To Rubric or Not to Rubric?

After nearly fifteen years in classrooms, I have a good sense for where I stand in most of the major English academic/pedagogical arguments. I know if I use the Oxford Comma (look to the end of this sentence to find out), whether I fall in the prescriptivist or descriptivist camp (descriptivist), and how I feel about the five paragraph essay (it’s too complex to get into here, but a post is definitely coming). But the one debate that I still grapple with on a daily basis is how I feel about rubrics.

For most of my career, I used rubrics without a second thought. Rubrics had been in every English classroom I could remember; they were as ubiquitous as books, paper, pencils, and pens. Further, their value seemed apparent, as they are undoubtedly useful for helping students to understand expectations and how they will be assessed. They also save grading time on several fronts by, to quote the University of Michigan Sweetland Writing Center, “allow[ing] you to avoid writing out the same comments over and over on multiple students’ work, while allowing you to mark each students’ success in relationship to the criteria quickly.”

My unquestioned allegiance to rubrics continued until I came across a book called Rethinking Rubrics by Maja Wilson six years ago. In it Wilson explains that rubrics–while commonplace now–have a surprisingly short history in language arts. She describes how they arose in the 1960s out of a frustration on the part of researchers that different composition teachers often scored the same piece in drastically different ways. Rubrics were created as a way to standardize teacher responses to writing and to impose some semblance of order on the notoriously disorderly branch of academia that is English language and literature. And, she argued, in doing that rubrics turned many students away from creatively assessing writing tasks and towards approaching each assignment as an activity in checking off boxes on the rubric to get the grade they desired.

As someone who loves the varied, complex nature of language and appreciates the way that great literature constantly refuses to be pinned down, Wilson’s argument struck a chord in me. My worries were further exacerbated by the fact that in my short career I’d already seen plenty of writing that did feel like students checking off boxes and more than a few times where the grade the rubric spit out at me for a piece didn’t match the grade that I felt it should get.

Armed with these worries, I decided to do an experiment where I banished rubrics from my class for a year to see what would happen. Unfortunately, it took less than a semester for me to find that while my rubric free classroom did modestly help in some areas, the gains were more than offset by losses elsewhere. Some students did seem emboldened to take more creative approaches, but for each of them there were two or three students who suddenly seemed to struggle to understand my expectations. It was at this point that I stumbled across what I believe is the key issue with rubrics: rubrics are good for some students and bad for others. For every student who sees a rubric as a constraint there is one who finds it to be a clarifying comfort blanket. For every student who sees creative avenues in having few guidelines, another’s is paralyzed by the lack of structure.

Since that time, I have experimented with a number of systems in an effort to find a middle ground that encourages creativity and looks at each piece as more than a series of boxes, without sacrificing the clarity of my expectations and messaging to students. And while I will be the first to admit that I am still working on this balance, I do have a hybrid system I’ve been using for a few years that has proven far more effective for me than either a rubric heavy class or a class with no rubrics at all. Here is how it works.


At the start of each unit I give students a copy of a rubric with categories that I deem important where the point values are left blank. Once we have gone through the lessons of the unit, I then adapt Kelly Gallagher’s approach and we have a discussion about what the value of each element of the rubric should be. Doing this only takes 10 minutes, but I find for many students it is incredibly valuable because it gets them to actually look at and think about the rubric, which is something that shockingly few students do. Through hashing out the values as a class, the students are also forced to metacognitively think about what elements matter most when writing a paper like that, which can pay huge dividends in their writing too. Here is an example of what this looks like in an assignment from my composition class from this week:

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I then take the student suggestions and form them into a rubric like the one below. Note that 60 of the 100 points are tied to specific criteria that I want them to think about as they write. These criteria help students to understand the central elements of the unit and what lies at the core of writing a good narrative. They also help me to give them quick feedback concerning their grade, which is key, as I put most of my comments on formative drafts. At the same time, 40 points is tied to the simple question: “Does it work?” When asked about this, I tell the students directly that writing is more than just checking boxes, and thus I want them to think about the piece as a whole and constantly question whether it is working. This is my wink to those who do better without rubrics to let them know that creativity and critically thinking about a piece is highly valued in my class.

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In the end, the most important thing is that we treat rubrics like everything else in our classes. To borrow upon Maja Wilson’s phrasing, we need to regularly rethink having or not having them in the context of what best sets the stage for students to learn and understand our feedback. Also, as I said above, this is still a very active debate in my head, so if you, dear readers, have other approaches that work, please share them! I would love to hear about them and maybe even do a post about the other approaches amazing teachers across this country and world are taking with their rubrics or lack of them in their classes!

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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