In Defense of Rubrics

All, Teaching Tips

In recent months I have witnessed many attacks on rubrics and a lot of pushback from educators in response to the rampant misuse of rubrics in American education. I am all for that pushback. I have witnessed (and sometimes been forced to accept) boilerplate rubrics handed out as onerous mandates for entire departments (and I’ve heard of entire schools but hope that is only apocryphal), but as a student and teacher of rhetoric I am frustrated by hyperbole. Not all rubrics or scoring guides are evil and useless. In fact, rubrics can be a great teaching tool, a support for writing workshop, and a guide that supports students through writing and revision.

I am not going to argue with the haters about the fact that there are entirely too many horrible rubrics out there. This example isn’t even the worst I’ve seen but how the heck are you supposed to effectively use anything this wordy! Maybe the first rule of writing a rubric should be that your scoring guide should not have a higher word count than the actual writing product you are scoring. Even worse than the rubrics are the many ways that rubrics have been used to damage writers and break teachers. While sometimes these horror stories are examples of good intentions gone awry, many times they result from people who see writing only as a result and rarely, if ever, as a process and certainly do not think about the writer at all. Any rubric that treats writing as one-size-fits-all is a bad rubric. Any rubric that is used for every and all assignments is a bad rubric. It is important to remember that there are many educators who understand effective ways to use rubrics before dismissing all rubrics as tools of the devil. So what are some of the ways that a rubric can benefit a writer? 

Many terrific writing teachers I know have moved to a single-point rubric which simply outlines the standards that students have to meet to successfully complete the assignment which offers a variety of advantages (as suggested by Danah Hashem of Edutopia). These include more room for reflection and constructive feedback without the constrictions of numbers of ranking. For years I have used such lists with my students to help guide both their writing and revision. Similarly such lists can be helpful tools when it comes to peer review and conferencing as well as student reflection. Single-point rubrics help students break down a writing task and frame goals for writing and revision. Often this can be done with little or no teacher intervention and can help students become more self-regulating.

With the goal of fostering self-regulation, I like to develop this list of standards with my students. We examine the goals of the assignment and the learner outcomes for the class to determine a list of standards and then negotiate a final list that they use during the peer review process and that I use for assessment. We approach the list of standards from an usability viewpoint. How will the reader or user approach the deliverable? What will make their experience better (or not)? One of the reasons I started using this process is that it helps students develop strategies for creating a list of standards for other writing assignments when they leave my classroom, but the reason I continue to use this method is that it always results in great conversations about writing.

Reading and Writing Haven also sees rubrics as useful instructional tools as she describes in 5 Student-Centered Ways to Use Rubrics. Her blog post emphasizes how a rubric can help students develop a common language in which to think about, discuss, and evaluate writing. This is important. One of the reasons many students (and teachers) struggle with rubrics is because no one took the time to develop that common language and understanding. Many good teachers do take the time to go over the rubric with their students, but if you are using an unwieldy rubric (especially if you did not develop it yourself) then it can, and likely will, quickly overwhelm students. But if you examine the rubric with your students, translating the language using terms they understand and discussing what the standards look like, then the rubric becomes an useful teaching and learning tool.

The single-point rubric and the collaborative-rubric both offer students agency, opportunity for reflection, and support for their growth as writers and that is why I refuse to believe that all rubrics are evil and useless. With thoughtful attention to your students, you might just find that rubrics can support the growth and development of the writers in your care. What are some the ways that you’ve seen rubrics benefit your students and support their learning? Let’s explore the many ways that rubrics can be used as a force for good before we dismiss them as evil.

Artwork from Max Pixels

2 comments

  • Thanks for this! Jen Gonzalez from Cult of Pedagogy says basically this same thing when she talked with Matt Miller from Ditch that Textbook in a recent podcast. Her point was to maligning worksheets universally, the all-or-nothing attitude that undercuts sound practice and applies to eschewing rubrics as well. Her post about single point rubrics emerged in 2015 and has been useful to me ever since. I also love that you discuss student-generated criteria. Sometimes just having students identify what they already know about text creation is illuminating for them and for us.

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