Rubrics: Grade with Integrity

You’ve probably thought about how to promote integrity in your classroom: you teach how to cite sources, you clarify expectations for group work, and you set standards for independent work. However, you may not have thought about how your grading can foster integrity.

One grading tool (that’s also a teaching tool!) that encourages integrity is the rubric. Simply stated, a rubric “is a scoring tool that lays out the specific expectations for an assignment” (Stevens & Levi). As such, a rubric communicates your grading standards to your students before they begin work, simplifies the grading process, and effectively communicates student performance after you've returned assignments. When properly used, the rubric helps you establish trust, fairness, and responsibility.

Introducing an Assignment

Your students depend on you to have a clear idea of what an assignment is and what constitutes outstanding work. A carefully considered, well-constructed rubric communicates these expectations to your students before they start the assignment.

By detailing what excellent work looks like, you build trust between yourself and your students. Students appreciate having clear standards to strive for and knowing the standards won’t change. A good rubric also makes connections between the assignment and established learning outcomes for the course. Your students want to know that the assignments you give are designed to help them learn. If they can see the purpose for the assignment and the skills and knowledge they’re developing, they’re more likely to put in the effort. And that means they’ll get more out of the task and have better learning outcomes.

Grading an Assignment

It takes time to develop a rubric that communicates your expectations, but a rubric saves you time in the long run. Because you’ve already put thought into the grading standards before you pick up your red pen, you’ll be able to identify 'A,' 'B,' and 'C' work according to objective standards. You can also avoid the sometimes subconscious pitfalls of comparing one student’s work to another, or being more stringent (or lenient) because you’re tired or hungry.

A rubric allows you to efficiently provide meaningful, well-organized feedback by simply checking off the criteria the student has met (making additional comments as necessary). In contrast, you'd quickly tire of writing extensive comments for each student. As your grading session wears on, the tendency is to provide briefer feedback. Even if you persist, extensive hand-written comments may be difficult for the student to read or understand because the comments aren’t clearly organized.

The rubric clearly communicates standards, but that doesn't mean you're looking for cookie-cutter work. A rubric still gives you room for rewarding students who are ambitious or creative in the scope of the assignment. For example, an art instructor might use the criteria Technical Proficiency, Process Documentation, and Creativity for grading a sculpture assignment. By including Creativity as a parameter on the rubric, the student can see that tackling a challenging project or using a novel approach will be rewarded, even if the sculpture isn’t perfectly executed. As a result, the student will be more likely to challenge herself and create an ambitious project rather than playing it safe for the technical points. An environment where students can take risks provides the conditions necessary for the best learning to take place!  

When students receive a grade

 When you return assignments after grading, students will often compare grades and want to know why points were deducted. A perception that one student was graded more leniently than another challenges their sense of fairness. When you grade with a rubric students can see they’re being evaluated against clearly defined pre-existing standards, so you avoid being perceived as having favorites or being a sloppy grader.  

If your expectations for outstanding work are clearly articulated, then your students can see why they lost points and what they’d need to do in order to improve their grade. Students don’t have to guess at how to succeed, and they won't feel singled out for criticism or stricter grading. A rubric is also a great starting point for conversations about how to continue to improve and develop skills and knowledge.

Anatomy of a Rubric 

The rubric has four parts:

  1. A Task Description (the assignment prompt)
  2. A breakdown of the task into Knowledge and Skill Areas
  3. Achievement Levels (also called a Scale)
  4. Criteria defined by the intersection of each Knowledge and Skill Area and Achievement Level.

Take a look at this sample rubric from a Statistics for Engineers course. For the final project (the Task Description is not included below), students created infographics after studying examples from a number of different sources.

In the first column are the  Knowledge and Skill Areas (called Components here) categorized into two main areas: (1) the academic approach taken (Questions, Methods, etc.), and (2) the infographic's design (Organization, Colors, etc.).

Achievement Levels are listed as column headings. Specifying the number of points for each is optional, but students always appreciate that level of transparency.

Criteria for the Knowledge and Skill Areas are listed in each cell, specifying how student work will be evaluated for each Achievement Level.

HOW TO CREATE A RUBRIC


To create your own rubric, reflect on the overall learning objectives for your class and the specific learning goals for the assignment. Determine which Knowledge and Skills your students will need to demonstrate during the task. Be thoughtful about the categories you create and how many points you'll assign to each. Splitting the assessment into several small categories is usually better than clumping categories together. On page 2 of the example rubric above, Organization, Colors, and Text each have their own entry (worth 4 points each), rather than being combined into one entry for Attractive Design. It's easier for you to objectively decide how well the student performed in each section, and easier for each student to know what exactly is expected, and where they need to improve.

To set Achievement Levels, pick labels that emphasize the process of developing a skill. For example, “Beginning, Developing, and Mastering” are more positive and suggest a student will continue to develop the skills outlined on the rubric, rather than “Poor, Good, Excellent”.  

Finally, define the Criteria for your assignment. It’s easiest to start with your definition of outstanding work (the upper-most Achievement Level) and from there, define characteristics of lower-quality work. Be sure to use descriptive language so your students can understand what is expected of them (for example, "Provides three or four examples supporting the main argument" is better than "Gives a few examples supporting the main argument."

Conclusion

Whether you’re grading a pile of essays or stack of lab reports, rubrics make your job easier—they make it possible to grade quickly, consistently, and fairly.

As a communication tool handed out before students start an assignment, the rubric helps students understand expectations and provides clear examples of the skills and knowledge they’re developing. Students can trust that, as an instructor, you’re constantly putting their learning first. During and after grading, the rubric promotes the perception of fairness and equality. Whether you’re grading the first or the fiftieth assignment, you’re better able to consistently compare student work to an objective measure, rather than other student work. As a result, your grading is equitable, and students can see that they’ve been held to the same standard.

Sources

Stevens, D. & Levi, A. Introduction to Rubrics: An Assessment Tool to Save Grading Time, Convey Effective Feedback and Promote Student Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2005.

Bruff, Derek. Infographics, Rubrics, and a Seated Poster Session. Blog entry posted April 30, 2012, accessed September 22, 2015.