Using Rubrics to Promote Deeper Learning

Dr. Jeff Keeling
Dr. Jeff Keeling
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership
A teacher grades an essay, marking it with an “A” grade.

Over the past 25 years, rubrics have emerged as a field standard for educators within the realm of grading student assignments. Prior to the development and implementation of rubrics, teachers graded students’ work largely from a subjective point of view – essentially the teacher’s own opinions about the content and quality of assignments based on his or her knowledge and prior experiences. Rubrics promote a more objective method for grading student assessments by establishing a set of descriptors for grade classifications that are shared with the students in advance of the assignment. The two basic types of rubrics are holistic and analytic.

Holistic rubrics tend to be basic in nature and focus on general aspects of the assessment. A holistic rubric example would be a simple color rubric (i.e. Green = outstanding; Yellow = satisfactory; Red = needs improvement) or similar concept. Analytic rubrics tend to be project or assignment specific and include extensive details about what constitutes specific grade or point values about the various aspects being assessed (i.e. An “A” essay will contain a well-defined thesis statement, appropriate supporting details, and a clear conclusion, etc.).

Ways Rubrics Can Be Beneficial 

Rubrics are beneficial for both teachers and learners alike because they provide clearly defined objectives for assessments or projects and provide the student with guideposts that indicate the grade they will earn based upon the rubric language. Teachers benefit greatly from using rubrics because well-written rubrics eliminate the possibility for the teacher’s personal biases to interfere with the objective grading process.

As a result, when teachers are questioned by students or their parents or guardians regarding why a certain grade was assigned, the teacher can direct the individuals back to the rubric and demonstrate clearly how the criteria were or were not met. Rubrics are useful for students throughout the learning process because they provide a vehicle for self-assessment. As students work through a given project or assignment, they can refer to the rubric throughout the process to determine whether their work is meeting the stated expectations or missing the mark.

One of the greatest benefits of using rubrics is that they promote purposeful academic conversations for student learning between students and their teachers. As an example, if a rubric clearly states that an “A” research paper must have one-inch margins and be double-spaced, a teacher can use this as a springboard into an explanation of how to accomplish these tasks within a word processing application. Then, suppose a student submits an assignment that does not have one-inch margins and double-spacing. In that case, the teacher can refer to the rubric and reteach the information for students who did not master the skill following initial instruction.

Ways Rubrics Can Fall Short 

Although rubrics are powerful assessment tools for teachers and students alike, if they are not developed appropriately, they can confuse students or worse, promote mediocre work. If a student is not self-motivated to excel, they may focus simply on the bare minimum rubric requirements necessary to earn a passing grade. As a result, rubrics that include a checklist of the elements required for a complete project or assessment often are more effective than those that focus solely upon the quality of the work.

Another rubric pitfall that should be avoided is a lack of clarity. When rubric language is unclear, this reopens the door for subjectivity in grading on the teacher’s part along with questioning on the part of students and their parents or guardians.

An additional shortfall of rubrics is the potential for inaccurate or harsh language. Traditionally, grades in the United States have been expressed in feedback terms such as pass or fail and proficient and basic. The connotations of these types of rating systems are not conducive to developing a growth mindset among students. Instead of these rather outdated terms, rubrics should include words such as exceeds expectationsmeets expectationsdeveloping, growing, and other similar language.

Essentially, rubrics should contain language that encourages to strive for improvement regardless of the present academic levels. In this manner a growth mindset can be established for students at both ends of the educational spectrum.

Using Rubrics to Promote Deeper Learning in Your Classroom 

The ultimate goal of incorporating rubrics into the assessment process is to promote a classroom culture rooted in rich learning experiences that fosters growth for all students. One creative strategy is developing and incorporating a growth rubric for the overall class to set the tone for a given term or school year.

Teachers who are intentional in their practice then can link all other assessment rubrics employed throughout the term back to the one overarching class growth rubric. A growth-oriented rubric can help students focus on developing skills across specific areas and then track progress and student performance to develop an ongoing learning plan that highlights their present level compared to where they want to be. In this manner, skills can be approached step-by-step, making the tracking process an authentic experience for students.

When students gain a clear understanding of their current skills and abilities in light of where they would like to be, this enables them to partner with teachers to create a clear pathway toward accomplishing their personal learning goals and deeper learning. This same concept also applies to providing remediation for students who perform below their grade level and enrichment for those who have mastered grade-level skills.

Overall, rubrics are a powerful tool that can be used to create an inclusive and collaborative deep learning environment in which the outdated mindset of “teacher versus students” concerning grading is exchanged for a partnership between teachers and students that individualizes the learning process and establishes clear learning targets. Rubrics are a critical tool for engaging students in their own learning processes that promote ownership and interest by serving as a “roadmap” for individualized student growth within a traditional classroom setting.

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