A Rubric Relationship

I often talk about my relationship with technologies as if they were people. For example, in 2007 (!) I said my CMS needed to start taking out the trash if I was going to keep it around. Well, here’s another one — it’s about rubrics.

When the big fuss was being made about rubrics a number of years ago, I was skeptical. But I like anything that makes teaching more transparent (yes, I really will get to that post someday!). So I developed a rubric, and it is the heart of my students’ self-assessments of their work and participation. This morning, for example, I will receive from my on-site class their physical portfolios, where they suggest their grades for participation and work quality based on this rubric.

I have also studied excellent rubrics written by others, such as my brilliant colleague Louisa Moon, and use them myself to assure satisfactory grade progress in courses I’ve taken.

Rubrics are great, right? They let the student see exactly how the instructor is going to grade their work. The instructor has created the rubric based on how s/he really grades, what is actually sought, so the grading appears to be impartial and fair even though the qualities in it are subjective. It’s a great balance.

But here’s the rub of rubrics. They break down the grading process into little segments, and prevents a viewing of the whole.

A number of years ago, the wonderful Megill brothers (David and Don) taught me that no matter what, a grade is subjective. There is no such thing as “objective questions” or an objective grade. Grading is always subjective because it is always based on what the teacher wants.

I can try to list what I want, and give each item a point count. But what if a student does a superior job on one aspect, and not so well on another?

An example: let’s say I break down grading an essay into 4 points max for a solid thesis, 4 points for writing style, and 4 points for content development. The students created a thesis that should be published by Harvard University Press and turned into a book. I give him 4 points for that, but the writing’s kinda whatever and the content development not so hot considering how great a thesis it is. Total is thus 10 out of 12. I want to give him a 12 and write “OMG go back and develop this thesis and get the thing published!”

There isn’t room for this, even if I add an “overall quality” category or something, because then it applies to everyone. I have to break my own rubric.

When it comes to final grades, I do this naturally. My rules state that I reserve the right to reduce the grade due to:

instructor’s evaluation of overall learning, within one letter grade of total points earned. For example, your points could add up to a B, but if your overall work was not at the B level (see rubric, above), I could lower the grade to a C.

I also use this rule to boost a total up. After all, learning is about progression. If a student got lousy grades early in the semester, but improved as the course got more complex and involved, I want the final grade to show that progress, so I bump up a number of grades at the end of the semester. An “improvement” category wouldn’t make sense, except in an individual context.

That individual context is undermined by rubrics. I don’t grade on a curve, but rather try to grade each students’ work according to both a standard and individual progress.

And I think we all do this to a certain extent. Thus my relationship to the rubric has become fraught with suspicion. Is my rubric really doing the job I set it out to do? or is it sneaking around on me, limiting my options?

2 thoughts on “A Rubric Relationship

  1. I do not, as some of my colleagues do, view rubrics as the second coming, but I also think linking any rubric to specific point values exacerbates the problem you describe, I do what you do with final grades with my rubrics. Serious problems in any area can prevent a student from passing a project (for example, grammar problems that make an essay difficult to read or the absence of topic sentences from any paragraphs–I teach comp, by the way) and excellence in one or more areas can positively “distort” a grade as well.

    By the way, a useful text on rubrics is Stevens’s _Introduction to Rubrics_: http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Rubrics-Assessment-Effective-Feedback/dp/1579221157

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  2. Hi Jim! I’m a little confused then. Aren’t most rubrics linked to specific point values? Or should I be doing something that removes the point or grade idea from the rubric? And if I do that, how do I determine the grade? I’d love to see your rubric.

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