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There is no "I" in "Rubric" (Well, there is but...)

  • Rubrics permeate college assessment these days--in and out of the classroom. They have been a staple in middle and high school classrooms (where I first used them) for quite some time--a testament to their usefulness. Indeed, their value has withstood shifting currents in educational trends and philosophies, which means that the use of rubrics in higher education will likely enjoy a long tenure--indeed may find a permanent home in the Ivory Tower.

    Those who use rubrics know how effectively they can streamline and simplify the grading process, while still allowing for meaningful  feedback. Those who do not use rubrics may perceive them as instruments that dilute the evaluation process, do not allow for accurate or sufficient evaluation of complex and nuanced thinking, and   minimize the value of a carefully honed evaluation process. With poorly designed rubrics, that can definitely be the case. To be sure, designing effective rubrics can be a complex process and is usually an ongoing one defined by semesters and semesters of trial and error.

    After 6 years of using rubrics in my university teaching, I am still tweaking my composition rubrics. While I have had to use a departmental rubric for a few semesters now, I find myself revising an element or two of it during my course planning every semester, as a result of issues surrounding it that arose the semester before. However, in my continued effort to create a more student-centered classroom, I also find myself thinking about the rubric as a collaborative tool. I have already made this decision with my syllabus, which I wrote about here, and think that bringing students into the rubric development process is the next logical, indeed natural, step in my endeavor to blur the line between teacher and student in the classroom.*

    Professor Katherine Robertson addresses rubric collaboration in the Faculty Focus Newsletter; however, her motivation originates from the need to solve a particular rubric-based problem: students' potential "over-reliance on guidelines that stifle creativity and independent thought" and possible inability "to accomplish future projects without the same explicit instructions." Unfortunately, this danger never occurred to me as I worked to create rubrics that left no questions about expectations unanswered.

    This Fall semester, I will be teaching an FYC course in which all of my students will be part of an engineering learning community. I look forward to  collaborating with them on the syllabus and rubrics, not only because of the democratic tone this will set and maintain for my class but also because of the preparation it will provide them for the project- and team-based learning experiences common in engineering programs. However, I will be faced with a dilemma: reconciling my obligation to departmental policy and my desire (which naturally becomes an obligation) to provide students with the opportunity to own their learning.

    Because I am obligated to use the departmental rubric, I will give my students this rubric, not as something to work against or correct, but rather as something to work with--an instrument to respond to, learn from, and question. This will be a learning experience in itself, as my students will use their intuition, reflect on previous learning, and think critically in order to determine evaluative criteria that is both fair and sufficiently rigorous. I certainly agree with Professor Robertson's concerns and will thus have the added challenge of helping students create rubrics that are sufficient but not crippling to creative and independent thinking.

    Like the collaborative syllabus, I predict that the collaborative rubric will increase my students' sense of accountability and ownership. In turn, I foresee the expectation point of view shifting from "I want/expect...." to "We want/expect...."

    Have you created rubrics with your students? If so, please share your experiences in the comments section! If not, feel free to pose questions or concerns about implementing this activity.


    *The blurring of this line does not mean the relinquishing of one's authority as expert and instructor in the classroom. That authority must be maintained for obvious reasons. When implementing the collaborative syllabus and/or rubric, one should not accept any syllabus and rubric ideas that would diminish the integrity of one's course and its goals or violate one's departmental and/or university policy.


    Reference: Robertson, Katherine. "Assessment as an Opportunity for Developing Independent Thinking Skills in Students." Faculty Focus