Developing a Good Rubric

One way in which my teaching has changed over the years is my increasing use of rubrics as a grading and feedback tool. I used to associate them with the “miserable love of system” with which the 18th century philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher Friedrich_Daniel_Schleiermacher
disdained the prevailing rationalism of his time. The rubric grid seemed to me to unnecessarily mechanize feedback and homogenize the students’ work, to disqualify any surprising, coloring-outside-the-lines approach to the given assignment. But I have come around, at first out of desperation to save a moment or two of grading time, later because I came to see their pedagogical value and their unlimited flexibility. Because really, a rubric is nothing more than a list of things that make for good work on a given project, and these can be defined however you like.

Rubric can be elaborate matrices that define multiple desired features of an assignment and assign points to varying levels of success in achieving them, or they can be as simple as a checklist of required elements. Developing a good rubric can help us clarify what we really want students to do, help us maintain consistency in evaluation, give students a sense of what to aim for and encourage them to reflect on their work, and actually increase the quality of feedback while reducing time spent writing comments.

Here are a few tips for using rubrics well:

  • Create the rubric when you design the assignment so that your instructions for the project or paper or presentation or discussion post are aligned with the desired outcome. If you’re looking for creativity and innovation, say so.
  • Give students the rubric before they begin the assignment. Even better, engage them in the process of creating the rubric, or of weighting its different elements.
  • If you can, personalize the rubric with a comment or two. Under a “visual presentation” heading, for instance, you might simply note “nice graphic—very effective!”
  •  Use student-friendly language. You know what “complies with discipline- and genre-specific conventions and demonstrates language fluency” means, but your students might not.

And because your colleagues have been at this awhile, you needn’t reinvent all the wheels. Your department may have common rubrics for given learning outcomes, and here’s a link to our campus General Education assessment resources that includes rubrics for written communication, oral communication, and critical thinking.  The AAC&U VALUE initiative has also developed a rich collection of rubrics on everything from informational literacy to intercultural knowledge and competence.  These offer models or at least starting points for the creation of your own assignment-specific rubrics.  And remember that rubrics can be created in or imported into Blackboard for online assessment.

* Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

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