In an earlier post I gave the advice of using rubrics rather than comments in grading, which started a good conversation in the comments. So I thought the idea of rubrics merited its own post, especially since it’s finals time for many of us. So join me below the fold...
OK, so why are rubrics worth using? Lots of reasons:
- Rubrics make it crystal-clear to students what the specifics of the assignment are, and hence what your expectations are. For instance, if you want to make sure your students have an explicit thesis statement in their introduction, make that a point on the rubric. Then they know in advance that they better do it. Giving good guidance on how to do the project well makes it more likely they’ll actually do it. Is that hand-holding? I don’t think so: that’s what teaching is.
- Related point: rubrics helps students practice metacognition about their writing. Especially at lower levels, students don’t really know what makes for a good paper, or why certain things are important and others aren’t (this is especially true for freshmen who were taught what is effectively a different genre of writing in high school). By making explicit what you’re looking for, its helps students start to identify the features of good writing in general.
- Rubrics make grading more fair. If you have an objective set of criteria, outlined in advance, that you apply to every paper, you’re less likely to start appealing to irrelevant considerations, consciously or subconsciously. This means more consistency overall.
- Relatedly, rubrics make you identify what you think is important in a paper, and therefore what you want to look for in grading. This helps you focus your attention on those features.
- Rubrics make grading faster. Rather than commenting on every possible problem, you’ll save your efforts for the issues that are most central, as defined on the rubric. Bonus: it will often allow you to avoid making the same comments on paper after paper.
- It helps with revisions. As we all know from experience, first draft = worst draft. Much of our own time is spent revising work in light of reader feedback. For us its reasonably easy to know how to do this. But that’s a skill we’ve developed over years of (often unconscious) practice. Students don’t yet have that skill. If you’re able to incorporate paper revision in your own courses, then a rubric helps students see exactly where they went wrong, and so where to focus to fix it. To stick with the example above, if I lost a point for not having an explicit thesis statement, then that tells me something concrete to change. Even if I’m not sure how to fix the problem, as a student I at least know what the problem is and therefore what to ask for help about or research a solution for.
So, supposing you wanted to use a rubric, how would you do it? It depends on the kind of rubric you use. There are, roughly speaking, two categories, often called analytic and holistic. Analytic rubrics list a number of discrete criteria, and attaches a point value to each of them. For example, you might give one point for an explicit thesis statement, one point for proper citation, four points for an accurate summary of the view under discussion, etc. Here’s an example. Holistic rubrics instead break things down by scores first, then supplies a description for each score, e.g. “Excellent work doing X, Y, Z – Good work doing X, Y, Z….” Here’s an example. Holistic rubrics have the advantage of making grading a lot faster: all you have to do is read the paper once, decide which category it falls in, mark it, and move on. The flipside is that they tend to be less fine-grained and therefore less informative: students might know what distinguishes an A paper from a B paper, but not why their paper counts as, say, meeting expectations rather than exceeding them. For that reason, I prefer analytic rubrics.
How do you make a good analytic rubric? That’s a hard question, because it depends on the what you care about in papers, what level the students are, etc. In Intro classes, I tend to focus on the formal aspects of a paper, the kind of thing that is the foundation of any good paper and which transfers to other disciplines. Here’s one I’m using for a final paper for my intro class, worth 30 points:
2 pt: Paper has proper introduction with clear, explicit thesis statement
2 pt: Paper has proper conclusion with summary and thesis restatement
2 pt: Paper shows significant engagement with at least one text from class
1 pt: Paper properly quotes and cites at least one text from class
4 pt: Paper accurately reports philosophical view in primary texts
2 pt: Paper includes all relevant material from view under discussion (i.e. no glaring omissions)
4 pt: Paper identifies a reasonably significant interpretative issue or philosophical problem
4 pt: Paper provides a clear solution to this issue or problem (or why a solution is impossible)
4 pt: Paper’s solution is sufficiently cogent (e.g. has no obvious, uncontestable problems)
2 pt: Paper raises objection, counter-example, or complication to thesis
2 pt: Paper responds sufficiently to objection, counter-example, or complication to thesis
1 pt: No serious problems in style, etc.
As you can see, I’m a stickler for things like a good intro and conclusion, proper citation, and the basic structure of ‘position, objection, reply’. I don’t care very much about style and grammar, and at the intro level only so concerned with how substantive their contribution to the debate is. For an upper division course, I might make some of these categories worth less (or drop them all together), and either expand the remaining criteria or add more. But again, it depends on the context: in history classes I care more about using primary and secondary literature together to engage in a debate, while in, say, an applied ethics class I might want the students to think in terms of real-life applications.
So how do you use this kind of rubric? Well, the short answer is you allocate full or partial credit for each criterion, add them up, the end. But (despite, you know, saying exactly the opposite) I don’t think a rubric should serve as a replacement for paper comments, unless you have a class too large to provide them. Instead, you should use a rubric to focus your comments. If you give someone less than full credit on a criterion, you should give you a quick explanation why. On Canvas, which my university uses, there is a space for comments on each criterion, plus a space for summary comments, and you should use these. You should also, time and tech permitting, comment within the paper itself. To stick with our running example, if a thesis statement isn’t explicit enough, I’d giving them an example that is (e.g. “Don’t just say ‘I will discuss a problem with the Categorical Imperative’, say something like ‘I will argue that Categorical Imperative fails to account for special obligations to family members’). But even with these kinds of comments, odds are your grading will go faster than without a rubric. Why? Because the rubric helps you focus on the features of the paper that you’ve already said are most important. This helps you make fewer comments, and more importantly, comments that are more directly connected to the specific criteria of a good paper. This in turn helps students better understand what they need to improve on.
So all in all, I'm a fan of rubrics, both as a time-saver and as a teaching tool. If you've had any particularly good or bad experiences using rubrics, I'd love to hear it. Ditto if you have thoughts for other tools for doing the same job.