The Art of the Rubric

My first introduction to rubrics was in graduate school. Before then, I had never seen one or heard of one – as a student or a teacher. Now, this may be because of faulty memory (my wife, who took some of the same classes I did as an undergraduate claims there were always rubrics) but I can’t remember a single one. Even in grad school, I can’t remember every professor using a rubric, or what is usually considered a rubric. Some had two page explanations of how work would be assessed. Some had none. One of my classes, however, not only used rubrics, but rubrics were also a major discussion point of the course. This was an evaluation and assessment course, and I am very thankful for it. It wasn’t until I started using rubrics that I noticed a major flaw: they are ugly, unsightly and unruly.

Rubrics are supposed to be a teacher’s best friend. They allow teachers to fairly and consistently assess each student’s work using the same criteria. They also clearly articulate teacher expectations to students. They are objective. They are useful for essays, research papers, presentations, projects, and more. They can easily be integrated into a lesson so that students can judge their own work and predict their grades. A good teacher can even get the students to design the rubric.

When I first learned about rubrics, I was exposed to several different types. The most common being the rubric grid, as found on many popular rubric sites like RubiStar and iRubric. The criteria on the vertical axis, the points and descriptors on the horizontal axis. I also learned about other types of rubrics, such as three-to-five level rubrics, checklist rubrics, and scoring guide rubrics with narrative notes (see Stevens and Levi, 2004 [.pdf, website]).

However, grid rubrics seem to be the default rubric style for most teachers.They make fine assessment tools, if they are designed right. You can even assess your rubric with a rubric assessment rubric, called a metarubric. Despite their popularity, these rubrics are generally not well designed. I’m thinking of “design” from an aesthetics point of view. In material design (and I consider rubrics part of material design), aesthetics must be important. The visual layout and appeal of materials must be well-organized and satisfying. Compare some worksheet with five different fonts, five different font sizes, and text from tiny margin to tiny margin. It may contain amazing content, but that content is lost in design. So, visual design is important.

When I first began making rubrics, I made grid rubrics. The rubrics I gave students ended up being a page of boxes, sometimes two pages long. Some boxes contained a lot of text, some contained a little. Nothing looked good. And I realized that these grid rubrics weren’t always easy to follow. Then, I discovered a rubric one of my colleagues made. It contained the same amount of detail (actually more), was better organized, and visually appealing. I was struck with jealousy because I thought I had an eye for design, but my rubrics look liked they had been created on Windows 95. The only problem with his rubric was its lack of descriptors.

After some tweaking and experimentation, I have created a very detailed, well-organized, and visually appealing rubric that contains both clear criteria and clear descriptors. It is well organized, well laid out, and very clearly articulates what students need to know. I now use these rubrics with all work that needs formal assessment.

Usually, I create the rubric in Google Docs (or Google Sheets if any fancy calculations are needed) and share it back to students after each one has been assessed. They have their grade automatically, in email and their Google Drive, and they can even make comments on the document, which I can respond to outside of class. For my writing assignments, there is a lot more to be graded, so I use a much more detailed rubric on Google Sheets. If I were to include descriptors for each criteria in the document, it would begin to become unruly again. Being design-oriented and Google-savvy, I simply use the comments feature to include the descriptors. This works very well.

Of course, a pretty rubric is only as good as what it assesses. I have found that, while good visual design is difficult, creating an accurate assessment is even more harder. One thing you must consider is whether or not you are assessing new skills students have learned or are including things they should know already. If you are including the skills they should know, the ones you expect them to come to class with, then is that a fair assessment? In addition, I have found it difficult to write objective assessments. I try to write criteria in a way that focuses on whether or not something was accurately included, rather than simply well-done. However, knowing that true objectivity is impossible, and believing that, as a well-trained English teacher, I know how to recognize good work, I leave some room for subjectivity. In fact, for my recent research paper assignments, I have built it right into the rubric. I am analyzing argumentation, and will assess it on a scale from excellent to poor based on my own perceptions of the students’ arguments. There is no other way. Nor should there be.

Rubrics are an important instructional and assessment tool. They can show teachers’ expectations to students while giving teachers an manageable and consistent method of assessment. However, like everything related to teaching, rubric creation is part science and part art. A good rubric is not only an accurate assessment tool but also a tool for visual communication.