Rubrics clarify assignment details for students. They provide an operational answer to the frequently asked student question, “What do you want in this assignment?” They make grading more transparent and can be used to help students develop those all-important self-assessment skills. For teachers, rubrics expedite grading and can make it a more objective process.
But there's another benefit for teachers that's not often mentioned, and that's the power of rubrics to clarify thinking about the knowledge and skills the teacher wants to assess. Teachers do a great deal of assessment, across multiple courses, semester after semester. It's easy for the response to student work to become habitual, automatic, and not always thoughtful. After grading so many hundreds of essays and short answers, the good, the bad, and the ugly are easy to pick out.
The process of creating a rubric forces close consideration of whatever is being assessed—its component parts, features, or characteristics. It also promotes clearer understanding of what a performance or product looks like when it's not right, only partly accomplished, good enough as it is, or everything it ought to be. With rubrics, teachers can not only quickly identify different quality levels, they know why an essay or answer belongs in that category.
Rubrics can be simple or detailed to the nth degree, but they don't have to be complex to be beneficial. Here's an example that illustrates a discussion-group rubric used by a history teacher in an online course. She writes that she adapted it from another source. Here are two of the four categories on the rubric.
A or A–:
Timely discussion contributions. Comments are meaningful and show preparedness that reflect course readings. In-depth thought and contributions add to the overall learning of other individuals in the course. Demonstrations of courtesy and respect to others.
C+ to C–:
Overall contributions are not meaningful and include types of comments such as “good idea” or “I agree.” Very little evidence of having read course materials or giving any in-depth thought to the reading. Failure to participate in at least two discussions during the posting period.
Rubrics can be beneficial in any aspect of instruction—an in-class activity, a major assignment, a teacher's quizzing strategy, a course, and probably most beneficial of all, the levels of learning resulting from a sequence of courses or a whole major or program.
Here's a second example. A group of chemists worked with teaching staff to develop an assessment strategy that would help them understand “the extent to which students were able to think critically about or solve laboratory-based problems across the curriculum, with particular attention to the application of chemical instrumentation” (p. 319). They opted to develop a rubric because “cognitive skills, such as critical thinking or problem solving are difficult to measure with a conventional ‘test,' graded for correct vs. incorrect answers” (p. 319). Their rubric is anchored around these three criteria:
- It identifies the important or relevant features of the problem.
- In formulating a strategy for the solution of the problem, the student presents a complete justification or explanation for the strategy.
- It provides an effective strategy that is likely to work to solve the chemical problem.
For each criterion, emerging, developing, and mastering levels are described.
Teachers can create rubrics alone and achieve the benefits described here, but chances are good those benefits will be achieved on a much bigger scale if developing the rubric is a collaborative process. Say a group of teachers in a department or program aspire to develop students' critical-thinking skills. What are the identifying features of those skills? At what different levels might they occur on the way to full development? Even if those teachers don't end up agreeing on all parts of the rubric, the conversation will likely have been a rich learning experience for all involved. And if a rubric is mutually acceptable, then teachers with a shared goal are working from the same playbook.
Shadle, S. E., Brown, E. C., Towns, M. H., & Warner, D. L., (2012) A rubric for assessing students' experimental problem-solving ability. Journal of Chemical Education, 89
Stern, A., (2015) Bridging the gap: Replicating the interactivity of the physical classroom in an online environment. The History Teacher, 48