February 14th, 2013

Should You Be Using Rubrics?


Use of rubrics in higher education is comparatively recent. These grading aids that communicate “expectations for an assignment by listing the criteria or what counts, and describing levels of quality from excellent to poor” (p. 435) are being used to assess a variety of assignments such as literature reviews, reflective writings, bibliographies, oral presentations, critical thinking, portfolios, and projects. They are also being used across a range of disciplines, but so far the number of faculty using them remains small.

This background is provided in an excellent article that examines the “type and extent of empirical research on rubrics at the post-secondary level” and seeks “to stimulate research on rubric use in post-secondary teaching.” (p. 437) A review of the literature on rubrics produced 20 articles, which are analyzed in this review.

So far, rubrics in higher education are being used almost exclusively as grading tools, even though some educators, like these authors, see them as having formative potential. When rubrics are given to students at the time an assignment is made, students can use them to better understand expectations for the assignment and then monitor and regulate their work. They also make the grading process more transparent. In fact, in one of the studies analyzed in the review, one group of students were given the rubric after their work had been graded and another group got the rubric at the time the assignment was made. Both groups wanted to use rubrics again, but the rubric was rated as useful by 88 percent of the students who got it when the assignment was made as compared with 10 percent who rated it useful when it was returned with their graded assignment.

“One striking difference between students’ and instructors’ perceptions of rubric use is related to their perceptions of the purposes of rubrics. Students frequently referred to them as serving the purposes of learning and achievement, while instructors focused almost exclusively on the role of a rubric in quickly, objectively, and accurately assigning grades.” (p. 439)

Do rubrics promote student learning?
For teachers who might be considering use of rubrics or using them as something more than a time-saving grading mechanism, the key question is whether rubrics promote learning and achievement. The authors of this review found the evidence inconclusive. One study did find that involving students in developing and using rubrics prior to submitting an assignment was associated with improved academic performance, but another study found no differences in the quality of work done by students with and without rubrics.

Also missing from the research so far are answers to questions related to validity and reliability. Do rubrics measure what they purport to measure—the validity question? “A large majority of the studies reviewed did not describe the process of development of rubrics to establish their quality.” (p. 445) A bit more work has been done on reliability and it shows that with training, separate raters consistently give similar ratings to a piece of work when using the same rubric. However, the authors note that more work on rubric validity and reliability is needed.

Are rubrics worth using?
Research answers to the question are still few and not always conclusive. Among practitioners, there is general agreement that rubrics do expedite the grading process and make it seem more objective and fair to students. Among students, there is agreement that rubrics clarify expectations and are especially useful as they prepare assignments. The researchers recommend “educating instructors on the formative use of rubrics to promote learning by sharing or co-creating them with students in order to make the goals and qualities of an assignment transparent, and to have students use rubrics to guide peer and self-assessment and subsequent revision.” (p. 444)

Reference: Reddy, Y. M., and Andrade, H. (2010). A review of rubric use in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35 (4), 435-448.

Reprinted from Rubrics: Worth Using? The Teaching Professor, 26.1 (2012): 4.

  • I am relatively new to rubrics myself, so I took keen interest in this article. I can't speak to their broader applicability, but I've found them to be extremely helpful in my Freshman Comp classes, both for my students and for me. I hand the rubric out with the assignment, so students are not blindsided by how I'll be grading their papers. Once they receive their graded papers, in turn, it also helps them understand specific, formal elements of their writing where improvement is needed. This is benefit 1.

    Benefit 2 is for me and my time. I've designed a rubric that allows for brief comments targeted at each element under consideration. This saves me many hours of constructing detailed end-note type comments for each paper, as that detail is categorized on the rubric itself. Also, since my responses are categorized, I think that students have an easier time making use of them.

    Finally, the issue of fairness. I had an unfortunate situation once where two students turned in essentially the same paper. Before I discovered this, I graded each one with the rubric and came to the same grade. This offered me some reassurance that using a rubric does offer at least some objectivity in grading papers, though I don't personally believe that is entirely possible, or even necessary (at some level. Though this is surely the Arnoldian coming out it me. I'm naturally suspicious of machinery – yet somehow I like rubrics…hmmm). Anyway.

    Thanks for posting. I'm really glad I discovered this blog!

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  • Dr. Willis

    Hello Dr. Weimer,

    I'm concerned about your conclusions because you mention several times that the evidence is inconclusive. You may want to check out some recent research on rubrics by Dr. Viktoria Strunk: http://gradworks.umi.com/35/42/3542066.html

    Dr. Willis

  • Gordon James Kerr

    As a university teacher in East Asia my experience with rubrics as a learning aid and not just an assesment tool has always been quite positive and it certainly seems to reduce anxiety, discourage palgiarism and encourage more thoughtful and constructive work by my students. I also find than when rubrics are given out I get a lot more intelligent enquiries from students who are working on their assignments and also enjoy more constructive feedback suggestions. I think students deserve to know what is expected of them. The danger of course is to be too precriptive.