And Rubrics Are For…?

In a stack of papers called Writing.

  • Dec
  • 27
  • 2006

I keep thinking of throwing rubrics out the window. Most are ill conceived because the correct audience has never been considered. The fatal flaw is one inherent in the design: rubrics are for teachers, not students.


“Demonstrates a comprehensive, thoughtful grasp of the text.” When students report that they lose, throw away, or never even look at the rubrics I provide, I realize that rubrics typically add more confusion than lucidity. “Provides a variety of sentence types and uses precise, descriptive language.” They are usually noise that gets in the way of the task students need to achieve. “Includes specific textual details.” Look at the scoring guide for the CAHSEE. “States and maintains a position, authoritatively defends that position with precise and relevant evidence.” In seeking to define, we teachers use all kinds of phrasings that don’t make sense to anyone without a college degree and/or several years of background in education.

Does that make rubrics bad? No. Does that make them useless? No. Does that change how we should approach rubrics? Yes.

For Teachers

Rubrics should be clear enough to remind teachers why a grade was assigned. Rubrics should be technical enough to allow teachers to direct students for further instruction. Rubrics should, most likely, be shown to students after the assignment is graded, if at all. Rubrics should help teachers be consistent and know exactly what to look for in student work.

For Students

Thinking from the point of view of a student, I want to read as little as possible. I know what I need to do for the assignment, I just want to bounce forth and start doing it. Lists are good for that, but boxes with descriptions of what the different grades look like are worthless.

Perhaps even better for students would be scaled examples. I recently handed out A, B, C, D, and F responses to short writings I assign (quickwrites). Walking students through the examples, I hoped that they would use this as a way to guide the quickwrites for the current piece of literature under discussion.

Writing By Design

What if essay assignments didn’t have rubrics as we know them, but a gathering of scaled paragraphs from a similar writing assignment? Maybe these examples constitute a Web site teachers put together. Maybe a few teachers can work to put this together and other teachers can reference them, directing their students to those sites. Maybe it’s a packet teachers give out at the beginning of the year, adding new exemplars as the year goes on.

Once students see what I understand a 95% to be, we can work on categorizing why that piece of writing deserves that grade. We work backwards to create a rubric, but since it’s based on real examples, those phrases like “relates the real world to the story” make more sense and are genuine.


So maybe rubrics are backwards. They certainly fail to help the majority of the students I’ve ever had. Most students dutifully keep those rubrics in their binder, but are nowhere near their writing space, never to impact the writing produced.

If students worked from exemplars as a way to figure out why one piece of writing is better than another, we might get closer to students figuring things out for themselves. This could allow them to create a set of criteria that they can put to use because they’ve internalized the descriptions.

Are your students using the rubrics you hand out? Really?

P.S. Thanks for getting me thinking about this, Ben. And maybe I should put up a folder full of all rubrics I have; they’d be Word or Excel documents. Would that be helpful to anyone?


1. Laurie says:

[12/28/2006 - 10:49 am]

I was taught that rubrics should be created by the students. I use the basic rubric and then modify it at the start of an assignment with the class as I walk them through the particulars. While I agree that many students don’t look at the rubrics once they get the grade, I do think they look at it when I ask them to reflect on the evaluation.

So what is a productive way of grading writing? I know that a letter grade is not more helpful, nor are comments as they are as easy to ignore as a rubric.

Exemplars are great for some students but how do we stop them from simply copying style and voice in those?

This is why I hate and love teaching writing.

2. Todd says:

[12/28/2006 - 10:00 pm]

Interesting take. I wasn’t even thinking about this in terms of grading writing. I was thinking about this in terms of rubric as waste of time.

I was taught that rubrics should help students complete the writing, guiding them in how to write their paper and giving them an idea what kind of grade they should expect. The fact that teachers can use the rubric as a grading tool was just a side effect of spelling out to students, in clear detail via the rubric, what’s expected of them.

Most teachers I’ve seen don’t create rubrics with their students or let their students create their own; they pass them out. I’d be willing to bet that an extremely high percentage of good teachers will cop to that, let alone all the average and poor ones. Even talking with the class about how changes have been made to the rubric is passing out a new rubric. Students aren’t involved in that process as much as they simply dictate it.

Those exemplars need to be ones with which the teacher is familiar and so can spot plagiarism. In terms of copying style and voice from the exemplars, I don’t think I have a problem with that. If it’s an exact duplicate and only the nouns and verbs have changed, that’s a problem. If it’s copying the spirit, that’s perhaps a strong indication of independent learning.

“Let’s see. How did the teacher give this paper an A? What if I do this? That’s similar to what that A paper did, eh?” What a great mental process for students to go through. If done effectively, that student has just figured out a few keys to strong writing. If done terribly, the paper still earns a poor grade, but at least the student has looked at some good writing a bit closer.

3. Harry Barfoot says:

[12/29/2006 - 6:31 am]

Rubrics are certainly used in different ways by different people. But fundamentally, they are really no different than a standard by which one is measured on certain concepts. Call them rubrics or standards, they provide a consistency across a population to compare to. Even in a normed-reference high stakes testing environment of some years ago, rubrics were still the primary measure for writing. Now, for other subjects such as reading, math, science, we spend less time comparing students to each other and now to a standard.

We have a program that grades writing instantly using AI called MY Access! It is used extensively in CA and other states and has demonstrated success in large urban districts to affluent suburban, gifted and struggling, etc.

The key isn’t that we have rubrics but we apply the same pooled knowledge consistently as well as instanly. We find students writing 10X-20X more in a calendar year.

In addition, the software reminds them constantly of the benchmarks of performance, e.g. rubrics, they are writing to.

Rubrics or standards, the application is a solid way of measuring student achievement to a standard.

4. Todd says:

[12/29/2006 - 9:06 am]

Rubrics or standards, they use wording that’s confusing to students and are not things that students look to in order to guide their performance. Rubrics and standards are for teachers, not students. Let’s admit that and stop trying to get kids to digest something that wasn’t designed for them.

5. Laurie says:

[12/29/2006 - 11:04 pm]

Rubrics can be written by students with teachers in language that is meaningful to them. Why throw it out all together? Shouldn’t we include students in this conversation? Do we know what works for them? This has really caused me to go back to class next week with these questions in hand along with the latest essay evaluated with a rubric, of course, to find out what they think. I will let you know.

6. Todd says:

[12/30/2006 - 12:52 am]

All discussion I’ve heard of rubrics involves the teacher selecting the right rubric. That’s the impression I’ve been left with over the years. Was it pounded into your head that students should create rubrics or was it 1 or 2 influential teachers who mentioned that idea to you? Remember those packets of rubrics that covered just about every assignment type? That wasn’t something that encouraged creating the rubric with your students.

I don’t suggest we get rid of rubrics, but let’s keep them in the teacher zone and find another way to let students know what strong writing/thinking/reading is. I don’t see rubrics achieving that task or helping guide performance. I may not know what works for them, but I should know what doesn’t based on the results I see and comments I get. Rubrics aren’t working when they wind up in the trash or stay hermetically sealed in a binder.

Yeah, definitely let me know how your conversation goes. I still think that exemplars are a key to all this. I’ve had far more students ask for examples than have ever asked me for a rubric.

7. JM says:

[1/4/2007 - 2:45 pm]

I also believe that rubrics should be made by kids. In my classes, (I teach 7th) I allow students to brainstorm ideas for a rubric. The ideas depend on what is requested by me and what is needed in their writing. For instance, in a persuasive essay, something they might say is “a compelling tone” or “a good intro”. Then, I grade them on their own ideas. It works much better than when I used to use my own rubrics (not to say they weren’t well-built) and the students like it.

8. Todd says:

[1/4/2007 - 3:02 pm]

But what does “compelling tone” mean? What are the steps I need to take to write in a “compelling tone”? And “good intro,” what’s that look like? I’d bet that the only reason your students know what’s compelling and good is because you’ve given them examples to look at. So the rubric serves more as a list of why the examples you’ve provided are so effective. Perhaps the rubric is just a middle man between the students and the writing that they need to use as inspiration. And thanks for the comments, JM.

9. Elona says:

[1/14/2007 - 12:23 pm]

Todd, I find rubrics make marking easier. When I mark work I constantly refer to the rubrics so I don’t get distracted if one category is really weak. (Sometimes I feel like throwing the papers across the room, I get so frustrated.) The rubrics I create and use have four categories-Thinking, Application, Communication and Knowledge and four level-1,2,3,4,. Those categories are set by the province. It is really difficult to create kid friendly rubrics. I try not to use teacher language when I write rubrics. I’ve spent hours and hours writing rubrics. I’ve found that it takes a while for kids to see the value of rubrics. This all seems to take forever but it does pay off because kids do better when they see exemplars at different levels and compare their work to the exemplars at each of the level 1,2,3,and 4. They can tell what they need to do to improve. I get them to evaluate their own work using my rubrics so they become more aware of what is expected. In Ontario, kids have to pass a literacy test to graduate from high school. The passing grade is level 3 or 70%

10. Kathy says:

[3/8/2007 - 12:06 pm]

Ideally, if faculty provides students with the ungraded work samples that illustrate an A-F product and then have the students create the rubric for the assignment, students will create criteria and level descriptors most useful to them. When my students complete this exercise, they use the rubric because it is more meaningful to them.

11. Miss Profe says:

[3/13/2007 - 12:33 pm]

I don’t like rubrics. For the simple reason that they rig the grade. In other words, all a student has to do in order to get an A (or an F, whichever the case may be, but we hope for higher aspirations on the part of our students) is look at the rubric. I don’t think that the assessment process should take all of the thinking away from the student. After all, how did so many of us before the advent of rubrics survive without knowing beforehand what sort of work would garner an A?

To me, the fact that a rubric is student-designed versus teacher-designed in no way improves its validity as an assessment tool for me.

As a teacher, I present the expectations, and then allow the students to exercise free will and judgement, which is as it out to be.

12. nicole says:

[4/16/2007 - 9:03 am]

Rubrics give validity to a grade. Holistic grading is unfair – when does a paper “feel” like an A or a B or a C? By giving my kids a rubric (that I created – kids cannot possible create their own when I am the one that knows what I want them to get out of an assignment) I give them specific directions on how to succeed. This makes grading easier, and breaks the pieces of a large assignment down to digestible bits that kids can understand.

13. Todd says:

[4/16/2007 - 11:31 am]

Kathy, that’s what I’m thinking of doing. But it’s tough to create sets of ungraded examples for each writing assignment. I change writing assignments almost every year. There are a few that I keep consistent, but most of them change. That means that last year’s papers won’t work as examples anymore. So I create a whole new set? That’s what I’m struggling with in that model of rubric creation.

But my point, Nicole, is that kids *don’t* understand rubrics. They aren’t written for students; they are written for teachers/graders. “This makes grading easier” Exactly! It’s easier for you, not for the students. That’s my point. There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s admit it and stop clogging up student binders with handouts they never look at. Keep the rubric handy while you grade, but remember that it’s for you, not your kids.

14. Sean says:

[4/2/2009 - 5:02 pm]

In an andragogical context, adult learners need to have clearly defined expectations for testing and evaluation, and a set of standard performance guidelines or expectations so they are aware of their goals.

When I attended post-secondary, rubrics were not used. Often we were given vague assignments with very few evaluation guidelines, so we simply did the best job we could. What was the difference between an “A” and a “B+” (beside a reduction in our GPA’s)? It seemed like the answer to this was arbitrary depending on the prof’s mood. Very unfair looking back on it now.

Harry Barfoot stated “we spend less time comparing students to each other and now to a standard”. I completely agree. And in the pedadgogical context, I think Todd has nailed it by stating rubrics are for teachers and not for students.

However I am not saying they aren’t useful or don’t have their place in a pedagogical setting. For example, procedural knowledge in areas such as industrial arts, where students are manufacturing items such as birdhouses or whatever should find rubrics very useful.

15. Todd says:

[4/3/2009 - 6:08 pm]

But how do we then get the assessment tool into the hands of students in a way that helps them create better products? In my classroom, the way to get students to see what they did wrong on the last piece of writing and either fix it or don’t make those mistakes again is what I’m looking for. The rubric that helps me be consistent in my grading isn’t going to do this trick.

17. Cyd Wright says:

[9/9/2010 - 11:17 am]

I am a brand new older grad student (I’m almost 50). I did my undergrad work 15 yrs ago, before rubrics existed. Both of my professors use them, but I have no idea how to understand one and use it to get better grades. The only experience I have w/ rubrics is when I am scoring standardized tests online for middle school kids. Those rubrics come w/ extensive training and examples to go by. My classes just have the rubrics for the various assignments and projects, but no training or examples. I’m clueless! I really need some help! I want to do really well in my classwork, but how can I when I have no clue what the prof wants? Can anybody help out there?

18. Todd says:

[9/16/2010 - 3:00 pm]

You say you have no clue what the prof wants. What’s on the rubric? It should list the different characteristics of the various levels of performance. I need more detail from you in order to help. I’m not sure I understand your problem entirely. I again want to state that I think rubrics are for teachers, not students. I just handed out rubrics to my kids today with that caveat. Let me know more and maybe we can work something out for you, Cyd.