Rubrics: Why Use Them?

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Author: Meechal Hoffman

There will be a few posts that will follow this one that will go into more detail on what makes up a good rubric, and on some tips and techniques for making them (I wrote another post on rubrics here, at Baruch College’s but in this post I want to focus on just one question: Why use rubrics? A seemingly simple question, but as you’ll see, I have a lot to say!

First, though: what is a rubric? For the purposes of this post, I’ll say that a rubric specifies the set of criteria on which an assignment is assessed. (You can see one of my recent rubrics later in this post.)

ŸSo, why use them? Often I’ll create an assignment, receive the students’ work, and only when reading through it do I realize that I didn’t clearly articulate what I wanted.  In fact, every time I create a new assignment, it takes a round of reading through the work my students turn in to realize what I actually wanted out of that assignment.

Writing rubrics often minimizes that frustration with my own assignment design and communication. Writing a rubric while creating the assignment helps me to articulate in advance what I want. In particular, it helps me to see the individual parts that join to make a whole strong assignment.

Though ideally I write the rubric when I write the assignment, I usually only give the rubric to the students once it’s time to explain the assignment in depth. I use the rubric as a guide for this conversation so that it is given the integral place I think it should have in the assignment description, and so that it seems integral to the students. (If this feels difficult or forced, perhaps the rubric isn’t quite fitting the assignment goals yet.) Usually this isn’t the first day of class, but it might be. What’s important is that the students see the rubric before they begin working on the assignment so that they have a sense of what they’re aiming to achieve.

Clarifying in a rubric what you want helps you see the aims of your own assignment, the skill-set you need to teach leading up to the assignment, and the criteria on which you will judge the work.

Students, too, often appreciate the rubrics I use. It demystifies the grading process, and makes the receipt of an A or a B- less of an enigmatic message from the gods and more like a statement of simple facts. Rubrics allow students to see specifically, and often visually, where they excelled and on what grounds they fell short and need improvement.

Rubrics can soften the blow of a bad grade. When the grade is broken down into smaller parts, a student can see that they did a great job using quotes, for example, even though the organization of their ideas was confusing and led to a lower grade than they hoped for. Rubrics are often visual in some way, and this, too, helps students clearly understand where they excelled and where they fell short. All of this serves to demystify the process of doling out grades. It helps them see the justice of the grade they received, and gives them concrete suggestions for revision or future attention.

ŸIf you’re not convinced yet, here’s one of the biggest arguments in favor of using rubrics: they make grading unbelievably easier and less time-consuming. You will feel like you’re cheating. You’re not. In fact, you’re probably doing a better job grading than before. Articulating what you want out of an assignment in advance is the hard part – creating the rubric can be an agonizing process – but doing it in advance makes the grading itself faster, easier, and less painful. When you can read a paper for a series of already-articulated criteria, and respond on the rubric accordingly, your thinking about the papers becomes organized and streamlined.

ŸMy rubrics are basically grids, and as I read, I circle the box on the grid that describes the criteria I’m looking at. My comments correspond, for the most part, to the circles I’ve made on the grid. Comments at the end of the paper are more freeform, but often relate directly to the circling I did on the rubric itself. Developing this method has significantly cut back time spent grading.

Finally, the clarity a rubric provides minimizes the number of students who complain about the grades they receive. It’s hard to debate a rubric.

For reference, and to clarify some of what I’ve said above, here’s what a recent marked up rubric of mine looks like: rubric example. My commenting/grading is in three parts: comments in the margins of the paper itself, a circled rubric, and a paragraph or two of comments at the end of the rubric.

All this refers to rubrics for written work, but rubrics are helpful, for all the reasons mentioned above, for all kinds of work. In future posts, we’ll go into a little more detail on how to create rubric, and we’ll provide some sample rubrics we’ve seen or used.

Readers: We’d love to hear from you. How do you organize your rubrics? Do you have some rubrics you’d like to share?


2 responses to “Rubrics: Why Use Them?”

  1. Dana Howard says:

    This is a great post! I never used rubrics until I became an AP Art History reader. That experience went a long way toward shaping my understanding of the power of rubrics. The Scoring Guidelines for past AP essay questions can be found here: Although general, and for a broader purpose, I have used them as a template in the past to help me hone what I really want from students. Rubris are especially helpful in determining the difference between mid-level grades, something that can feel somewhat subjective without a well-crafted rubric.

  2. Thanks for a great share, Dana!

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