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January 2019

How-to: Using Rubrics to Grade Content Knowledge

By Stacy Palen

In the last post, I explained that a rubric is a written explanation of your expectations and intentions, and why they are useful in clarifying expectations and simplifying grading.  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 this blog post, I explain how I use the first part of the rubric to guide me as I assess content knowledge.

I assign short-answer homework problems, which sometimes include math, each week.  I also assign one in-class hands-on exercise each week.  Students in my class take two exams each semester, each of which involves a variety of problem types.  It’s useful for me to separate the content knowledge from the over-arching skills, like writing complete sentences, including all the details of a graph, and so on.

For example, I often grade short-answer homework questions out of 3 points, using this very basic rubric:

The answer to each question will be graded out of three points:

3: Excellent: Exactly right! Well done!

2: Satisfactory: Well, you kind of had the right idea...

1: Fairly Bad: You wrote something down.

0: Not attempted

This rubric is tightly focused on the content of the answer to this question.  There is nothing here about complete sentences, units, handwriting, or even clarity of thought.  This is very fast to do, and by the time I get to the bottom of a stack of 120 assignments, I’ve seen all the answers and recognize on sight whether this particular answer should get a 2 or a 3. I will use this rubric for short-answer and mathematical answers, and sometimes for sketches.

I need a more detailed rubric for some pictures, and all graphs. It is appropriate to have more points available for these types of answers than for the answers to short-answer questions because it takes a lot of time to produce a high quality sketch or graph. Personally, I care deeply about graphs because I place graph-reading near the top of all the life skills a student might learn in an introductory science class. An educated person needs to know how to read a graph, if only so they can plan for retirement!  I have a separate rubric for graphs.  This rubric helps to remind students about the parts of a graph that matter:

For each graph, you will be graded out of 5 points: 

5: Excellent: The graph is clear an dwell-presented. Axes are labeled with units, and there is a legend if more than one thing is plotted.

4: Good: The line fits are slightly in error and don't fit the data as well as they could. Constraints have not been applied correctly; some graphs must have lines that pass through 0,0, for example. 

3: Satisfactory: The data are plotted correctly but the line fit is inappropriate or missing. Alternatively, there is a line with no data to constrain it. 

2: Insufficient: Major or many components are missing, such as an axis or axis label. 

1: Very Bad: Seriously? You wasted my time turning this in? 

0: Missing

By using these rubrics to grade for content, I free myself from having to agonize over how many points to give for an answer that is mostly correct but poorly worded. I can give the benefit of the doubt for answers that seem right but leave me not entirely certain that I know what they meant.  I can give students a little bit of credit, even if I can’t completely read what they have written.  And I don’t have to worry here about spelling, units, or grammar.  I have collective marks for all those issues, which I’ll talk about in the next post.


How-to: Using Grading Rubrics

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.


Classroom Stories: Thoughts on Missing the First Day of Class

By Stacy Palen

Establishing a classroom culture of intention (including routing attendance, handing things in on time, showing up promptly, and so on) starts on the very first day. Students take their cues from me: is this a professor who cares about these things or not?

Because of this, I have always avoided missing the first day (or two!) of class.

Unfortunately, the winter American Astronomical Society meeting almost always overlaps with the first week of class at Weber State University. I usually don’t go to the meeting. But this year I had obligations that put me in a bind, and I felt I needed to be at AAS during the first full week of January.

This meant missing the first day of class in all three of my spring semester courses. What to do?

Somewhat hesitantly, I put together an assignment for each class that I broadcast on Canvas the week before. I made an announcement so that students would know they were supposed to do it instead of coming to class, and then hoped for the best. I promised that I would grade this assignment before we met in class for the first time.

It worked out better than I expected.

The Introductory Astronomy assignment had two parts. Part A was a basic list of vocabulary words like “planet,” “planetary nebula,” and “universe,” that students were asked to look up and define in one or two sentences. Part B asked students to read the syllabus and then answer a few questions.

Part A gave me insight into what students know, what they don’t know, and, especially, what they think they know but don’t!

Students believe they know what planets, stars, and solar systems are, so they did not look up those answers but instead just wrote down what was in their head. These definitions were generally incomplete. For example, the definition of “planet” could easily have described an asteroid.

More difficult terms like “planetary nebula,” they actually looked up. The students were more likely to be correct about the topics they didn’t know as well.

That’s interesting.

Part B actually allowed me to skip talking about the syllabus during our first in-person class time, except to answer one or two questions about textbooks and the bookstore. This feels like such an improvement that I may institute this assignment every semester!

The mechanics of the assignment were a little bit tricky.

First, I had to convince Canvas to open the course ahead of the official University start date, which I did in “Settings.” I know I was successful because one student turned the assignment in on the Friday before classes started.

Second, in order to keep my promise to have it graded before the second meeting time, I had to have students hand in the assignment on Canvas.

In previous years, this would have been a show-stopper, because I despised typing in comments on assignments handed in via Canvas. But there is new functionality to write on assignments using a tablet, which makes the grading experience much more like giving feedback on paper.

I did get them almost all graded (except for four!) by the time class started on Wednesday. I felt it was really valuable to me to walk into class already knowing something more about their background than I typically do.

And skipping the syllabus discussion? Priceless.