Using Rubrics

Hello fellow WIDers,

Please let me begin by saying…. I love that as teachers we get to be forever students…and the term ‘lifelong learning’ is one that resonates deeply with me.

Ahhh grading… I have a love/hate relationship with it. Like most teachers, I love it when students do well and I get to reinforce/reward the ideas, comprehension, work ethic etc… but when students don’t earn the grades I find myself questioning my teaching and/or my assignments/instructions which, while necessary, I find uncomfortable.

When I was a student and given assignments where there was no specific rubric just a set of instructions, I always questioned if I was doing it ‘right’. There was guess work involved in terms of what I thought the teacher wanted and instructions can sometimes be open to interpretation. The possible ambiguity created anxiety, so as a student I always loved having a rubric… for a couple different reasons. I liked knowing exactly what I had to do. Listed with a rubric were the elements required but also a scale in which I got to measure where my work fell on this continuum, this made me feel that it was a less subjective measure. While it made it easier to take responsibility for the quality of my work I would still question the nuance of why I was in the 8 and not 9 column (which teachers could only sometimes explain). 


My master’s degree was in educational psychology and one of my required courses was on assessment. The most important idea I walked away from that course was ‘do your learning objectives align with your assessment?’ or how Bean puts it “what do teachers actually want when they ask students to write?” Rubrics, whether analytic/holistic or generic/ task-specific, aim to minimise the ambiguity and subjectivity involved with assignments

Begs the question… how much is subjective? Bean is right when he states that judgements about what constitutes good writing are complex. Do you think that including a rubric with its “grid and neat categories pushes us towards pretending an objectivity that does not match the complex mixture of likes and dislikes we feel towards any particular paper”?

One other point I would like to address are the different types of rubrics and possible commentary. I think teachers get frustrated when we spend time giving (valuable) feedback and students either don’t apply that feedback to the next draft or if a final, don’t pick up the papers. I like that Bean touched on the concept of the universal reader and while I have only ever used analytic rubrics (because that is all I have ever known), now I see other types might be more helpful for some of my assignments. It will allow my comments to focus not what the student did wrong but how she lost certain readers and how to minimise that. I feel this would be especially helpful for IS.

What are your favourite types of rubrics to use and why? Do you find making encouraging revision oriented comments easy using rubrics? If not, how might some of the ideas in this chapter facilitate that? 


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  1. Ah yes, Melanie, me too… grading…grading… But unlike, you, I don’t have a love/hate relationship with it – I just hate it! Wouldn’t our jobs be easier and more fun it we could dispense with this!!

    I guess my ‘rubrics” are holistic. I sometimes start out with an analytical one, but find it last for maybe 5 or 6, after which I realize it is too rigid and doesn’t quite work so it becomes much more of a guideline and less of a rubric. When I was teaching at university, I used to hand back a grid to students, with what they got in each category, so they would see where their mark came from. However, that was with letter grades rather than numbers, which made it much simpler because deciding between a 82 or 83 for example is impossible for me to either do or explain. Also, there was less active interaction with the students so the paper was often the first time they could see what I expected and where they would lose marks.

    But at Dawson, I stopped giving the students rubrics and grids just about at the beginning. For one thing, I find it encouraged mark-grubbing where students called on me to explain the difference between 82 and 83.

    And I found I did not mark all students in the same way. Some students are just so articulate and some are obviously struggling with the language. I want to encourage the first group to polish their skills but I don’t want to fail the second group because of this shortcoming. So maybe it is more of a sliding scale I use ….. There are certainly a number of key things I look for and this remains consistent for the entire class; what varies is the actual number I assign to each one. I sat and thought about this after writing it down – is that a good policy? is it fair? I decided that in fact it was and is. Our students are not equal; they come to our classes with different levels of ability, and one of the things we try to do is have them build confidence, to realize what they do well, and to improve in all areas. Social science assignments are NOT objective; even in QM, I spend a lot of time telling my students that this is NOT a math class, so to just give a number as an answer is no good– they have to explain what that number actually represents. So, almost by definition, our marking has to be subjective, even if we use rubrics.

    I actually did try using a task specific rubric this semester – in Turnitin. That lasted for about 3 papers, when I realized it was much too inflexible for my needs, so I am back to marking in Word, where I can write many comments and then come up with the grade at the end.

  2. After graduating high school, I attended four different educational institutions. In all those years grinding away at papers, I never received feedback on a rubric. Even after hearing about their value in a seminar on teaching college-writing; and from colleagues who have completed WID; and from Bean’s chapter 14 (I like how that rhymes), I’m still not wholly convinced that I really missed out. I’m not saying that I’m against handing back rubrics (if this work for some teachers, great!), but I would like to learn more about how to use them effectively and efficiently before I start doing so myself.

    My experience using rubrics mirrors that of Sonia. While the proponents of rubrics sometimes claim they save time, my experience has been the opposite. Depending on the kind of rubric one uses, it means that you have to assign 5 or 6 separate grades–and then add them up–rather than giving only 1. I recognize that there are alternative models. For instance, I’ve given papers one final grade, but also circled sections on a rubric to let students know where to improve. Unfortunately, I’ve also found this time-consuming (it still involves marking down five different grades and choosing between a number of categories); unnecessarily rigid (as rightly emphasized by Sonya); and, counterintuitively, confusing to students. They will come to my office asking why, if they did so well on three out of the five markers (say organization and clarity), did they not receive a higher grade if they “only” performed poorly on thesis and evidence? I also have agree with critics who point out that rubrics can lead students to see marking as something that is mechanical and robotic rather than holistic (and I worry that “holistic rubrics” may actually do more to contribute to this problem than solve it).

    Here’s what I do to try to achieve the same goals as a rubric (a clear understanding for students on how my grading process functions and how they may improve their work):

    1) Provide clear instructions on what the expectations are for the assignment.

    2) For thesis-driven essays, post a universal rubric on Lea. I ask students if they have questions on either the instructions or on the rubric. I’m much more open to having rubrics posted before an assignment is due than handing one back after it is submitted.

    3) Grade papers using track changes on Microsoft Word (I’ve only recently started to do this). This allows me to quickly and clearly highlight major issues directly on the paper. I then write a one paragraph summary at the end of the essay on what needs improvement. While this method is still relatively time-consuming, I think it conveys what students need to know to submit more successful work. It also has the added benefit of more accurately reflecting how writers get feedback in the “real-world” from colleagues in their field.

    All that being said, I’m still open to handing back rubrics. Especially if the pedagogical benifits are clear-cut and they don’t add more time go grading. After reading this chapter, though, I still need more convincing. I’m hoping that our discussion tomorrow might change my mind!

  3. Personnellement, je privilégie l’évaluation par rubriques, mais cela ne m’empêche pas d’avoir aussi une appréciation globale des travaux d’écriture que je donne à mes étudiants. Pour être plus claire, par souci d’objectivité, et surtout poussée par le besoin de pouvoir expliquer ou justifier ma note, je me sers de différentes grilles d’évaluation que j’adapte à chaque fois en fonction de la tâche ou du niveau du groupe. Elles sont moins développées que celles proposées dans ce chapitre (dont je compte d’ailleurs m’inspirer), mais elles existent. Cependant, malgré ces critères que je propose et en fonction desquelles je note, il m’arrive souvent d’avoir besoin de relire certains textes pour avoir justement cette vue de l’ensemble, et m’assurer, d’une certaine manière, de la justesse, de l’efficacité de mes critères. Disons que, sans en faire une démarche consciente, j’active parfois dans le processus d’évaluation (par nécessité, par instinct ?) les deux côtés de mon cerveau.

    La lecture de ce chapitre m’aidera à l’avenir à en faire une démarche systématique.

    Je crois aussi qu’avoir des grilles d’évaluation très détaillées, très précises aiderait non seulement à être un peu plus objectifs, mais cela nous permettrait surtout de chercher, valoriser et récompenser les forces de chaque élève pour aller un peu plus vers un universal design. Comme nous l’avons souligné à plusieurs reprises pendant nos rencontres, nos élèves n’ont pas tous le même niveau, les mêmes habiletés, ou compétences. Une grille « juste » d’évaluation est, selon moi, une grille qui prend un compte cette diversité et la met en valeur.

    Le modèle proposé à la page 271 me semble très intéressant. En ce qui me concerne, je l’adapterai les critères proposés de la manière suivante : qualité de l’argumentation, originalité des idées, structure, maitrise de la langue, maitrise de conventions de genre, respect des consignes. Et pour chacun de ces critères je distinguerait trois niveaux : faible, bien, très bien.

    Je pense également qu’il est nécessaire d’adapter nos grilles en fonction de la tâche proposée : un travail de création ne peut pas être évalué selon les critères qu’on applique par exemple pour l’évaluation d’un texte argumentatif.

  4. @ Melanie – you hit the nail on the head: “Rubrics, whether analytic/holistic or generic/ task-specific, aim to minimize the ambiguity and subjectivity involved with assignments” – thus as a student, you LOVED rubrics – while as a teacher, you remain anxious about the fact that minimizing subjectivity does not make grading objective…

    @ Sonia – who doesn’t hate grading?? See my thoughts on this below. Veering away from a rubric is completely understandable – but then certain problems are left unresolved, such as, is there in fact any difference between your 82s and your 83s? And how exactly do you “come up with a grade at the end”?

    @ Julian – “not really sure I missed out” – see Melanie’s remarks on why she appreciated rubrics as a student! You didn’t miss out; you didn’t need a rubric, Julian; all the tacit hints were absorbed, the discourse of the discipline (and of critique within the discipline) was not so foreign that you couldn’t swim right away. Was it true of all your peers? Interesting that you begin by declaiming against rubrics – but end up arguing for their (correct) use to advertise in advance the criteria under evaluation. I would say that any effective use of rubrics involves their publication with the assignment handout itself – it doesn’t make sense to “reveal” your rubric only when work is handed back – unless your sole interest is in defending a grade, in which case the rubric works against the learning process, and is just another armament defending the teacher’s power/authority.

    @ Carmen – “Cependant, malgré ces critères que je propose et en fonction desquelles je note, il m’arrive souvent d’avoir besoin de relire certains textes pour avoir justement cette vue de l’ensemble, et m’assurer, d’une certaine manière, de la justesse, de l’efficacité de mes critères.” – Tu est enfin semblable a Bean, qui nous explique sa facon de travailler avec les deux cotes de son cerveau (279): donner une note en mode “holistiique”, puis ensuite donner une note en utlilisant le grille, et ensuite faire des ajustements, si necessaire, entre les deux! Cela se presente comme une vrai effort vers une rapprochement des demarches subjectives – objectives.

    I hate grading too. There is great joy in teaching, but there is grief too, and much of it is to be found in having to assign grades to the work of our students. I am also thinking of a section of Peckham’s book which glances sideways at the ways in which writing teachers are the underclass labourers in the basement of the ivory tower: we fool ourselves by talking the talk just like our gifted and grant-endowed peers in the higher echelons, but when the assignments come in, how many nights of drudgery, how many stacks of papers, how many smudges and erasings, how many hours of eye strain, and afterwards, how many complaints, grievances, recriminations – who has heard a student say, “Thank you for marking my paper!” Indeed, who after thousands of hours of marking, has heard very many students say, “Thanks for those insightful remarks on my paper that are going to change my work next time around, and maybe my life!” Anyways, I am getting off topic!!

    My disposition changed some time ago, when the ideas behind a bit of educational jargon finally got through to me. You are probably familiar with them: “formative assessment” and “summative assessment.” I had used these terms myself for sometime, but it took a long time for me to realize that I had not really considered or applied their significance in my own design decisions. “Formative assessment” – that’s feedback FOR learning, when the learning is still in progress. “Summative assessment” – that’s evaluation OF learning, when the learning process is finished. At some point I realized that most of my efforts were still oriented to giving formative feedback – at the summative stage. This is very common practice for English teachers, and others in the Humanities, I would say – give a bunch of advice on what the student should have done – when it’s too late in the learning process for them to actually benefit from it. We complain about students who don’t “pay attention” to our post-process post-mortem remarks – meanwhile, the learning is over. By this I don’t mean that end comments on final product are meaningless; I mean that their impact within the learning process is limited. A student can actually do better if the writing process is organized to permit lots of formative feedback on process and content – no student ever did better on an assignment by reading (and attempting to understand) the end comments on work already completed.

    So what did this boil down to in terms of changes in practice? I began to intensively front-load formative feedback within the writing process – feedback on a prospectus, feedback on a draft paragraph, peer feedback on source insertion, feedback in group conferences on introductions, introducing nay-sayers, conclusions, you name it. And I stopped giving any summative feedback whatsoever, other than my cursory checking of the categories on my rubric. (BTW, Bean counsels this approach on 314). Really what I was doing was shifting my energies toward feedback which was timed to improve the student work in progress, and away from defending a grade on final product.

    I discovered that even as I hated grading, I also loved giving feedback! In fact, I probably hated summative grading because I was not giving enough effective formative feedback.

    THIS REDUCED MY GRIEF. Students were much better informed as to the progress of their learning, and also the likely outcome of their final product – and I was much more confident that my time and energy was having an actual impact on student learning.

    And good grief, what a windbag I am! I’ll shut up now – looking forward to our meeting tomorrow!

    • Great post, Ian. One things I’m trying this semester, on Bean’s recommendation, is allowing my students to resubmit their first essay up until the last day of classes. Typically I would only give this option to students who got a grade of C and below, so that they would then have a chance to raise their marks up to a B. Considering all the feedback I leave on everyone’s papers, though, I thought why not let all student have this chance? I’m hoping it will encourage them to see writing as process of development and to understand that feedback really should be seen as formative. On the one hand, I hope everyone takes advantage. On the other, I’m concerned about grading all the papers a second time. We’ll see how it works out!

      I also like your point about giving lots of formative feedback early on and then only handing back the checked off rubric once they hit the summative stage. I think you’re right about teachers in English and the humanities often giving formative feedback when it’s “too late” for that particular assignment (I know I’ve done this myself).

      Looking forward to hearing more about handing back rubrics–in a way that actually saves time and helps students feel they understand why they got the grades they did–tomorrow.

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