Why I Love Rubrics

Theresa and I started Grand Rounds as a place to discuss educational research and professional development. Slowly, I moved away from the blog and into a PLN based primarily on Twitter to accomplish that goal. Several times, I’ve jumped into Twitter conversations around topics of interest but last night, I watched a conversation about rubrics fly by on Tweetdeck and self-censored. Knowing I wouldn't be able to say what I wanted to say in 140 characters, I returned here to Grand Rounds to lay out my argument for why, frankly, I love rubrics.

Seven years ago, I was a new staff developer, fresh from the classroom and attending a series of workshops that my new office was sponsoring. The program was school based, so I sat among teachers that had a long history together and was privy to their student work, curriculum tasks, and conversations. The theme of the program was “Communicating Expectations” and when rubrics were first mentioned, it was as a tool, not as the end unto itself. After a series of activities around expectations and feedback, including a discussion around measuring work that seemingly can’t be measured, we started to work with a task the teachers had recently assigned. It was an authentic task that involved creating, exploring, communicating - a whole slew of skills and tasks. They brainstormed what they expected from their students, organized what students actually did by their approximation to their expectations, articulated the attributes of the work that met their expectations, and slowly but surely, built a rubric. Teachers then took the rubric they wrote, modified it for a future task, and came up with a plan for using it with students. When they returned to the next session, almost every teacher spoke of the improved quality of student work and clarity of language between teacher and students. They used the rubric as a gauge for assessing the distance between their work and what the task required. The teachers weren't using rubrics for all tasks and they weren't treating them as some sort of a holy grail.

I was hooked. Since then, I've seen numerous examples of high quality rubrics being used by students and teachers. I use them regularly in my work and will continue to advocate for taking the time to design high quality rubrics for worthy tasks. When I read blogs, tweets, and books that are anti-rubric, I almost always agree with their dislike of the things they are describing. But frequently, what I see people describing aren't rubrics, they're checklists. So to me:
  1. The rubric itself is the least important part of the process. The sheet of paper is the product of a process articulating expectations of student learning and work.

  2. Any rubric that hasn't been checked against student work, developed with students or gotten student feedback is still in draft form.

  3. The language describes that quality of a piece of work - not the quantity. Some, few, and many are quantitative terms and are slippery terms to define. To me, a rubric's purpose to is articulate expectations of success - so a student working on a task will know what they need to do to improve their work. The language needs to reflect that goal.

  4. The language of the rubric focus what is present, not just what is absent. ("Includes irrelevant material" versus "doesn't stay focused on topic")

  5. The highest level describes what exceeds the standard or expectation, and often includes language about "breaking rules" or "new and unexpected" approach to task.

  6. The task is worthy of a rubric. That's a value loaded statement, so to clarify - not all tasks need a rubric and a well-written rubric does take time to write. Generally speaking, I use rubrics for authentic, process tasks that are similar to real world tasks.

  7. We need to be critical consumers of rubrics that are available in the cloud.

I won't go into the rubrics in writing debate as far better writers than I have tackled it (I recommend reading Ruth Culham and then Maja Wilson for two takes on that particular issue) but I will state explicitly that I think rubrics are among the best tools available for articulating expectations in a way students can refer to when their teacher isn't around.

For a more recent view from both sides, check out TeachPaperless' Why I Hate Rubrics/Rubrics Were Great (especially the comments) and Two Arguments for Using (Some) Rubrics and please share your thinking around the sticky wicket that are rubrics.