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What are rubrics?

Rubrics are guidelines for student assessments. They are best made clear to students before an assessment; effective rubrics give students transparency into how they will be assessed, what to expect on assessments, and provide next steps in learning. 

And what do rubrics look like? They’re more than just a checklist, but rather guidelines that focus on skills that demonstrate learning.

According to Susan M. Brookhart, there are two essential components of effective rubrics:

  1. Criteria that relates to the learning (and not “the tasks”)
  2. Performance level descriptions against a continuum of quality

Criteria should center around learning, not tasks. “Appropriate criteria,” according to Brookhart’s 2018 research, “are the key to effective rubrics. Trivial or surface-level criteria will not draw learning goals for students as clearly as substantive criteria. Students will try to produce what is expected of them. If the criterion is simply having or counting something in their work (e.g., “has 5 paragraphs”), students need not pay attention to the quality of what their work has. If the criterion is substantive (e.g., “states a compelling thesis”), attention to quality becomes part of the work.”

In sum, rubrics make clear what counts and what defines excellent work so that students can succeed and learn in alignment with course expectations; they define the performance instead of judging. Rubrics, just like assessments, are best when designed to connect to learning.

What are some common misperceptions about rubrics?

“Rubrics with criteria that are about the task—with descriptions of performance that amount to checklists for directions—assess compliance and not learning. Rubrics with counts instead of quality descriptions assess the existence of something and not its quality,” according to Brookhart (2013).

Confusing learning outcomes with tasks can result in using rubrics as a checklist, which are often binary (e.g., “yes/no”) in nature. But rubrics that are more descriptive and reflect higher-order thinking provide students with action items, uphold assessment with integrity, and improve learning outcomes.

Rubrics that do not align to learning goals can also limit learning. Ensure that rubrics focus on core learning goals and are in alignment with course expectations. For example, if formatting margins on an essay is not a course objective but is included in rubrics, the efficacy of that rubric may be compromised. Students may confuse what it is they should do with what it is they should learn; when this occurs, once the students complete a task, they may feel their learning has ended instead of seeing learning as a continuum. 

Other misperceptions include confusing rubrics with evaluative rating scales. Rating scales are useful for grading, and involve evaluations across a scale without description (e.g., 1-5, always/sometimes/never or A-F). While rating scales are useful for grading, they don’t offer students a description of quality that they can utilize as they navigate learning.

How do rubrics affect student learning?

The formative feedback process, a core element of student-teacher communication, begins with setting expectations. Rubrics are “one way to make learning expectations explicit for learners” (Brookhart, 2018). These clear and explicit expectations help students see what learning looks like so that they can then absorb feedback in alignment with those learning goals.

Jay McTighe specifies that effective rubrics do the following: 

  • Clearly define criteria for judging student performance based on targeted    standards/outcomes
  • Promote more consistent evaluation of student performance
  • Help clarify instructional goals and serve as teaching targets
  • Provide specific feedback to learners and teachers
  • Help students focus on the important dimensions of a product or performance
  • Enable criterion-based evaluation and standards-based grading
  • Support student self- and peer-assessment (McTighe, 2016)

Rubrics give students a greater chance of achieving a clear and defined target. They guide curriculum planning and uphold accurate assessments with integrity. Effective rubrics enable self-assessment and self-directed student learning. 

Additionally, rubrics have the potential to advance the learning of historically marginalized students. According to Wolf and Stevens, “An often unrecognized benefit of rubrics is that they can make learning expectations or assumptions about the tasks themselves more explicit (Andrade & Ying, 2005). In academic environments [sic] we often operate on unstated cultural assumptions about the expectations for student performance and behavior and presume that all students share those same understandings” (2007, p. 13). In other words, rubrics make explicit what may be too nuanced for first generation students or English learners to access. 

Rubrics are, in essence, not only part of assessment but also a teaching and learning junction with the potential to increase student learning outcomes and uphold assessment with integrity.

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