Qualifying good work: the rubric

The first time I ever NOTICED a teacher using a rubric for grading was my sophomore year of high school. I was working on a late assignment for my art class during a study hall (typical of me–I had no urgency with art; perfection took time as far as I was concerned) and my teacher was co-creating a rubric with her freshmen on how they would be assessed for their upcoming project. I had no idea what a rubric was then, and I don’t really have any recollection of being grading that way any time before that. (This was probably around 1995, if you were wondering.) I liked that it seemed more fair to have a break-down of what the teacher was looking for instead of just receiving a B+ at the end, especially if your project was complex… but apparently, I never noticed any of my other teachers thinking this way before that day.

Rubrics are great for communicating to learners what exactly is expected of them AND for keeping instructors consistent and focused in their assessment of student work. (Believe me, it is easy to get cranky and mark things harshly because you’ve had a bad day!) However, it sometimes takes a try or two to get a rubric that works and focuses on the most important parts of an assignment. Sometimes you realize too late that you focused too on one component and missed something else. I have redone rubrics mid-grading because I didn’t think they were fair or right.

Personally, I prefer to use rubrics in a holistic sense, where you “eye up” student performance instead of adding up points. The whole idea of a rubric is to qualify what good work is for a task that isn’t really quantifiable. After all, if it were quantifiable, you would be counting up the right and wrong answers and assigning a percent–so adding up points on a rubric doesn’t make sense to me. Besides, points get skewed easily (simply because you think, “Well, this wasn’t perfect” and circle the “good” column instead of “excellent”) and suddenly you realize that everyone is earning Cs–yet the majority of students actually did meet the objectives and achieved what was asked. Yet, the break-down of individual parts nitpicked their grades away.

As for other handy assessment tools for grading projects, I am fond of using self-assessment, where the learner fills out a rubric or survey on their own learning. I agree with the University of Minnesota’s analysis of grading systems that said learners may initially score themselves too generously if they are inexperienced with self-assessment or do not really know what you are looking for, but much of the data out there indicates that about 80% of self-assessment matches what the instructor thought. I have even noticed that sometimes kids are harder on themselves than I would be, especially if they had an especially challenging task.

Related confession: I have used self-assessment in the past to speed along my grading process so that I wouldn’t have to read/grade as closely… I know that’s bad, but sometimes we all go into survival mode. Eek!

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