Rubrics Get No Respect

By Laura Jervis
đź“… March 15, 2021
đź•‘ Read time: 5 minute(s)
Rubrics Get No Respect

Do you ever pause in the middle of a conversation and notice the other person’s eyes have glazed over? Have you ever offered up an exciting idea only to have the rest of the room act like you read them several pages of the U.S. tax code? I guess I’m just trying to say that sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who likes talking about rubrics.

I get it, really. Rubrics can be dry. They can be formulaic. They can feel limiting for instructors and students. But—hear me out—they don’t have to be.

At their best, rubrics can provide structure and clarity for students, ensure consistency and equity in the grading process, and save instructors time without sacrificing the quality of their feedback.

Rubrics Help Students Do Better

A good rubric has several levels of achievement across criteria that clearly describe and prioritize aspects of the assignment; students can use a quality rubric to focus on their work instead of fixating on how to interpret the instructions. When I help instructors craft rubrics, I usually start by asking them to explain why they assigned the activity. Then I prod them to explain the specifics of how a student can demonstrate mastery of these goals. My aim during these conversations is always to end up with criteria that align to course objectives and with ratings that make room for creativity while being specific enough to allow students to self-assess their work and improve it before they submit it.

Rubrics Keep Grading Consistent

A rubric can also keep grading consistent within instructional teams or even among submissions being graded by just one person as long as it has well-defined criteria, clear descriptions of ratings, and point values that accurately reflect your priorities. A good rubric removes some of the subjectivity of evaluating someone’s work, which is especially helpful for projects that require critical thinking or where there are several valid ways to approach the task. In a class with several grading TAs or with co-instructors, this ensures that all students are graded by the same standards. Even if you and your students are the only ones who will use a rubric, having your standards clearly delineated can help you avoid implicit bias in grading and bring you peace of mind that you are treating your students fairly.

Rubrics Save You Time

One of the most common hesitations in using rubrics is simply the amount of time it takes to create a useful one. That’s understandable; none of us have unlimited hours in the day. But how often do you find yourself giving the same feedback over and over? How many times have you thought “I’d like to write a more detailed explanation of why I assigned this score, but then I won’t have time to grade the rest of the classRubrics frontload your work, but they can save enough time during grading to make up for it. If you teach in Canvas, adding a rubric (don’t forget to check “use this rubric for assignment grading” when you attach it to the assignment!) means that most of your grading can be done by clicking the right boxes in SpeedGrader. This frees up time for more substantive feedback on issues that are specific to students.

Rubrics Provide Quality Feedback

A rubric can be written with language that is encouraging and fosters a growth mindset. If a student sees that their critical thinking on the topic was “emerging” instead of “exemplary,” reads the rubric descriptions of both ratings, and peruses highlights or annotations from the instructor with a couple of specific examples in their assignment, they should have a good idea of what to work on next time without their instructor writing them several paragraphs of feedback.

Steps for Using Rubrics

If I’ve made you a rubric believer and you want to revisit how (or if) you use them, here are some steps to follow:

  1. Set criteria: Why did you assign this activity? What goals or objectives does it assess? What types of things do you want students to show you they can do? Organize these thoughts into your criteria or categories.
  2. Define success: For the first criterion, what does it look like to do exceptional work? How can a student demonstrate that they’re great at this? What qualities in this assignment will impress you? This will become your highest rating.
  3. Identify areas for improvement: Still on the first criterion, what are some common problems students might run into that would cause you to knock just a few points off? Maybe they didn’t make enough logical connections between their ideas, or perhaps they didn’t have enough examples. Frame it as what they can improve on rather than what they did wrong, and you’ve written your next rating. Do this again for lower scores until you have the number of ratings you want. You can have a different number of ratings for different criteria if it seems appropriate.
  4. Repeat as needed: Return to steps 2 and 3 for the next criterion and keep going until your rubric is finished. The process becomes quicker as you gather steam!
  5. Revisit point values: You might decide on point values as you work or save them all until the end, but either way, your last step should be looking at the points for each criterion and confirming that they are in line with your priorities for the assignment. Taking a bird’s eye view of the points can prevent you from giving too much weight to something that isn’t the main thing you want to assess.

The humble rubric withstands derision and neglect and continues to be a steadfast helper for students and instructors. It’s a versatile workhorse that can promote student self-assessment and growth, help instructors grade fairly, and save time during finals week. If I haven’t inspired you to value rubrics as highly as I do, I hope I’ve at least encouraged you to view them with the respect that a well-crafted rubric deserves.

TagsAcademic Integrity, Active Learning, Assessments, Canvas, Course Design, Feedback, Inclusivity, Instructional Design, Rubrics