Student-centered rubric design

Here’s an example of a holistic writing rubric response for a student who has been judged as “approaching” (approaching what? Competence? Excellence? Bethlehem?)…

“Writer presents a wandering, vague, or unfocused controlling purpose or thesis. The paper moves awkwardly from a weak introduction to a conclusion that does not adequately represent the body of the paper. Basic paragraphing exists, but often fails to support or even recognize a central idea, and the use of evidence and examples is inadequate. Sentence and paragraph transitions are often unclear, awkward, indirect, and/or illogical. Tone and diction are often inconsistent and/or inappropriate for the subject and its implied audience. Mechanics (grammar, punctuation, spelling and documentation, if needed) are not well executed and may, at times, obscure meaning.”

Now, it could very well be that the author of this massive paragraph intends the rubric to be used for data gathering, not response to the student. Let’s assume that is the case (I won’t include a source for the above excerpt to avoid getting personal with a hard-working composition teacher somewhere).

At the other end of the spectrum, here’s a criteria from a rubric designed for a marketing class:

“Grammar, clarity of presentation, adequacy of content, attention to details, use of concepts
discussed in class:  …………….”

This criteria was worth 20 points (out of a 100)…so I’m assuming the prof wrote in “16” or similar on the dotted line, and that this rubric was designed expressly for communicating with a student.

First up, it’s great to see educators working hard at including writing in their courses and thinking about what is important in an assignment. The marketing example was included in the class syllabus, and therefore known to students in advance (something many writing teachers don’t do). Kudos on all those points.

But how do you learn anything after receiving a “16” for “adequacy of content”? What does that mean to your average 20 year old? What does that student think about being told that their thesis is “wandering”?

My point is that educators often bypass the first rule of writing – any writing: know your audience. K12 is even worse (both of the examples above come from higher ed) because educators often rely on state standards. So teachers respond to students using language written by PhD’s working in a state department of education…language often intended to educate teachers to the goals for a particular grade and content area.

I got some great insight into this problem from a friend whose children attend a school district where I’ve done some consulting. She had to help her son peer review a fellow student’s essay. Again, kudos to the teacher who bravely attempted to help his or her students learn by leading them to think deeply about the rubric being used for assessing and responding. But the parent, who incidentally is a published writer and has a masters degree, struggled to figure out the abstract performance descriptors in the rubric her son had been given. The son had little interest, and together they spent a frustrating hour puzzling through the paper they were reviewing and the state composition rubric. The punchline is that my friend was convinced that the paper they were reading had been largely written by the other child’s parents…and she pretty much wrote her son’s response to the paper. So we have one parent peer reviewing another parent’s writing!

The insanity of this situation aside, a key concept I always talk about with educators is student-centered rubrics. That is, rubrics written with the audience in mind. Rather than, “The essay expresses a clear and controlling thesis that defies conventional wisdom and argues an original point,” try, “Your writing made me think really hard about how I understood the assigned reading.” This would be an example of more clearly defining “excellent.” An “approaching” comment to respond to thesis might be, “your writing repeated many of the ideas we talked about in class and that we all understood to be true about the reading.” I’ll sometimes get more colloquial with students, especially for peer review. Try, “Wow! Your writing totally challenged the way we had been talking about the reading. Great work!”

When a student is reading through ‘performance descriptors in a rubric, they need the differences to be clear and concrete – from grade school through graduate school. The hard work of rubric design has often been done by others (search the web, search RubiStar, ask your colleagues) – educators simply need to translate and edit rubrics to suit their students, who they know better than anyone.


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