My experience with rubrics: all that glitters is not gold

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When I first heard of rubrics, I was thrilled to bits. Assessing students’ work is not my cup of tea, and I always found it difficult to provide students with enough feedback to justify my mark and to guide them to improve their work. Working with rubrics looked the perfect solution for this situation, and I started to use them with enthusiasm. I was a Practicum tutor, and I thought it was a good idea to use rubrics. I defined 30 items as assessment criteria and checked Practicum reports following it. It was hard work at the beginning, but once I knew what I was looking for in my students’ work, it became sort of automatic to mark their works. Once this assessment process was finished, I found out that most of my students didn’t come to my office to collect their works, hence, they didn’t have access to the wonderful rubrics I had written for them. Naturally, I thought that my assessment was better because I could justify the mark with detailed arguments, but I did not feel I was fulfilling the ‘formative feedback‘ I wanted to provide.

Using rubrics: pros and cons
Using rubrics: pros and cons

Once the new degrees (Bologna Plan) were implemented, it sounded natural to me to incorporate rubrics to my everyday practice. Every time I assigned a task, I included clear information about what I expected students to do (or be). I started using checklists, then went through assessment criteria classified into 5 levels according to the level of excellence, and finally I used level descriptors, explaining which outcomes belong to each mark for each assessment criteria. It took me a long time to find useful rubrics, and most of the time I had to adapt them or make them new from scratch. Even showing students rubrics in advance was not so effective as I thought, and many of them confessed they did not look at them when completing assignments.

My last stage in the use of rubrics has been somewhat ‘painful’. From the results I obtained using rubrics in different tasks, I realised that many students were obtaining passing grades, even when their work was not worth that mark. In other words, I considered that if I hadn’t used rubrics, students wouldn’t have had a pass. I discussed this with my colleagues. Some of them had stopped using rubrics, because they considered it was a waste of time (students don’t look at them, it takes longer to mark works and marks tend to be higher than they should; that’s what they told me); some others were adapting them to make them ‘fairer’ (or tougher). I then looked at my rubrics and discovered that I was giving 1 point out of 5 for an incorrect structure, or poor English. The trick was then to do some Maths and check whether works with poor learning outcomes could have a pass with that rubric, and Eureka!, I found out that many rubrics were making things too easy for my student. From a scale from 0 to 5, if you don’t have a 2,5, it is of no use to mark that work. You’re giving points for something which blatantly doesn’t meet the minimum requirements. 

Another issue is the one concerning the integration of content and language in rubrics. Most rubrics contain a section where the teacher can indicate if the students has a good level of English or shows good use of terminology. This ‘saves the day’ for most of us, but it is not a CLIL rubric. If we are integrating language in an appropriate way, we should be developing students’ language functions concerning the task in hand. For example, if we are working with experiments, and helping students to hypothesize, students should master hypothesizing structures such as: “It may…” “It’ll probably”, “It is possible that…”. A specific item in the assessment criteria should make reference to this type of language, and the learning outcomes concerning this. It is not just a matter of assessing, including this assessment criteria in the rubric means that we have integrated the learning of this language function in our lessons, and that students have had the opportunity to practise this language function inside (and/or outside) the classroom.

To sum up, my experience with rubrics is that of ‘constant learning‘, and I am now aware of many issues I have to take into account when designing a rubric (which I was not aware of before). All in all, I believe that rubrics are a great tool to assess students’ learning in a more appropriate way, and providing them with the feedback they need to do better next time.

What’s your experience with rubrics? Are you using them? 


2 thoughts on “My experience with rubrics: all that glitters is not gold

    Mariana Morales said:
    February 26, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    thanks for your post on rubrics. I have been working with them for five years now, in secondary levels, and within different subjects.
    Rubrics are good for students because they give qualitative information about their work. They are also useful for the teacher as they help clarify the criteria for the assessment. I find they are specially useful when students are given the opportunity to correct their mistakes. Once I asked my students to write different journalistic articles (an interview, an opinion article and so on) based on a collection of mystery tales; I marked their works with a rubric. If they wanted a better mark, then they could deliver the work again. Many of them did it, and they learnt a lot. Sometimes I do it also for literary comments and always with work team and oral speech.
    Another important thing about rubrics is to let the students know its content in advance, and even let them participate in the elaboration. It is also important to adapt the rubric during the year, so as to consolidate stages and give students new goals.
    Of course both students and teachers need some practice on rubrics and obviously a reflection on what is the aim of any assessment. It helps much more than just a mark, if what you want is to improve their “learning to learn” competence.

      teachingtoteach responded:
      March 31, 2014 at 5:12 pm

      Thanks for your contribution, Mariana. I can’t agree more with you. I consider that rubrics should be directed to assess FOR learning and not OF learning. If adequately used, rubrics can be a great tool to be used in peer-assessment and self-assessment. If students can acquire good skills to evaluate their work and improve it, we are helping them become autonomous and independent :).

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