I have found that disturbing gaps between my expectations and students’ work—and the many frustrations that ensue for us all—can be nipped in the bud with rubrics.
Rubrics can be used to teach, reinforce, and assess. The most effective rubrics are collaborations between students and teachers in which students help determine what different levels of achievement could look like for a particular project. Sometimes (often?) we teachers have a solid idea of what excellence is but fail to adequately communicate that to our students. Rubrics not only detail those visions but respect and incorporate the students’ ideas of what constitutes excellence.
In my ideal process, students develop models for key categories, illustrating, for example, a strong thesis or smooth incorporation of a quote. They become authorities on the assignment before they begin, and capable assessors of their progress toward mastery as they work. I have found rubrics reduce students’ anxiety and improve our communications in a way that affects both the quality of their work and our classroom’s atmosphere. I assert with confidence that rubrics have improved my teaching and my students’ learning.
Rubric best Practices
Following these general suggestions will make the process most efficient and productive:
- Use consistent and student-accessible language across the rubric
- Avoid subjective terms (e.g., “excellent”), and be descriptive instead: what does “excellence” look like?
- Develop and use rubrics collaboratively with your students (handing students a rubric that you’ve developed can certainly be helpful, but sharing the process invests students differently in the product)
Middle School Example
For one assignment, I asked students to write and explicate a new ending for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We then developed a rubric for their explications.
I assigned these categories:
- Paragraph structure
- Grammar and syntax
And I identified these levels of achievement (I suggest using four levels, to prevent a common assessor tendency to go to the middle, and make the first column the goal):
- Approaching Mastery
And handed students this:
|Grammar and syntax|
Note that the language of the levels of achievement is specific. Using numbers or letters instead of words, unless meticulously aligned with translations of their meaning, doesn’t give students enough information. Also avoid subjective and sometimes disheartening language, like “poor” or “unsatisfactory.”
In pairs, students then went through these stages:
- Accepted responsibility for a category.
- Drafted descriptive bullet points for each level of achievement in their category.
- Compared their drafts with another pair of students’ working with the same category and produced a group revision.
- Exchanged with a group responsible for a different category, that then developed models for key components (an arguable thesis, smooth incorporation of evidence, and correct use of a semi-colon).
- Traded back to review and critique models, then returned for revision and revised accordingly.
I then assembled what we had, made a few changes to clarify language, and we reviewed it as a class.
It looked something like this (note that the language of the descriptors addresses the work, not the student or his or her assumed efforts):
|Thesis||-Answers a question|
*Model: A tragic ending to A Midsummer Night’s Dream reinforces the play’s conviction that love can be destructive.
|Missing 1 of the following:|
-Answers a question
|Missing 2 of the following:|
-Answers a question
|Missing 3 or 4 of the following:
-Answers a question
|Paragraph structure||-Main point is explicit|
-Evidence wholly supports main point
-Evidence is smoothly incorporated*
-Conclusion reinforces main point
*Model: Oberon’s call to the fairies to “each several chamber bless, /Through this palace, with sweet peace” (V.i.412-413), suggests that peace may now be hard to come by for the lovers.
|-Main point is deductible|
-Evidence largely supports main point
-Evidence is often smoothly incorporated
-Conclusion relates to main point
|-Main point is confused|
-Evidence partially supports main point
-Evidence is sometimes smoothly incorporated
-Conclusion’s relation to main point isn’t clear
|-No clear main point
-Evidence doesn’t support main point
-Evidence is not smoothly incorporated
-Conclusion is not clearly related to main point
|Analysis||New ending illuminates the development and resolution of a key theme or themes in the play.||New ending is relevant to a key theme or themes in the play.||New ending is vaguely connected to a key theme or themes in the play.||New ending is irrelevant to key themes in the play.|
|Grammar and syntax^||-Correct use of commas with subordinate phrases|
-Correct use of semi-colons*
*Model: All the young lovers become better at loving; they become more accepting of their lovers’ flaws.
|-Incorrect use of commas with subordinate phrases
-Incorrect use of semi-colons
^Issues we were working on at the time, which we agreed had only two levels or achievement.
Armed with internalized knowledge of the assignment’s expectations, students wrote their first drafts. They next used the rubric to assess that draft and to revise. Next, they assessed their partner’s draft, guided by the rubric, and used one another’s feedback to write a final draft. (Many students exchanged their work with multiple others before handing anything in.) Finally, I used the rubric to evaluate the final product, circling the appropriate descriptors and writing any additional notes in the margins.
High School Example
For high school students, I modified the process to allow for even more student input. For an assignment in which groups of students wrote and performed one-minute acts from Hamlet, we decided on the categories as a group.
We began by discussing the assignment’s intention, which we agreed was to extract essential meaning from each act and determine how best to perform and stage it to communicate that meaning to the audience. The students suggested these categories:
- Use of theatrical elements
- Analytical insight
In their performance groups, students drafted a complete rubric, passed their work to another group for their feedback, and revised as necessary. I distributed the five semi-final products and we voted on which one to use. The final rubric looked something like this:
|Use of theatrical elements (i.e., light, sound, costume, set)||Elements enhance content||Elements do not distract from content||Elements are partially inconsistent with content||Elements are unrelated to content or confusing|
|Analytical insight||Script supports interpretation of 4 key themes||Script supports interpretation of 3 key themes||Script supports interpretation of 2 key themes||Script supports interpretation of 0-1 key themes|
I have seen students’ work, supported by rubrics, increasingly meet and even exceed their own expectations. The gaps in our understanding of assignments steadily narrowed, even closed, the more rubrics we developed. Students became more confident, which in turn made them more committed. The results have included students’ authentic creative and intellectual excellence.
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