The Power of Rubrics

The Power of Rubrics

This is third in a series of blog posts from the Course Design Institute (CDI), a 4-day workshop for faculty on how to design and teach a course from the ground up.  In Part 2, I discussed how to adapt the rhythm of your class to the academic calendar.

Another discussion from the CDI was using rubrics to improve the quality of assignments and feedback.

The third day of the Course Design Institute focused on creating assignments and providing feedback to students in a way that helps them learn and improve their work. One of the single best ways to improve your assignments and your feedback is to create and use a rubric. While you may have used or seen rubrics as tools for systematizing grading across multiple graders or for explaining grading criteria to students, their value goes far beyond this.

Rubrics can take various forms, but fundamentally they are designed to break an assignment down into specific parts (or aspects), and provide a scale for each part, which describes various levels of performance. For a written composition, this might be a table with categories such as "logical structure of argument,” "use of sources,” and "grammar and spelling,” and a five step scale ranging from "Poor" to "Excellent.” For a problem set, the rubric might simply be an answer key with point value deductions for various mistakes.

What can rubrics do for your course?

First, they provide a structured way to give feedback to your students. Students can improve if they know what they did wrong or where their work is weak, so targeted and specific feedback is critical to the learning process. A rubric ensures you cover all of the bases, so that each aspect of the students' work receives the attention it deserves. By providing a quality scale, it gives both you and your students a way to concretely talk about the caliber of their work.

In general, you should make the rubric available to students when you return their graded work. In some cases (such as a problem set with correct answers) the rubric alone will be sufficient; in other cases, the rubric may simply be a scaffold on which you hang your more targeted comments.

Second, rubrics help set expectations for an assignment. In my experience as both a student and a teacher, students do better work (and feel more confident) when they have a clearly defined criteria and reliable samples in front of them. A well­ written rubric can direct students where to focus their energy so they get the most out of the assignment.

For example, a final project might require students to conduct a broad range of research exercises, such as finding and evaluating sources, conducting experiments, analyzing data and text, and presenting conclusions. Because these activities may not all have the same importance to you – given your learning goals, a rubric can organize and quantify this in a way that your admonishments from the front of the classroom cannot.

Finally, using a rubric helps students develop the ability to evaluate their own work. In some cases, you might even enlist the students to help create the rubric. This encourages students to think about how to evaluate others' work ­and in turn, their own. When students have the ability to assess both, they are likely to produce quality work of their own.

Constructing a rubric

Creating a good rubric takes significant time and effort, since it often requires a process of revising and clarification. You may discover new mistakes, misunderstandings, or realize that your initial rubric overlooked an important aspect. Don't be afraid to start with something imperfect and refine it later: a rough or incomplete rubric is still helpful, and better than none at all.

Many times, the process of defining the rubric will lead you to modify or refine the assignment itself. To guide you, ask yourself these questions:

  • ­How will I evaluate the various aspects of this assignment?
  • ­How will I assign grades or points on this assignment?                           
  • How can I explain my process of evaluation to my students, so that they learn to critically evaluate their own work?
  • ­What is important in this assignment? What do I want my students to focus on and practice?

It's easy to fall in the trap of first creating assignments, and then later consider evaluations and feedback, particularly when the quarter gets busy. But because assessment and feedback form a cycle, they cannot be separated. Taking the time to consider feedback and grading before you hand out an assignment, whether through rubrics or other means, will ultimately benefit both you and your students.