Rubrics make grading easier and fairer. They help teachers evaluate subjective criteria by providing a list of objectives. Most teachers by now are familiar with the grid rubric, which is a good way of showing how a single assignment assesses multiple skills. For example, an expository essay rubric breaks down the essay into four categories: idea, organization, style, and conventions. This lets the teacher acknowledge strengths and weaknesses in different areas. Furthermore, students can use the rubric to assess their work and get feedback.
Or so we’ve been saying.
But really, how helpful are rubrics for students? And what kind of feedback does it provide?
Is there a way to simplify rubrics?
A Rubric for the Discussion Board
Rubrics are a good tool when grading discussion board threads because there are often no clear correct and incorrect answers. Rubrics provide scales for different criteria, and so they can handle the nuances of creative and expressive work. But, because of this, they also are incredibly complex to read and probably aren’t as easy to understand for students as we think.
For example, take a look at this “Rubric for asynchronous Participation” by Barbara Frey.
It breaks up discussion board assignments by looking at different components: frequency, initial posts, follow-up posts, content, references and support, and clarity and mechanics. It helps teachers differentiate between students who post frequently but with vapid responses and students who seldom post but do so with a great deal of content. With this rubric, we teachers say students can see why they earned the grade they did, like, “Well, if I had just posted more, I would have a better grade.”
But I don’t think this is always the case, nor do I think all students understand.
For example, “Demonstrates analysis of others’ posts; extends meaningful discussion by building on previous posts.” Seriously? What student understands that jargon? We do, because we’re teachers, but what would we say to a student who wanted a clear example of what “analysis of other’s posts” looks like? And if that’s the kind of feedback we want to provide, why isn’t it in the rubric?
Take a look at “Content Contribution” Good and Excellent below:
So, good lacks “full development” and excellent has “reflective and substantive contribution.” Well, what evidence are we looking for? What does a student do or say that shows us he/she is reflecting? What statement is substantive? Finally, what if no one responds to the post, could it still “advance discussion” even if no one bothered to reply? We teachers probably know the answers, but how is this rubric going to guide student to author better posts?
Here’s an equally ambiguous distinction for students:
What is the different between “some references” and just “uses references… to support comments”? Why don’t we build that language into the rubric: “Connects references to literature, readings, or personal experiences to comments. Key words, for example, like in [connection here], this reminds me of …” It’s not enough to say “lacks” or “some” because students might not know what that means.
Here’s where the rubric get it right:
This is clear. If you post four times on Monday but not at all later in the week, you get two points. If you post twice on Monday and twice on Friday, you get three points.
I’m not the only one who is rethinking rubrics:
While detailed rubrics actually appeared as my first attempt to better support my overwhelmed students, I found they were the least effective. Initially, the intention was for students to use the detailed rubrics to self-assess before submitting their papers. These are still quite useful as students can see exactly the value of each component in the final grade. When students used them, they found they were more likely to cover all the assigned components. Using generic topical rubrics seemed to be more confusing and more work as students could not see specifically where they went astray. Detailed rubrics are still beneficial when students are shown how to use them.
from Steve Wyre, EdD “Three Tools for Supporting Student Success”
I invite you to check out these 21st Century Learning Design rubrics for assessing lessons.
You’ll see on page 8 a grid-less rubric; it looks more like a checklist, followed by a flowchart “that shows how to choose the best number in each case.”
What makes this flowchart work is that it displays clearly how to improve a lesson. For example, student work can’t be interdependent unless students share responsibility and make substantive decisions together. Also, just because students are working in groups doesn’t necessarily mean that they must have a shared responsibility.
We see this in discussion board threads, too. Some criteria precede other requirements, and certain criteria are just more important than others.
So, here’s my suggestion. What do you think?