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What are rubrics and how do they affect student learning?

Essentials

Rubrics are 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.

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager

Rubrics are guidelines for student assessments, often used as scoring criteria for grading and marking student work. They are best made clear to students before an assessment; effective rubrics give students transparency into how they will be evaluated, how they should demonstrate their knowledge, what to expect on tests and assignments, and provide next steps in learning.

Rubrics also clarify any marking or grading outcomes, helping students understand why they received their particular score or grade. A good rubric promotes student learning.

In sum, rubrics make clear what counts, what defines excellent work, and uphold grading consistency 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 and outcomes.

What is the main purpose of rubrics?

Notable pedagogist, Thomas R. Guskey, states, “Interest in rubrics surged during the 1990s as educators turned their focus to documenting student achievement of specific learning standards. Today, rubrics for describing and assessing student performance can be found at every level of education, from preschool and kindergarten to graduate and professional school.”

The history of rubrics follows the proliferation of compulsory education and learning standards. An increasing emphasis on formative assessment has further encouraged the adoption of rubrics within secondary and higher education classrooms, both in North America and East Asia (Ragupathi & Lee, 2020).

Rubrics set evaluation standards that can promote fair grading practices, even across a teaching team. In the case of standardized exams, they uphold consistent marking across an even wider swath of students and graders. They are “multidimensional sets of scoring guidelines that can be used to provide consistency in evaluating student work. They spell out scoring criteria so that multiple teachers, using the same rubric for a student's essay, for example, would arrive at the same score or grade” (Edutopia, 2018).

Furthermore, when students understand rubrics ahead of assessment, they understand how they will be evaluated.

In sum, effective rubrics can:

  • Measure higher-order skills or evaluate complex tasks
  • Clarify learning goals
  • Align students to your expectations
  • Foster self-learning and self-improvement in students
  • Aid students in self-assessment
  • Inspire better student performance
  • Improve feedback to students
  • Result in faster and easier scoring of assessments
  • Enable more accurate, unbiased, and consistent scoring
  • Reduce regrading requests from students
  • Provide feedback to faculty and staff (Suskie, 2009, Wolf & Stevens, 2007).
What are examples of good rubrics?

What do effective 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:

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

Researchers recommend two or more performance criteria with distinct, clear, and meaningful labels (Brookhart, 2018) along with 3-5 quality or performance levels (Popham, 2000; Suskie, 2009).

A high quality rubric includes performance level and criteria with distinct, clear, and meaningful labels

An example of five performance levels might look like this:

  • Far Below Expectations
  • Below Expectations
  • Meets Expectations
  • Exceeds Expectations
  • Demonstrates Excellence

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.”

For example, examples of criteria might look like the following:

  • The thesis sentence is present with strong analytical components and supported by the rest of the essay
  • The thesis sentence is present with analytical components and supported by the rest of the essay
  • Thesis sentence is present, albeit more summary than analysis, and supported by the rest of the essay
  • Thesis sentence is present but not supported by the rest of the essay
  • Not present
What are the types of rubrics?

There are two main types of rubrics for evaluating student work: holistic and analytic rubrics. Each has its strengths with regard to how educators can approach evaluation of student learning. A third type of rubric is the checklist, which contains no performance descriptions, and is solely composed of criteria.

What are holistic rubrics?

Holistic rubrics focus on the overall product or performance rather than the components. For instance, instead of dividing essay evaluation into an evaluation of thesis, supporting arguments, structure, and so forth and so on, holistic rubrics look at the entire efficacy of the essay itself. Hence, holistic rubrics would have criteria that describe competency levels of essay writing in a single scale, from “essay does not successfully argue its point with no supporting arguments and consistent writing errors” to “essay introduces original ideas with strong supporting arguments and technical writing excellence.”

A holistic rubric produces a single score based on a judgment of overall student work.

Holistic rubrics are used when missteps can be tolerated, and the focus is on general quality and what the learner can do rather than what they cannot do (Chase, 1999). Oftentimes, holistic rubrics can be used when student skills are more advanced. They can also save time because there are fewer components and decisions to consider.

What are shortcomings of holistic rubrics?

Because they focus on the generalized quality of student work, it may be more challenging to provide feedback on specific components. This may be challenging when, for example, a student’s work is at varying levels—for example, if an essay has original ideas, analysis, and supporting arguments but has many syntactical errors. Additionally, because holistic rubrics tend towards sweeping descriptions, scoring may be susceptible to subjectivity.

What are analytic rubrics?

Analytic rubrics provide levels of performance for multiple criteria, with scores for separate and individual components of student work; they assess work in multiple dimensions. Analytic rubrics also provide descriptions for each of these performance levels so students know what is expected of them (Mertler, 2001). Additionally, criterion can be weighted differently to reflect the importance of each component.

What are the shortcomings of analytic rubrics?

Because they are more comprehensive and examine different components of student work, they take more time to develop. And unless the description for each criteria is well defined, scoring may be inconsistent.

What is a checklist rubric?

With checklist rubrics, there are only two performance levels (yes/no, present/absent, pass/fail, etc.). And a useful checklist usually has many criteria. They do enable faster grading, and a checklist provides ample clarity for students. Checklists enable an all-or-nothing approach, which is helpful at certain stages of learning. For instance, if a student is learning to write an essay, a checklist is an effective way for students to understand what they need to provide.

Oftentimes, a checklist can be converted into an analytic rubric.

What are the shortcomings of checklist rubrics?

Checklists are long, and may be time-consuming to create. When students are no longer new to a topic, checklists don’t provide the nuanced feedback necessary to move from conscious incompetence to conscious competence. In other words, checklists aren’t as helpful when students are “most of the way” towards competence.

How to develop a rubric

A rubric is most often structured like a matrix with two main components: criteria (usually listed on the left side) and the performance descriptions (listed across the top).

Rubric development involves several steps:

  • Define the purpose of an assessment
  • Establish evaluation criteria
  • Determine performance levels
  • Provide descriptions for each performance level
Define the purpose of an assessment

Is an assignment measuring the presence of criteria or the quality of criteria?

Consider the student stage of learning in this step. When students are just beginning to write an essay or engage in geometry theorems, they are in early stages of learning. Students learning a new concept or skill may benefit from a binary approach towards whether criteria is present or not.

Students in more advanced stages of learning may benefit from being measured by a spectrum of quality.

Analytic and holistic rubrics measure the quality of criteria. Checklists or checklist rubrics measure the presence of criteria.

Establish evaluation criteria

When developing rubrics, select the most important criteria in evaluating student work. Part of establishing criteria is asking yourself questions about what you want to identify in student work. For instance, why are you giving students this assignment? What are the characteristics of good student work? What specific skills do you want demonstrated in the assessment?

By asking yourself questions about the purpose of the assessment and how it aligns to learning objectives, you can then decide the 3-8 criteria that shows what you want students to achieve.

Determine performance levels

Determine what the performance levels should be and how many. There are usually 3-5 performance levels (qualitative), and oftentimes they are associated with scores or points (quantitative). You may want to begin with the anchors (best and worst), first before exploring how many levels you want in between. Students can often be confused by the “fuzzy” middle, so it is important to make each level distinct.

Provide descriptions for each performance level

According to notable researcher Susan Brookhart, it is important to be clear and thorough in performance descriptions, which also prompt student learning. Brookhart states, “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” (Brookhart, 2018).

For holistic rubrics, it is critical to write thorough and clear narrative descriptions of each criterion, particularly because they have to be comprehensive in describing the whole product.

For analytic rubrics, each criterion needs a description of performance level.

Language should be neutral and as objective as possible, avoiding subjective words like “interesting.” Instead, outline objective indicators like “new idea that analyzes instead of summarizes.”

How do you evaluate a rubric itself?

Finally, consider evaluating your own rubric.

Depaul University’s Teaching Commons suggests the following questions to ask when evaluating a rubric:

  • Does the rubric relate to the outcome(s) being measured?
  • Does it cover important criteria for student performance?
  • Does the top end of the rubric reflect excellence?
  • Are the criteria and scales well-defined?
  • Can the rubric be applied consistently by different scorers?
What is the difference between a rubric and a grading scale?

These two terms are often used interchangeably, but it is helpful to distinguish their differences. Rubrics are used to communicate student performance and expectations on assessments. Scales, on the other hand, describe how a student has progressed in their learning journey relative to stated learning goals (University of Maryland Baltimore).

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.

Disadvantages of rubrics

While effective rubrics can foster learning, they can be limited in scope. If, according to Angelo State University’s Instruction Design, “educators use the rubric to tell students what to put in an assignment, then that may be all they put. It may also be all that they learn.”

Wolf and Stevens, state that rubrics have more advantages than disadvantages but “If poorly designed they can actually diminish the learning process. Rubrics can act as a straitjacket, preventing creations other than those envisioned by the rubric-maker from unfolding. (“If it is not on the rubric, it must not be important or possible.”) The challenge then is to create a rubric that makes clear what is valued in the performance or product—without constraining or diminishing them” (Wolf & Stevens, 2007).

Effective rubrics also take a lot of time to develop.

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.

Conclusion: How rubrics uphold student learning

Effective rubrics support the student learning journey. 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 integrity. When students feel supported, their love of learning increases into a lifelong journey.