your curriculum and learning outcomes.

    • VHS

      Very well said! In my experience, it is indeed 'how' it is created and used that allows for a rubric to be meaningful. It also serves as a useful guide to manage student expectations and to leverage learning outcomes.

    • Howard A. Doughty

      Accreditation and competency-based learning (not to mention decades of increasing pressure for "outcomes-based" learning) are, of course, becoming an increasingly prominent theme. And that's the problem!

      Rubrics may very well facilitate the processing of "customers" (formerly known as students) through what David F. Noble famously described as "digital diploma mills"; but, as this corporate juggernaut proceeds, the relationship between "learning" (what B. F. Skinner did to rats) and authentic "education" becomes more and more problematic.

      Thanks in large measure to the honorably intentioned work of Benjamin Bloom and its application in an increasingly Taylorized academic factory system, we have become producers of what I sadly call "Blooming Idiots."

      Now, we've become even more dedicated to the commodification of curriculum. The "business model" has shifted from the mechanized assembly line to the discount department store model of just-in-time curriculum "delivery". In the new academy Associate Professors are being replaced by the academic equivalent of Walmart Associates. And that's not just my "gut feeling."

      As contrasted with your 16 years of teaching in higher education, I'm completing my 49th year of college and university teaching in both public and private institutions in Canada and the United States. The rates at which faculty are deskilled and "product quality" decline vary depending on the type of institution and the location – but decline is pervasive.

      • This is a very interesting perspective Howard and I commend you on your 49 years of teaching experience in higher education. I definitely hope to achieve that milestone some day (I'm 36 now). I do continue to adjunct, but I am a senior-level instructional designer full-time now at a private faith-based university.

        I agree there are some drawbacks to accreditation and competency-based learning entering higher education. However, the reality is we have to have something to show, a measure if you will, students are achieving specific outcomes or skills (including understanding and application of content and problem-solving/critical thinking, etc. skills). If, as you state, the 'business model' has shifted from an assembly line to a 'discount department' store model of curriculum delivery, we need to establish high curriculum, yet measurable, standards to meet the needs of the workforce, work environments, etc. our students are entering after graduation. It's these very measures that will narrow (likely never fill in the gap) the bridge between higher education and the needs from industry, research institutions, and general workforce. I think the biggest institutional challenge here is how does higher education prepare tomorrow's workforce? We've been addressing this question for quite some time now, but the reality is our learners are seeking universities/CCs that will guide and prepare them for this path.

        Thanks for sharing your insights. I always enjoy listening to different perspectives on this important topic.

  • Vic

    Rubrics provide students with the comfort they want and reduces the questions faculty have to answer about grading. Is this our goal? In the end, is making students comfortable going to move them to higher levels of critical development? Does it make them THINK about the purpose and learning objectives of their assignments and assess how well their work has achieved these? I agree that it is a useful tool for guiding thinking in younger students, but for college students, they need to learn to think through what defines quality on their own. I don't know about the rest of the working world, but my boss has yet to provide me with a rubric for any of my work reports. Employers have been complaining that this generation of college graduates is too needy and requires too much guidance for their work projects. What role do tight rubrics in college courses play in creating this dynamic?

    • Howard A. Doughty

      Among the many silly administrative expressions gaining currency today is the dissemination of "critical thinking skills," sometimes reduced to "thinking outside the box."

      I refer to this as the pedagogy of the Rubik's Cube. Students are assessed according to the speed with which they can solve puzzles that are artificially created and normally solvable by a limited number of predetermined techniques.

      Instead of "thinking outside the box," I'd rather have students examine the content of the box, present arguments about whether the box or its contents can be justified in today's unsustainably inequitable political economy and hideously degraded natural environment, and how deconstruct (literally and figuratively) and reconstruct (if possible) the whole damned box.

      • Johnny

        Good comment. Critical thinking skills should not replace comprehension – too many students spend their time thinking outside the box because they have no idea where the box is or what is inside said box.

  • Patricia D'Ascoli

    I've always found rubrics to be useful and the students really appreciate having them. It helps them understand exactly what I am looking for in a writing assignment.

  • I find myself agreeing with two divergent opinions here.

    I give first year college comp students a few mechanical aids (call them rubrics or checklist or whatevers) to help them drag themselves through the process of thinking what to put in a piece of writing enough times that they don't have to stop to think, "What do I do next?" Those mechanical aids are tools to help students learn a sequence of things they need to think through when they write any nonfiction.

    I've never found mechanical aids needed—or wanted—after students learn how to write competently.

    I understand that students might want to know exactly what they will be graded on, but I don't see how my telling them helps them in the long run. Learning to anticipate what must be included in a given piece of writing and how that information must be presented is a big part of what it means to be able to write competently. Students will have to write for some other class or for some employer who doesn't lay out in detail an assignment should include.