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Those of us in education often struggle with competing values. There are realities to consider, such as the fact that some teachers are working with large class sizes and schedules that make it hard to devote significant time to each piece of student work. From this perspective, we look for assessment strategies that decrease grading time and increase efficiency for the teacher. What assessment technologies will help me work fairly but quickly through a large amount of student assignments? Of course, while teacher workload is a reality, the purpose of assessment is not about teachers. It is supposed to be about student learning. From this perspective, we ask questions like these: Which assessment technologies will best promote increased student engagement and learning? Which practices promote deep learning and help students grow in competence and confidence?
In order to balance these two values (teacher time and the desire to provide meaningful feedback to students), many have turned to rubrics. The list of proposed benefits are many.
- They provide clear expectations, stating explicitly what is expected of students.
- In doing so, they can alleviate the anxiety students may feel over having to guess what is or is not expected of them.
- There is less ambiguity in grading practices, which makes it easier for a teacher to justify an assessment.
- They make it easier to communicate student performance to students, parents, and others.
- They allow for detailed feedback while managing the time needed to grade student work.
- They make it easier to provide consistent feedback from one student to another and from one class to another.
- With practice, it’s possible to have a reliable grading system between different teachers who may assess the same student work. In other words, one teacher’s assessment of a piece of student work is likely to be similar to another teacher’s assessment of the same work.
- They can be used for student self-feedback and peer feedback. Give the rubric to the students. Teach them how to use it. Then have them use it to check their work or the work of their peers before submitting it to you.
- Rubrics can also help students develop a vocabulary to talk and think about their work.
- Expanding on this, they can also help promote self-awareness and self-reflection on work. When students see the more specific criteria and expectations, it can help them learn to “think like a teacher” to some extent.
And yet, there are limitations to rubrics as well. In our age of standardization, where people champion a culture of assessment, rubrics have an increasingly honored role in education. Because of this, it can be easy to ignore the fact that something is lost when we use rubrics, just as with all technologies. There are risks and limitations, like these, for example:
- They have a bias toward that which is easy to measure and document. Not everything that is important is easy to measure.
- As a result, they risk being reductionist about student work.
- Without care, rubrics can place too much emphasis upon the technical aspect of student work, missing deeper and more difficult to articulate aspects of student ideas. For example, we might have sections on the rubric for punctuation and spelling but not for other important aspects of the content. Of course, this is not a flaw of rubrics as much as a possible design flaw.
- They risk turning projects and papers into exercises in simply following the rules and addressing the required elements of the rubric, even when that might result in an inferior project or paper. They risk creating narrow, rule-following dispositions among learners.
- Tied to number four, they sometimes leave less room for creative and imaginative approaches to papers and projects. What if Shakespeare or Poe wrote their poetry and prose based upon a teacher rubric? Would anything be lost? To what extent do rubrics encourage the future Picasso in our classroom to spend his days simply painting by numbers?
- They can be used as a substitute for rich conversation and nuanced narrative feedback to students.
- They risk turning the role of the teacher into that of grader, leaving less room for the teacher to be an authentic “reader” of student work. When I read an email from a colleague, I don’t evaluate it with a rubric. I read it for meaning. If I have feedback, it consists of questions, follow-up comments, requests for clarification. These are all authentic parts of communication. There are times when this can work well in a teacher-student relationship as well.
- They decrease the time and reflection needed for a teacher to assess student work. While this is a benefit, it also means spending less time with the student’s ideas.
- They can turn assessment into a deficiency approach to education, focusing feedback on student weaknesses and errors only. We need to do that, but if we are not careful, this leads to learners who complete work simply to avoid errors or to perform for the teacher.
- When tied to points, they can result in overall point values for student work that do not accurately represent student learning, progress, or competence.
Part of teaching is coaching and mentoring. Much great coaching and mentoring is about more than filling out rubrics and checklists on the other person’s performances. There is a deeply human, hands-on, messy, organic part of great coaching and mentoring. The same is true for teaching and learning. While many point to the benefits of rubrics, I find it helpful to take a step back and consider this other side. Assessment is part of teaching and learning, and I contend that one’s assessment practices say much about one’s overall philosophy of teaching and learning. However, too often we find ourselves embracing a practice without carefully considering how it fits with our core values, vision, and philosophy for learning organizations. Perhaps rubrics fit nicely. Perhaps they do not. However, this exercise in reflecting on both the benefits and limitations can help us to be more thoughtful and intentional about a cohesive and internally consistent approach to our work in education.
With that said, some are reading this and wanting practical tips on using rubrics well. For those readers, here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Create a list of key attributes for the assignment. (These are your dimensions or criteria.)
- For each attribute, describe (in 1–2 sentences) what would make the artifact “ideal.”
- Come up with standard conventions for levels of performance, something like this scale: mastery, partial mastery, progressing, emerging. Or you might use a scale like this: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, progress toward meeting expectations, and the like.
- Create a one-sentence description of an almost-ideal.
- Create a one-sentence description of a developing artifact.
- Create a one-sentence description of an artifact that needs significant work.
- Leave a column for additional comments.
- Include vocabulary that you want them to learn.
- Use common rubrics when possible (across assignments, even courses) so students have time to get used to them.
- Teach students to use the rubrics. Take the time to go through the rubric and what each piece means.
- When appropriate, consider engaging students in the creation of part or all of a rubric.
- Beware of packing too many elements in a single dimension or criterion on your rubric.
- Be patient with yourself when learning to use rubrics. Be critical (in a good way), be reflective, and seek feedback from students and others. Yet, realize that it will take time to design and use rubrics most effectively.
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