ReTooling Rubrics

Listening to sixth graders to shape positive outcomes for the use of rubrics

With the demand for increased accountability in education today, we must select the most effective assessment approaches to use with our students. Rezaei and Lovorn’s article, “Reliability and Validity of Rubrics for Assessment through Writing,” described our reliance on the use of rubrics for ease of grading, fairness, and clear expectations and how it has caused us to believe having a rubric is better than not having one. Rubrics create a support for students’ completion of assignments, yet can also restrict their thinking.

To understand how students use rubrics, a group of sixth grade students were questioned about their perspectives. Their candid statements presented a true look into the minds of students, helping us plan for appropriate assessments and instruction. When asked why some students were successful with rubrics and others were not, one sixth grader stated that students who are not successful using a rubric “don’t think about it the right way.” Another student stated, “When I look at a rubric it just shows me what the teacher wants. I barely use them.” The “right way” and doing what “the teacher wants” were frequent responses, illustrating that a rubric might cause students to conform to the teacher’s specific criteria and standards.

At first, conforming to the criteria or standard seems like a positive outcome. However, after speaking with students further, I found that some students experienced great frustration with having explicit criteria, which caused them to underperform. One student commented that he felt the rubric had “unfair advantages against a person’s weak spot,” causing him to score poorly due to grammar and other writing formalities not related to the objective. Others described the criteria as limiting their creativity, with one student specifically commenting, “rubrics limit what you can actually do.”

Rethinking the Use of Rubrics

Relying too heavily on rubrics can be a detriment to students’ success and creativity. Teachers must know their learners and use rubrics with the understanding that some students feel limited and restricted by the rubric. The following techniques can be used to improve students’ rubric usage, self-reflection, and overall learning experience.

1. Read and interact with the rubric.
The criteria provided are meant to help students be successful. Unless students interact with the criteria and use it throughout the process of completing an assignment, the final grade will be a disappointment. Many of the sixth grade students in the study planned to review their work and analyze their errors with the rubric, but after journaling about their experience, students acknowledged they did not refer back to the rubric. Students need support in understanding the criteria and in ensuring criteria have been met prior to submitting assignments. Attention to details on the rubric can prevent students’ disappointment in the outcome of their work.

2. Be selective on which rubric and criteria are chosen.
Rubrics can be meaningful to an assignment or project, but too many details or criteria can limit students’ ability to think on their own. When selecting a rubric, ensure that it focuses on the objectives to be learned and the overall desired goal of the project without telling students exactly what to do. Ensure the content objectives are not lost in the tedious details of the rubric. For example, with a middle school history project, the rubric measures for the history content need to be more heavily weighted than the formatting and structure.

3. Offer students opportunities to write without the restrictions of a rubric.
Most of the frustration expressed by the students related to writing assignments. Writing rubrics can be helpful but allowing students to freewrite and write for authentic purposes is an important factor in becoming a good writer. Similarly, focusing on the process of writing rather than just the end product allows students to apply and develop their skills as writers. For this reason, there may be times when students create a greater variety of work without a rubric.

4. Don’t use a rubric for the sake of using a rubric.
Educators need to ask, “Does the rubric meet the requirements and level of rigor I want for my students?” and “Does the rubric limit my students’ thinking or cause them to have only one correct response?” The frustrations described by the sixth graders in the study were due to feeling limited or restricted by the rubric. Some students were able to overcome these feelings and were able to strive to go above and beyond the expectations and criteria of the rubric, but others were not. The students’ perceptions reinforce the need to use a variety of assessment options to meet the needs of all learners.

Making the Feedback Meaningful

Feedback has been described by Hattie and Timperley, in “The Power of Feedback,” as being “one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement.” Rubrics provide specific feedback to students about their performance on a task. When asking sixth graders what they do with feedback on rubrics, many of them reported looking only at the grade. If students are not attending to the feedback provided, they are not progressing in their learning. The mistakes and errors made will reoccur because they did not reflect on or even read the feedback provided. Educators can encourage students to state their plans to improve work for future projects by providing time for self-reflection. Rather than passing out the rubric and sending them home, students would take time to make reflective comments on their rubric. For example, on a writing assignment, a student may comment on the rubric, “I will provide supporting details to my main idea next time I write.”

The students who reviewed feedback from the rubric shared that it was less effective than conferring with the teacher. Many explained their preference for direct feedback from their teacher due to the fact the teacher’s feedback showed them how they could improve, whereas the rubric only showed inadequacies and where they fell short. The students’ comments highlight the need for less cookie cutter feedback and more personal feedback from teachers. Participants found the personal and specific feedback from teachers helped them apply their current learning to future projects better than the teacher simply marking the criteria on a rubric. This generic feedback did not lead students to reflect on their learning since they did not make a personal connection. Additionally, when teachers simply marked the rubric without conferencing, the students did not believe they would transfer the feedback to future assignments.

Reflecting on Rubric Use

As educators, we have the opportunity to rethink how we currently use rubrics. We can reduce frustration and increase student creativity by building in time to interact with the rubric throughout the learning process and limiting criteria to match specific learning objectives. Offering students specific verbal and written feedback, in addition to the scaled markings on the rubric, will help students make meaningful connections. Finding ways to encourage student self-reflection on the graded rubric will help them transfer learning to future projects.

We need to be clear on our purpose for utilizing a rubric. Is it a learning tool, an assessment tool, or can it be both? Perhaps, we have viewed the rubric as having a single purpose, but when we look at what we need (assessment) and what the student needs (reflection) we find the rubric can provide both. By ensuring students attend to the criteria and reflect on the feedback, the rubric can be a learning tool, not just an assessment tool.