In Defense of Rubrics in Assessing Writing

Assessing students can be painful, especially for early-career instructors for whom the emotional wounds associated with being graded still sting. We care about our students, and—while we want to make sure that they are progressing toward the learning goals of the course—we don’t want to be the cause of undue stress and anxiety. As we continue to work to break down structures of inequality in the academy, it is especially important to reflect on how we assess student learning and what that process says about our values. 

As Eugenia Zuroski put it in the recent “Antiracist Pedagogies in Literary Studies” workshop, “It is difficult to do the kind of [antiracist] pedagogical work we’re describing when grading is one of those violent structures bred by the institution as a pressure on students.” Grades encourage instructors to rank students according to a predetermined criteria, foster competition among students for whom grades serve as a marker of self-worth, and motivate students to earn a high grade for its value as a unit of exchange (for a place in grad school, for example) instead of for the learning that it represents. 

In a perfect world, students would only take courses that motivated them to learn, and instructors would give feedback geared toward student growth without assigning a relative value to that growth. Some of us caught a glimpse of this ideal when universities switched to a “pass/fail” system of grading in the midst of the Spring 2020 pandemic disruption. My students in the first-year composition seminar at Columbia, “University Writing,” expressed a willingness to try new modes of argumentation and reach for more complex and meaningful claims after they were released from the pressure of trying to write an “A” paper. Despite the utter chaos of their lives outside of class, they largely produced strong, interesting, clear writing during this period.

Yet, for the most part, we do not live in an ideal world. Especially as graduate student instructors and TAs, we are under pressure from our institutions and faculty to assign grades. Moreover, at institutions like Columbia, we are often encouraged to be “hard graders” in order to maintain the rigorous standards associated with an Ivy League reputation. Under these conditions, we must use every tool available to us as instructors to shift assessment away from a practice of punitive conditioning and toward one of individualized, accessible, growth-oriented feedback. 

One such tool that has been undervalued in the writing classroom is the rubric. To quote from the seminal tome of the scholarship of teaching and learning, How Learning Works, “a rubric is a scoring tool that explicitly represents the instructor’s performance expectations for an assignment or piece of work. A rubric divides the assigned work into component parts and provides clear descriptions of different levels of quality associated with each component” (231). There are several kinds of rubrics that can be used for different purposes, including,

  • the holistic rubric, which provides a general description of the qualities of projects that will earn each grade level, 
  • the analytic rubric, which breaks the assignment down into individual components and provides a description of what each of those components looks like at each grade level, and,
  • the single-point rubric, which similarly breaks the assignment into components, but provides space for comments on “areas for growth” and “areas that meet or exceed expectations” in lieu of specific grade level characteristics.

The benefits of rubrics in any classroom, including the writing classroom, are plentiful, well-researched, and supported by the scholarship of teaching and learning. However, I have encountered substantial resistance to using them in the assessment of writing, as have my fellow graduate student instructors. Perhaps the objections stem from a hesitancy to prescribe any kind of “formula” for the craft of writing, or from a more deep-seated resistance to articulating a grading process that many view as—at least in part—subjective. When presented with a rubric that I use to grade essays in University Writing, a faculty member once asked me, “what if a student writes an essay that fulfills everything in the ‘A’ column but isn’t an ‘A’ essay?” In my experience, I have found that—when the criteria on a rubric are tied to the learning objectives of an assignment—it is extremely difficult to use a rubric to “game the system.” But when students are striving for “everything in the ‘A’ column,” they are usually genuinely striving for competency. 

Taking for granted that my students will use them as a learning tool as opposed to a template full of loopholes, I have found rubrics indispensable for several reasons. Below, I provide a bit of the logic behind incorporating rubrics into assessment, a few examples, and some recommended best-practices.

 

Rubrics Foster Student Learning

In Michelle D. Miller’s short guide to “Balancing Feasibility and Quality While Teaching in Uncertain Times,” she argues that one of the ways that we can actively care for our students’ wellbeing while continuing to make progress toward learning goals is by relying on evidence-based teaching practices. “Evidence-based teaching is a concrete expression of the respect we have for students’ time and effort” (Miller 2020, 2). Put simply, we know that students learn more effectively with the aid of targeted rubrics:

 

Rubrics connect assessment to the learning objectives of the course

which facilitates goal-directed practice. It may not be surprising to learn that students are able to make more progress toward learning goals when they know what those goals are and what the expectations are for meeting them (Andrade). Detailed rubrics provide a clear picture of what the student should be aiming for, instead of asking them to waste time and bandwidth figuring out the expectations of the assignment. This layer of structured engagement is especially crucial when teaching partly or fully online, when there are fewer opportunities and methods to communicate expectations and the course can easily feel nebulous and ephemeral (Miller 2014, 145, 187). Articulate the learning objectives of an assessment when you introduce it, tie each of those objectives to a criteria on the rubric, and introduce and reference the rubric periodically during class and when discussing the assessment to help students utilize it as a learning tool (as opposed to a punitive one).

 

Rubrics facilitate metacognition,

helping students not only to cement the learning objectives of the course, but to analyze their own thinking and learning processes (Ambrose et al. 205). Ask students to use rubrics to complete self-evaluations of drafts and during peer review to foster metacognitive skills.

 

Rubrics facilitate the transfer of skills,

both from one assignment to the next and from the classroom to the wider world (117). For example, a common teaching challenge in University Writing is that students have a tendency to stop practicing skills that they learned in earlier progressions when they are asked to practice a wider variety of skills in later progressions. Including the learning objectives from the first progressing on each subsequent rubric encourages students to develop those keystone skills, as opposed to shedding them, and entrenches them in the students’ writing habit. Carry learning objectives and assessment criteria from one assignment rubric to the next to facilitate skill transfer.

 

Rubrics help to motivate students

By making the learning goals and assessment criteria explicit, rubrics demystify what satisfactory work looks like and provide concrete goals that a student can strive for, which works to prevent students from becoming discouraged because they believe the goals are out of reach (87). Use concrete language in the description on your rubrics, and discuss the rubric with your students to ensure that they have a complete understanding of that language so that goals don’t feel subjective and out of reach. For example, steer clear from terms like “sophisticated,” which means different things to different people based on life experience, when crafting rubrics. If you use terms like “interesting” or “complex” (to use another University Writing example,) make sure that there is written documentation of what exactly these terms mean, and that you have discussed them in class as well.

 

Rubrics facilitate speedy, targeted feedback

Ambrose et al. write, “although they initially take time to develop, rubrics can reduce the time spent grading by reducing uncertainty and by allowing instructors to refer to the rubric description rather than having to write long comments” (231). This practice not only relieves some of the burdens and pressures of grading for the instructor, it also ensures that the feedback is targeted to the learning objectives so that the student knows how to synthesize it in the context of the assignment. Faster grading also means that the student gets feedback faster—frequent and timely feedback has been shown to increase student motivation and maximize progress toward learning goals (Stevens and Levi). Fill out a rubric to accompany your feedback for both formative assessments (like ungraded drafts) and summative assessments (like final essays) to reduce your workload and provide the student with quicker, more targeted comments.

 

Rubrics Foster Inclusive and Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning Environments

At all times, but especially during times of heightened disruption and anxiety, instructors should be striving to make their classrooms fair, inclusive, and safe—avoiding traumatizing or re-traumatizing students to the best of our abilities. Especially for students from historically marginalized groups, unclear assessment expectations can be interpreted as evidence that the learning experience was not designed with them in mind. This uncertainty is not only discouraging and traumatizing for the individual student, it perpetuates larger social structures of inequality in education and access to opportunity. Rubrics will not fix all of these structural issues, but there is no reason not to use them if they can help to foster an inclusive, trauma-informed learning environment. 

 

Rubrics are a practice of trauma-informed teaching

Janice Carello defines trauma-informed teaching and learning as a practice of designing with attention to “the role that violence and victimization have played in the lives of many individuals” in order to “use that understanding to improve policies and practices in order to accommodate the needs of trauma survivors.” One principle of trauma-informed teaching and learning is that the course environment should strive for trustworthiness and transparency: “Trust and transparency are enhanced by making course expectations clear, ensuring consistency in practice, maintaining appropriate boundaries, and minimizing disappointment,” and “providing detailed assignment sheets and grading rubrics” is one of the recommended concrete practices (Carello). Use rubrics to set clear expectations for assessments, and stick to them precisely when assigning grades in order to foster a sense of trust and transparency in the course environment.

 

Rubrics demystify the implicit expectations of an assignment

Related to increasing transparency, rubrics are an opportunity to clearly outline the expectations of your field that may not be apparent to all students. What counts as evidence? What are the citation, formatting, and language conventions? What do students need to know in order to make contributions that will be received as valid? Weave the expectations of the field into the rubric and discuss them with students to equip everyone with the necessary foundational skills and understandings.

 

Rubrics hold instructors accountable

Finally, as instructors, we must be able to articulate exactly what we expect of students and be able to recognize multiple means by which students can meet those expectations. If not, it is likely that we will simply give higher grades to students who complete the assignment in the way that we would have—a practice likely to favor students that come from similar backgrounds to ours and hinder those from different backgrounds. Craft a rubric that leaves room for multiple ways of demonstrating facility with each learning objective, and don’t grade students based on any criteria that the rubric leaves out, to mitigate for your own implicit bias.

 

Having used rubrics to assess writing for several semesters now, I have yet to encounter a group of students that uses it to produce formulaic essays or check off everything in the ‘A’ column without actually satisfying the learning goals. On the contrary, students have expressed that the rubrics help them to feel grounded in the assessments and free up brain space to focus on their work instead of the grade they will earn. As an added bonus, I have experienced almost no pushback from students who believe that they deserve a higher grade than I assign—perhaps because they have several opportunities to engage with the expectations in class, in peer review, and in self-assessments. Rubrics are not a panacea for the structural problems with assigning grades, but it is my hope that this brief defense shows that they may help to ease some of the pain for both students and instructors, even in the writing classroom. I share some examples of rubrics, including my own, not because they are perfect (I revise mine every time that I use them), but in the hopes that they may serve as a starting point and relieve a bit of the burden of making your own from scratch, if you choose to give them a try.

 

Works Cited and Further Resources

Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Andrade, Goodrich H. (2001). “The effects of instructional rubrics on learning to write.” Current Issues in Education  4, no. 4, http://cie.ed.asu.edu/volume4/number4/.

Carello, Janice. (2019). “Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning: Bringing a Trauma-Informed Approach to Higher Education.” https://traumainformedteaching.blog/about/ 

Miller, Michelle D. (2020). “Balancing Feasibility and Quality While Teaching in Uncertain Times.” Pedagogies of Care, https://www.dropbox.com/s/nh9hicigw0m2u6b/Miller_Short%20Guide_Final2.pdf?dl=0

Miller, Michelle D. (2014). Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stevens, D. D., and Levi, A. J. (2005). Introduction to rubrics: An assessment tool to save grading time, convey effective feedback and promote student learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Author profile

Abby is a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow at Columbia's Center for Teaching and Learning and a PhD candidate in Theater and Performance. Her teaching and research interests are at the intersection of performance and ecology. She has taught theater and writing courses at Columbia University and Barnard College.

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