Rubrics: The Ultimate Tool for Efficient and Equitable Grading

A month ago, I participated in the Presenting the Past Colloquium organized by Peopling the Past. The colloquium was held in Vancouver, British Columbia from March 23-25, 2023. The day before the colloquium started, I was also asked to organize a workshop on some topic related to pedagogy for the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies (AMNE) department at the University of British Columbia. The topic I chose was rubrics.

Black hand holding pamphlet that reads "Presenting the Past: Responsible Engagement & Mediterranean History" in front of an urban landscape.

In all honesty, I’ve never been the instructor of record for a course before. Therefore, I rarely had any agency over the grading scheme used in those courses.

As a graduate student I was a teaching assistant for five courses and only two incorporated rubrics. In this week’s post, I want to reflect on my experience with rubrics; how rubrics fit into my overall teaching philosophy; and some of the major takeaways from the workshop I facilitated at UBC.

What is a rubric?

Before we jump in, I have to explain what I mean by “rubric.”

The most basic definition describes a rubric as a “scoring sheet” for learning tasks.

Although people tend to think of only one type, there are many kinds of rubrics. These include holistic, analytic, task-specific, and generic rubrics. You can find descriptions and examples of these rubric-types and more here.

What all rubrics have in common is that they use two key variables for scoring how successful the learner has been in completing a task. These variables are criteria for evaluation (e.g., thesis, structure, mechanics) and levels of performance (A, B, C, D; 4, 3, 2, 1).

My Experience

As I mentioned above, my experience with rubrics is rather limited.

One of the attendees and participants in my workshop at UBC asked me about my experience with rubrics as a student. It was a good question, considering that that relationship could have influenced my current views toward using rubrics in my own courses. My answer was that I couldn’t recall ever being graded according to a rubric.

If any of my professors had been using rubrics, that information was never shared with me.

Most of my experience with rubrics comes from teaching as a graduate student instructor (or TA).

Classical Studies 101

The first rubric I encountered in this role was one provided to us as part of a course that served to fulfill the writing requirement at the University of Michigan.

The rubric had been created and distributed by the Sweetland Center for Writing. In retrospect, despite its “official” origins, I don’t think it was all that useful. You can view the rubric here.

I can think of (at least) two reasons why this rubric doesn’t work for me.

Layout. The rubric is presented as a list of criteria being evaluated in the written work.

Levels of Performance. Throughout my experiences as a graduate student instructor, I have always had trouble with the subjective approach to grading. I’m sure there are many people out there – including several professors I taught for – who can just intuitively differentiate between “A” work and “B,” “C,” and “D” work. I am not one of those people for a lot of reasons. A major one for me is that numbers give me some peace of mind because it covers my bases when a student inevitably questions the grade they received. I can point to exactly where they lost points; you can’t do that if all you write on their paper is an “A” or a “C”. (And it gets a whole lot worse when questioned about the difference between an “A-“ and an “A”!)

Roman Sport and Daily Life

My second experience with rubrics as a TA occurred during my first (and only) semester teaching a fully remote course. In this case, I sought out and implemented the rubric on my own.

I taught Roman Sport and Daily Life in Spring 2020. There were many problems with that course. These included the fact that it took place entirely online; that there was barely any time to prepare between terms (about 1 week turnaround); and that there was way too much reading. At times, it felt as though a normal 14-week course had been crammed into 8 weeks.

The problems that were apparent in the course overall were reflected in my students’ engagement. One of my sections was significantly better attended than the other, and I found out pretty quickly that my students were not doing the reading. I could sympathize – 100 pages a week is just unsustainable, even for me. (Knowing your limits as an instructor is something I talk about in this blog post.)

Ultimately, I realized that I needed to find some other way to hold students accountable for the material.

My solution was to assign discussion leader groups of 3-4 students in the last two weeks of class. My goal was to find a way to get my students to do the reading and have things to talk about in class. With this assignment, I encouraged students to work together and share the impossible reading load. They were also responsible for summarizing the main points of the reading for the rest of the class and leading discussion.

The rubric was used both in self- and peer-evaluation and my final evaluation of their work. I asked students to briefly reflect on their own contributions and those of their group members to the assignment. You can see the rubric here. It was adapted from this rubric and assignment by Emilie Amt.

I had mixed success with the assignment. Although I had hoped that it would encourage those students who didn’t care and didn’t show up to participate in class, this was not the case.

I also feel that the implementation of this assignment – and its rubric – were poorly timed. In retrospect, I wonder whether doing this sort of assignment more than once throughout the term, perhaps both in groups and individually, would change students’ approach to it.

Why Rubrics?

There are many reasons, both teacher- and student-centered, to use rubrics in your courses.

First, rubrics will save you time grading in the long run. Your grading will be both more efficient and concise, as rubrics eliminate the need for lengthy feedback and comments.

Second, using rubrics may result in fewer grade complaints. The literature suggests that using rubrics leads to a reduction in grading bias. This most often results from grading based on “teacher opinion” (see above).

In addition, when expectations for an assignment are clearly articulated from the beginning, students are less inclined to believe that they were graded unfairly. Leaving expectations and grading criteria shrouded in mystery can easily lead to speculation (and even resentment) on the student’s part.

Doing this also privileges certain students – such as those who are familiar with certain assignments or professors – while significantly disadvantaging others.

Finally, using rubrics has been demonstrated to greatly improve student performance in the classroom. Reddy and Andrade (2010) observe that rubrics help students focus their efforts, produce work of higher quality, earn better grades, and feel less anxious about assignments.

Rubrics improve student performance most, however, when they are combined with peer assessment or feedback. This is only possible when rubrics are explained and made available to students (digitally or in hard copy) prior to completing an assignment.

The point here is to be transparent with all students about how you’re grading them and why.

A last point to make is that while they can save you time in the long run, creating and introducing rubrics can be a huge time commitment upfront. Don’t overdo it. Rubrics don’t need to be used for everything. In general, rubrics are used most often for large assessments that synthesize multiple skills and abilities, such as essays, papers, presentations, and projects.

They can also be as simple or as complex as you want or need them to be.

There are tons of rubric generators out there (check out this list!), including ones embedded in learning management systems like Canvas. It can also be helpful to seek out rubrics from your colleagues and adapt them or ask for feedback on rubrics that you’ve created.

Talking Rubrics at UBC

The most daunting part of being asked to facilitate this workshop was thinking that I had to be an expert on the topic. In the end, the workshop ended up being more of a discussion. I feel like I learned just as much as the other participants about best practices for rubric design and implementation.

I want to share a few major takeaways from that discussion here.

Rubrics shouldn’t restrict your grading abilities. A common theme that came up in our discussion was that rubrics tend to be more useful for students who are doing poorly, than those who are doing well. If a student goes above and beyond on a project, they shouldn’t be penalized for that because you feel you must stick to the parameters spelled out in a rubric. You made the rubric, and you can decide how much wiggle room there is for these special cases.

Rubrics aren’t set in stone. Another theme that came up was that rubrics don’t always work the way you hope they will. This is especially true for the first few rubrics that you design. Don’t be discouraged! Think about what went wrong and why, make adjustments, and try again.

Using a rubric doesn’t have to “dehumanize” teaching. I mentioned that using rubrics made lengthy feedback and comments less necessary. This is because, if designed well, a rubric should clearly articulate what a student does well or poorly on an assignment. However, this does not automatically mean that you are forbidden from writing anything else on a student’s work. Choosing how much feedback to give – both when using a rubric and when not using one – is 100% up to you!

There are other ways that you can maintain that “human” element of teaching while using rubrics. For example, rubrics can be used as guidelines for further discussion of student work, not just after they complete an assignment but also before.

What has been your experience with rubrics?

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