March 21st, 2016

Using Rubrics as a Defense Against Grade Appeals


professor and student discussing grade

Faculty dread the grade appeal; anxiety prevails until the whole process is complete. Much has been written about how to avoid such instances, but the potentially subjective assessments of written essays or clinical skills can be especially troublesome. One common cause of grade appeals is grading ambiguity in which the student and faculty member disagree on the interpretation of required content. Another cause is inequity, whereby the student feels others may have gotten more credit for very similar work or content (Hummel 2010). In the health-care field especially, these disagreements over clinical-skills assessments can actually result in student dismissal from the program and may lead to lawsuits.

In a federal court filing (Saltzman 2007), a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst complained that a faculty member and the university had violated his civil and contractual rights and intentionally inflicted emotional distress by giving him a C in a course instead of the 92.5 percent he felt he had earned. The teaching assistant told the student that when he began recording grades, they struck him as too high, so he graded everyone on a curve before assigning letter grades. Did the teaching assistant have any sort of scale or rubric for the grades or for randomly changing them because they “struck him as too high”? The court dismissed the case, but with more documentation, a reliable grading scale, and criteria in the form of a rubric for submissions, the months of anxiety waiting for a court ruling might have been avoided.

Rubrics provide the criteria for assessing students’ work. Giving students the rubric along with the assignment can clarify the instructor’s expectations. A rubric allows for much quicker, fairer, and more transparent grading. After an instructor grades 30 essays, fairness can become secondary to exhaustion. Following the rubric takes less time, and doing so allows grading the first essay to look exactly like grading the last essay. Students will be less likely to say, for example, “She got a 3 on this section, and I got a 2 for almost the same content.”

The following is an example of the first section of a rubric that our program’s faculty members use for students’ oral presentations. We expect students to be able to use these criteria and the rest of the rubric to develop good presentations for their classmates.


Scoring Criteria

Total Points




(6 points)

The presentation is in line with the assigned topic.



Information is presented in sequence No redundant statements or repeating information.



Presentation appropriately cites the required number of references (3). Submitted before presentation.



In the clinical area, we use a rubric that assesses students’ skills performance as well as their attitudes and dependability, among other things; attitudes and dependability can be especially subjective. Using the rubric, the students understand all components of expected behaviors when caring for patients.






Consistently works well with others.

At times, displays negative attitude toward others

At times, arrogant, passive, disrespectful, and/or surly. Counseled.

Causes problems and is quarrelsome. Has been written up for inability to work with others.

If a student wants to discuss reasons for receiving certain scores, the faculty member is able to provide documentation to demonstrate when the behaviors occurred that resulted in the student’s receiving a 3 instead of a 4, for example. Faculty must maintain documentation to support grade challenges.

Rubrics add transparency to the grading process. This is important when trying to explain to disgruntled students that they weren’t given a certain score because the instructor did not like them but because they omitted one or more components of the listed required criteria of the assignment. Developing markers or levels of achievement within the assignment (i.e., beginning, developing, intermediate, and exemplary) provides your students with a road map to excellence. Stop here and you receive a 1; make it to the next marker and you receive a 2. Putting forth the effort needed to reach each achievement marker is in the hands of the student, and if there is ever a grade challenge, the faculty member has the road map to show where the student ended his or her journey to excellence.

Rubrics not only provide criteria for reaching those learning outcomes that faculty members desire for their students but also can be used to essentially assess any criteria or behavior. Students understand the criteria to achieve, feedback is clearly provided, and rubrics give faculty the needed documentation of objective assessment that is ever so important for grade appeals and potentially in court.


Hummel, P. (2010). A college instructor’s guide to avoiding grade appeals. Adjunct Assistance. Retrieved online February 17, 2016, from

Maricopa Community Colleges, Tempe, Office of General Counsel. (2002, September). Going to court over grades. Retrieved February 17, 2016, from

Saltzman, J. (2007, October 4). Student takes his C to federal court. Retrieved February 17, 2016, from
Sydney Fulbright, PhD, MSN, RN, CNOR, is an associate professor and executive director of surgical technology at University of Arkansas Fort Smith.

  • Howard A. Doughty

    Rubrics reflect the pedagogy of the Rubik's Cube. They imply achieving preordained outcome as the definition of success. They offer a check-list of "learning outcomes" as a substitute for intellectual engagement. They abjure creativity and curiosity.

    They do, of course, provide "legal protection" for professors operating in a discount department store model of "curriculum delivery" where "customer satisfaction" replaces academic rigor and inspiration as the standard of student assessment.

    Where they prevail, mediocrity rules – for both teachers and students. Everyone is given a "default position" and kept "safe" and "trigger-warned" within a corporate bubble. And, of course, faculty become increasingly interchangeable and subject to replacement by a reserve army of aspirant academics condemned to a life of adjunct status while desperately awaiting with faint hope a chance at a tenure track position.

    Welcome to K-Mart Kollege!

    • Russell Davidson

      A well designed course encourages creativity and curiosity. Grading isn't (and shouldn't be) the end-all, be-all of a education. That said, I'd prefer some strong assurances that, for example, my health professionals have achieved a set of educational goals.

    • Sydney Fulbright

      Rubrics are not the be all and end all of academic assessment and none of the many articles in Faculty Focus have stated such. I was simply pointing out another positive aspect of using rubrics though it is NOT the main purpose of using them. However, in many areas of education rubrics are an essential, objective method of assessment of student work. They are not a substitute for intellectual engagement. Engagement comes in many ways including class discussion, online discussion, and yes even in those papers we require. We in healthcare also have to maintain certain requirements. The general public probably does not expect their healthcare worker to "free think'" through their care but to follow stringent policy and procedure while also having been taught to critically think through unexpected situations using learned techniques of care. There is room for many types of pedagogy. Higher education is not a one size fits all. Judging and name calling of another institution is not a professional and open discussion or exchange of ideas.

      • Johnny

        Respectfully, I disagree that a rubric is an objective method of assessment. A rubric provides guidelines that the assessor can apply as subjectively as they see fit.

  • David Rath

    I suggest we try to avoid invective and stay within the realm of logic, ideas and research.

    Rubrics can easily include "interaction with the material" as a weighted category, meta-cognition, and/or the extent to which the student achieved the goals. In fact, these goals can even be pre-determined by the student.

    The point of the article does suggest that rubrics can help avoid unnecessary litigation. However, that is not the only point of using a rubric or grading criteria. The point is so that the student, teacher, educational institution, and any other stakeholder can be assured that learning objectives have been achieved. Without reliable assessment and evaluation, "education" we might as well just hang out in the bar and spout off anything that comes into our heads.

    • Sydney Fulbright

      It is not to suggest a way to avoid litigation other than to help a student understand how the assessment of their learning occurred. Understanding how the grade was determined goes a long way not only in striving to correct errors next time but also in guiding the student to understanding how to reach those outcomes pertinent to the course. There have been many articles in Faculty Focus concerning the use of rubrics. This is only one other way that rubrics can be an asset. If grade appeal does occur, the instructor has documentation of how the grade was determined and demonstrates objectivity instead of random grading when the scores "appear to high".