Twenty years ago, many faculty didn't know what rubrics were, but today they are well known and widely used, both in practice and research. And like many other instructional innovations, they have come to be used and defined differently. Dawson (2017) aspires to sort through these definitional vagrancies and explains that “Rubrics are evaluated, mandated, embraced and resisted based on often imprecise and inconsistent understandings of the term” (p. 347).
Twenty years ago, many faculty didn't know what rubrics were, but today they are well known and widely used, both in practice and research. And like many other instructional innovations, they have come to be used and defined differently. Dawson (2017) aspires to sort through these definitional vagrancies and explains that “Rubrics are evaluated, mandated, embraced and resisted based on often imprecise and inconsistent understandings of the term” (p. 347). The problem for him is that most educators operate assuming shared understanding. Dawson aims to clarify what rubrics are and how they can be designed: “Rather than seek a homogenous definition for the term ‘rubric', it provides a framework to map out the heterogeneity of potential rubric interventions.” (p. 348)
Popham's seminal 1997 article (referenced in Dawson's piece) proposes that rubrics must have three components; evaluative criteria, quality definitions for those criteria at the various levels, and a scoring strategy. Dawson's review of the research and literature on rubrics since then has uncovered 14 design features. Ten of these are highlighted below. His review does not establish the prevalence of these features or make judgments of their quality. However, as this abbreviated list shows, Dawson offers excellent summary of the design options and associated decisions that confront teachers who use or are interested in using rubrics. The article also contains a sample rubric to illustrate some of the design options and features.
Specificity: A specific rubric applies to a singular task, such as a rubric developed for a particular assignment. Rubrics can also be generic and used across a range of individual tasks, such as a rubric assessing a particular writing genre, such as scientific writing.
Secrecy: Rubrics can be shared with students or be secret scoring guides that teachers and graders use to direct their assessment of student work. There has been a significant amount of debate as to the advisability of sharing rubrics with students, especially if they're shared before the assigned work is completed.
Exemplars: Many teachers include examples within rubrics to demonstrate particular criteria or to illustrate the various quality levels.
Scoring strategy: Typically two approaches can be taken to scoring rubrics. They can be scored holistically as that all the criteria are considered and then aggregated into a single, overall quality judgment, or they can be scored analytically so that individual judgments are made on each criterion, and then those scores are totaled to provide the overall, final score.
Judgment complexity: Despite their seeming objectivity, rubrics still involve making judgments. If the criteria specify that the writing style should be clear and the quality levels are bad, acceptable, and good, the grader makes expert (hopefully) judgments about the piece of writing under review. The complexity of those judgments can vary depending on the rubric.
Users and uses: Rubrics are most often used by teachers, but they can be used by students for self- or peer assessment. Students can also use them to help with planning an assignment, provided they're distributed beforehand. And teachers can also use them formatively, for feedback to students on work in progress.
Creators: Typically, teachers design rubrics, but students can also be involved in their creation. Rubrics are also developed by instructional designs, such as for inclusion in a textbook or other learning resource.
Quality processes: The focus here is on the validity and reliability of the rubric. Are the criteria relevant? Do they identify the defining features of a task? If multiple persons use the rubric, are they understanding and interpreting the criteria in similar ways?
Accompanying feedback: Some rubrics are designed so that the teacher can provide additional comments directly responding to aspects of the students' work.
Explanations: Rubrics can include instructions on how they are to be used; for example, instructions may be needed when students are being asked to use rubrics to provide feedback to peers.
Dawson's (2017) article is a first-rate resource on rubrics. Each of the design elements appears on a table with references to research and literature that explore that feature. It demonstrates the options available to those who use rubrics and in the process showcases the complexity of this feedback mechanism.
Dawson, P. (2017). Assessment rubrics: Towards clearer and more replicable design, research and practice. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(3), 347–360.