Rubric Revelations

Make rubrics to fit your teaching and grading style

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

A single-point rubric is less about determining a specific grade and more about communicating students’ strengths and needs.

Last summer, I did what most educators do. I engaged in multiple excursions between the Isle of Denial on which summer vacation is endless and School Central, a clearinghouse on the mainland where new ideas from fellow educators are plentiful. As it happens, Twitter runs a shuttle between these two regions, allowing me to transition seamlessly from work to play.

On one of my excursions to the mainland via the Twitter shuttle, I came across an article in Edutopia about single point rubrics. Since rubrics are both an ongoing challenge for me and one of the things I’m least likely to tackle over summer vacation, the fact that the article got me excited about creating a new grading tool — in the summer, no less — is definitely saying something.

The single point rubric, like its wordier and more exhausting — oops, exhaustive —  cousins, focuses on the criteria we want students to meet. In fact, it literally puts these criteria at the center of the rubric. Its purpose, as I understand it, is less about determining a specific grade and more about communicating students’ strengths and needs.

Although I was intrigued, initially, I saw this as a stumbling block. How could I replace my grade-generating rubrics with this softer, less specific tool?

I came across a variation that came closer to what I was used to, and messed around (and I do mean “mess”ed) with it in an attempt to adapt it to an assignment whose rubric I’d been struggling with — an infographic my students create early in the semester.

I was pleased with my end result (above). I’d moved the criteria out of the middle, but still allowed for both evaluation and communication. After tinkering with it a bit more and aligning the grade descriptions with those used by the college where I teach (something that should have been obvious to me earlier in the process), I set it aside for future use.

But, as with any new idea, the proof is in the implementation. While I was still waiting to use this new evaluative tool, I got an idea for an even better way to try it out, one that would allow me to use the single-point rubric that had won me over in the first place.

I decided to use the more feedback-centric version for the first homework assignment of the semester. I don’t assign a grade to homework assignments anyway, so specific evaluative criteria weren’t necessary and, in each of my classes, the assignment I was giving was the first of many similar assignments to come. Using this tool would allow me to clarify my expectations for the rest of the semester, while simultaneously reducing the “what does she want from us?” anxiety that accompanies many students’ first assignments of the semester.

One of my ongoing assignments with my freshmen is something I call Talking Points. Since I post the requirements for this assignment on our course Moodle, which is accessible to all students, the center column wrote itself and served to reinforce expectations that were already available to my students. The left and right columns were taken verbatim from the first single point rubric to win my heart. I printed my final product two to a page and, after reading and assessing the papers, attached each half-page evaluation to the assignments with individualized comments.

For my other two classes, I created a similar single point rubric for their first assignment: a reflection paper. Like the Talking Points, this paper was the first of many similar assignments, making it worth my time to give my students specific feedback on how closely their work matched the expectations for the assignment.

So, how did this new approach work?

I loved it. Instead of deciding which numbered (or descriptive) box I should check off, I spent time focusing on what my students were doing right and on helping them to zoom in on what they could improve. Admittedly, it took longer to do this than it had previously taken me to read over these homework assignments and assign a value based primarily on completion, but it also felt less like busy work because the feedback I was giving was more meaningful. Whether or not this additional information is something my students actually use remains to be seen, but I feel sure that I’ve cemented, and perhaps even clarified, my expectations for written assignments.

Would I make any changes? Yes. Instead of a single box for “things that were outstanding,” I’d split the final box into two columns:

Since I’m using this rubric for the first assignment of the semester, some students are not yet producing outstanding work, but everyone is doing something well. This more specific evaluation will still allow me to focus on strengths, but will also make my feedback more accurate, and help students to differentiate between “okay” and “outstanding” so they can use that information as they move forward.

I’m by no means a rubric scholar; most of the time, I’m still stumbling around, trying to find the right tool, and it often takes me a few times through an assignment to get the rubric just right. Much as I like this new tool, when it comes to graded assignments, I still feel the need for something more structured and specific but, who knows? Maybe with more time and practice, I’ll come up with (or stumble across) a new adaptation that surprises me.

The single point rubric has definitely gotten me excited about the way in which I approach my assessment of these early assignments and, as such, it has earned a place in my arsenal of assessments. It hasn’t made it any more fun to go through a stack of papers, but it has done what I think every rubric should do: it has communicated to my students what they’re doing well and what they need to work on, and it’s done it early enough in the semester that they have time to act on that information. As such, it’s not just a grading tool, it’s a teaching tool as well.

Definitely worth that trip from the Isle of Denial to the mainland.

Image credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc, 2017. All rights reserved.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.

Photo credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc, 2017. All rights reserved.
All graphs created by the author.

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