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We have criteria in our minds when we grade an assignment (whether for a course or a capstone), and we apply those criteria to determine the grade of the project. Often, however, we have not made those criteria explicit or shared them with students ahead of time. Rubrics help us do this. Rubrics involve three elements and, for assessment purposes are most easily developed in a grid where each row represents a learning outcome and each column represents the degree to which students succeeded in demonstrating learning, ranging from inadequate demonstration of learning to outstanding demonstration of learning. The cells to the right of the learning outcomes and below the categories of level of success are then filled in with descriptions of the criteria used to determine how successfully a given student demonstrated learning with regard to each learning outcome.

All three of these elements are necessary for rubrics that can be used in assessment. It is not enough to create an evaluative scale that includes the learning outcome and a series of numbers representing how well the student did. Rubrics require descriptions of the criteria for evaluating how well a student did because the point of a rubric is not to "grade" performance but initially simply to match the performance to the description.

If you want to know how well your students compared gender inequality in two societies for assessment purposes, it is not enough to rate them with numbers. Your rubric needs to describe what a student would need to do on the assignment to merit each rating. In this case, you might decide to fill in the cells as follows:

  • Outstanding: Offers original insights about gender inequality in one or both societies through bringing together comparative information in a new way
  • Successful: Provides information about multiple elements of gender inequality in both societies; selects productive aspects of gender inequality and compares them accurately
  • Developing: Provides information about one element of gender inequality in both societies; selects a productive aspect of gender inequality and compares the two societies accurately
  • Inadequate: Only provides information about gender inequality in one society or provides inaccurate information about gender inequality in one or both societies or information is accurate but the comparison is not appropriate

Susan M. Brookhart suggests that the descriptions in the cells make for the strongest rubrics when:

  • Performance is described in terms of what is observed in the assignment;
  • Both students and professors understand what the descriptions mean;
  • Performance is described from one extreme of the continuum of quality to the other for each learning outcome; and
  • Performance descriptions are different enough from level to level that learning can be categorized unambiguously and each student's work can be matched to one and only one level (each cell is exclusive and each row of cells is exhaustive).

(Susan M. Brookhart, How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading; Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2013. Since this book focuses on K-12 education, I have modified her language slightly to reflect higher education and left out two criteria.)

Benefits of Rubrics
  • They help students understand your expectations.
  • They can inspire better student performance, since students will be clear about what you value and how you will evaluate them.
  • They make scoring easier and faster, leaving you more time and energy to add any specific comments that go beyond the rubric scaling.
  • They make scoring more accurate, unbiased, and consistent, since every assignment is evaluated using the same criteria and since the criteria are right there for you to review.
  • Marked-up rubrics returned with assignments (where relevant) help students understand their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Rubrics facilitate your ability to see patterns in where students are succeeding or falling short in terms of course (or program) skills and knowledge.
  • Rubrics reduce student arguments and complaints about grades by making scoring criteria explicit, allowing you to focus those conversations with students on how they can improve their performance rather on defending your grading practices.
  • Rubrics can facilitate timely feedback by reducing the overall time spent grading while providing no less meaningful feedback than you do now – surely a benefit on the Block Plan.
  • In some cases, students who won’t read comments carefully may be more amenable to the detailed feedback of a rubric.
  • Rubrics can level the playing field for students who come from backgrounds that prepared them less effectively for CC. Poor and working-class students are more likely than upper-middle-class students to have had educational experiences that prepare them to follow instructions very well, but that did not prepare them for more open-ended assignments, or for assignments that demand substantial internal motivation. They are also less likely to ask a professor for clarification than their wealthier peers. Rubrics can clarify expectations without constraining a professor to be so specific that an assignment no longer calls for higher-order thinking.
  • Rubrics facilitate departmental conversation regarding cross-course consistency.
  • Rubrics may be able to help you refine your teaching skills in some cases.
Additional Resources

This document can help you create a strong rubric for assessment.

Using Rubrics

Once you are confident that your rubric accurately captures your student learning intent, compare materials intended to demonstrate student learning (papers, performances, etc.) to the rubric and, as honestly as possible, determine how effectively each student demonstrated learning with regard to each outcome. This is best done with more than one faculty member reviewing and discussing student materials, rubric in hand.