By Stacy Palen
There is a tension for every professor between giving detailed feedback and keeping up with the workload. I suppose it’s possible that there is a “unicorn” professor out there somewhere who never struggles with this, but I haven’t met them!
Using a rubric can be helpful, because a rubric can add clarity to your expectations and cut down on the grading workload.
A rubric is a written explanation of your expectations for an assignment. Rubrics are most commonly applied to large projects or presentations, but they can be just as useful for the weekly homework assignment or in-class activity.
Using a rubric means that both you and the student are on the same page about what’s required. In science, we often consider our assignments to be quantitative and objective, so that the grading is likewise quantitative and objective.
But students may not see it that way; even if the assignment is quantitative, students may not know what makes a proper quantitative answer. Are you a professor who cares about complete sentences and units and showing all the work? Or do you only care about the answer?
It’s a fair point that students have questions about this, especially in an introductory course where they are not “plugged in” to the culture of your specific Department.
I typically post the rubrics for assignments on the LMS or course website, and also in the syllabus. Then when students ask me questions about why they lost points on an assignment, I’ll refer them to the rubric.
In some semesters, I have printed out the rubric for the first assignment, writing directly on it, so that students could see how the rubric was applied. That’s probably a good idea, but I’m not always able to get it done.
The level of detail included in the rubric depends on the assignment. For example, I will have different rubrics for short-answer homework questions than for in-class lab activities.
Exams, which in my class involve drawing pictures, writing paragraphs and solving puzzles, do not fit so neatly into a rubric category. But I find that by the time I reach the midterm, the students already have an idea of my expectations.
I have colleagues who have written holistic rubrics for their entire course. That is, they have written down in clear terms what an “A”, “B,” or “C” in this course means. For example, a “B” may mean that the student has completed 14 of 15 homework assignments with a grade of 80% or better, plus two exams with a grade of 75% or better, plus read and commented on two articles in the course discussion board. An “A” might mean both higher scores AND more articles read.
Some professors have gone so far as to then turn that rubric into a “contract” with the student, where the student can state up front at the beginning of the course that they intend to aim for a “C.” They often do.
I divide my grading rubrics into two parts: a part that is applied separately to each question, and “collective marks” that apply to the whole assignment. In the next two blog posts, I will explain how I use rubrics to grade for content knowledge, and how I use them to grade for “meta” qualities that span multiple parts of the assignment. I will also explain how I use rubrics to cut down on my grading workload.
There are endless other examples of rubrics and how to use them on the internet. Many of them come from K-12 teachers, who frequently use rubrics in their grading. Your students may be more familiar with the concept than you are!
Stay tuned for Part 2, “How-to: Grading Content” next Friday.