Rubrics

I think we can all agree on the merits of rubrics. I’ve read numerous articles that support the use of rubrics. Personally, I like them. And while they may take more time to develop in the beginning, it makes my job of grading much more efficient. I would not go as far as to say that rubrics make grading “easier” because rubric or not, I still need to evaluate a subjective demonstration of knowledge in an objective way.  However, rubrics can expedite the process by allowing me to simply circle common items instead of repeatedly writing the same comment. Rubrics can assist the teacher is being objective and fair with essay #1 as well as essay #25 and #50. I am all for rubrics.

The strongest argument in favor of rubrics is that they convey to students exactly what they will be graded on and exactly how they’ll be graded.  It eliminates the excuses, “I didn’t know I was supposed to do that” or “I didn’t know I was going to be graded on this” and even, “I didn’t know that was going to be worth so many points.”  A rubric outlines the teacher’s expectations ahead of time.  Additionally, it can help a teacher decide if this assignment is a good assessment of this skills taught.

But there are drawbacks, too.  Ones that have me second-guessing and re-thinking rubrics.

I am conflicted on when I should hand out the rubric. I definitely agree that for major assignments, it should be in advance of the due date, but how far in advance? Within the same breath as in explaining the assignment?  Even before explaining the assignment?  The day before the assignment is due? Not at all? Does it depend on how significant the education demonstration is? As in, large-scale projects should get the rubric a few weeks ahead of time, but for shorter assignments, for example a week turnaround time, aren’t required to give out in advance?   Does it depend on the academic level of the students?  Should middle school students always have a rubric but by they time they are upperclassmen in high school they should need one for every assignment?

The information I gather from conversations and research is that all students, regardless of age and academic level, should receive the rubric right away. Immediately after explaining the assignment (or even part of the explanation of the assignment) is the optimal time in which I must hand out rubric. “Because students need to know what is expected of them for the assignment before they go off in a wrong direction.”

I strongly disagree with giving the rubric in the same conversation as the assignment.

Sure, students should know what they’re being graded on. However…I want the students to explore the assignment on their own first. If I give them a list of expectations from the get-go, following them to the “letter” will be the only direction they will go in. Students will rarely deviate from the rubric. They will not think outside the box. Heck, they probably won’t even read the directions to the assignment!  They will be so narrowly focused on meeting every expectation on the rubric and then demand to know why they did not receive 100% for “checking off” each expectation.  Exceeding expectations will not be considered because they may fear being “marked down” rather than “earning more points”.

I write explicit directions. For the first few days or weeks, depending on the length of the assignment, students should have free reign over the possibilities. I’m not there to teach robots. I’m not evaluating people on the degree to which they jumped through my hoops.  I’m teaching people to think for themselves and exceed my expectations.

Additionally, rubrics have given students this false sense of “if I do all of this, then I get 100% and I’ll get an A.”  Students approach a project with the expectation of getting 100% and get upset when they do not achieve it.  I’ve heard time and time again, student’s ask me, “what did I do wrong?”  Not, “What could I learn more about/study more in order to achieve at a higher level?”  They expect to be “given” an A, not “earn” an A.  Students will not put in the effort required for “outstanding” A-level work, and then demand I give extra credit so they can raise their overall grade so their parents will let them do or have whatever it is they want.  Rubrics have instilled this “checklist” mentality into students.

This type of spoon-feeding education has to stop. “School” should not exist in its own little “education” or “school” bubble. It should be preparing you for life. It should be instilling you with knowledge (book-smarts) and creative ingenuity (street-smarts). I never received a rubric that outlined every minute detail that I was to write. The teacher was not going to write my paper for me. I had to figure it out. And when current high school students get to the real world in a couple of years, and start asking their boss 100 questions on exactly what he or she is looking for the employee to do, the boss will give directions, but not a rubric.

Teachers wonder why students are so needy? You’ve programmed them to be. You’ve instructed them that they must do what you tell them, when you tell them, and how you tell them, and now they are unable to function without this dependency.

Let’s explore the real world here. Pretend “Jane” is the stocker at the local chain bookstore. Her boss, “Fred” has 10 stockers he’s managing, dealing with technology issues and irate customers, and paperwork stacked all over his desk. Jane comes in to work and Fred tells her to “re-stock” the mystery section. He points her to some boxes that the previous stocker was working with and tells her to put them on the shelves. Fred isn’t going to give Jane a rubric that says “authors are alphabetized, there are at least four copies of each book, spines are facing outward, and to turn some popular books 90 degrees to have the front cover facing out instead of the spine”. He may off-hand tell this to Jane. He may have told her or shown her how the store expects books to be shelved—during her training 6 months ago. And she’s not going to be assessed on completion that means “if it appears like there are books on the shelves, that’s good”. He’ll spot check certain books.  And when he yells at her to “do it again”, if she asks him 100 times to come look at what she’s doing to “just make sure she’s doing it right”?….Yeah, not really the type of employee that’s going to stick around.  But one that takes the initiative to remember what was said during her training and does it correctly the first time?  That’s one that will stick around and be promoted.

So what are rubrics teaching students? They may assist students in gaining the full points from the teacher, but if the student is unable to figure out on their own what the teacher wants from the directions given, he or she needs to learn to ask specific questions at the appropriate time. Students need to let go of the safety vest that is a rubric. It’s not the gospel. It should help guide the students in refining their work, not define the scope for them. Students should not be learning to accept cutting corners and losing a few points in order to fit everything in their busy schedule in.

Rubrics are beneficial, yes.  But if I see students relying on them too much, then I’m going to pull back on giving them to students.  I may give them to the students during the last third of the time frame for working on the project.  I certainly do not want rubrics limiting creativity, but I still want to use them because their essential purpose is to communicate more effectively.

Side note: RubiStar is an excellent web 2.0 tool for creating rubrics.


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