Reflections on Rubrics

My second journal entry for the Assessment as Learning course is comprised of questions upon which we were asked to reflect and my responses. The questions are about feedback and rubrics.
For the unintiated, a rubric is essentially a grid that indicates what the specific criteria are for a given assignment, cross-referenced with a description of what constitutes meeting the criteria. For instance:

Criteria Excellent 8-10 Satisfactory 5-7 Unacceptable 0-4 Value
Sentence structure Uses a variety of simple, compound and complex sentences correctly and
Uses an adequate mix of structures, generally correctly, but does not
stray from ‘safe’ structures.
Uses only one structure, or uses more complicated structures incorrectly.
Meaning is lost or obscured.

So, without further ado…

What kind of feedback do I give students about their performance?
I have to admit that a large part of my feedback is negative, pointing out grammatical errors and the like. I do try to include positive comments, but it’s something I have to remind myself to do. I think the skewed negative/positive feedback ratio is perhaps not my exclusive domain, though; we are all eagle-eyed at finding areas for improvement, but we often forget to say things like “hey, great sentence structure here – well done!” I hereby resolve to give more positive feedback!
What do they learn from the feedback I give?
I encourage my students to look upon the feedback as a learning tool. After the first essay comes back to them, I ask them to review my comments and try to identify what I call their personal “Big 3” – the three errors they commit most often. Part of their revised checklist then becomes personally relevant: • Did I review my work for my Big 3?
What else would students learn if they know ahead of time the criteria for each major assignment?
As Knight points out, scaffolding includes a “clear statement” of the learning objectives and “continued reminders” of those objectives. A detailed summary and explanation of the criteria – as a rubric or any other teaching tool – should help students first to see what the teacher is expecting from them, but perhaps more importantly, to see on which elements of the course material/texts/discussions/objectives the teacher places more or less importance. For instance, if my criteria clearly emphasizes the ability to summarize an argument, by placing 95% of the mark on that aspect, and deemphasizes MLA documentation by placing 5% of the mark on MLA form, students should be able to see that they should focus almost exclusively on their summary and not spend their time worrying about whether or not to underline their references. (Obviously, this is an exaggerated example purely for the purposes of illustration )
Being aware of the criteria ahead of time should also inspire in students the desire to self-assess – in other words, if I know that part of the journal criteria is to have a “voice,” I’ll reread my entries with that criterion in mind, whether or not I have the same understanding of “voice” as my classmates or even my instructor. A checklist of criteria gives students motivation to reread and reconsider, actions that one hopes will become so habitual that eventually a rubric will no longer even be necessary.
How would my teaching change if I used rubrics with my students?
In preparing to create a rubric for my 101 final essay assignment, I used the MEQ objectives and standards to extract the criteria, from which I can create the rubric. I was surprised to discover that in the very short MEQ paragraph were hidden at least nine criteria – everything from essay structure to the ability to use reference material. Imagine my shock when I realized that with these criteria, I can reverse-engineer my entire course!
I think that using rubrics will help me plan and teach from beginning to end (I’m running the risk of sounding like a zealous convert here, I know). The better I understand and apply the criteria, the more solid the course as a whole. I know what a good essay is, but creating a rubric that clearly defines the criteria of a good essay will help me teach my students, step-by-step, criterion-by-criterion. I can use a rubric and model essays to demonstrate how the criteria are evaluated. I can choose resources based on how they can be used to teach specific criteria. I can use rubric-based peer review to help students direct their own learning.
Having said all of this, I hasten to add that I don’t think I have made a total mess of all my teaching to date ; I have, in fact, incorporated rudimentary rubrics, based on course objectives and MEQ assessment forms such as the Exit Exam mark sheet, into my marking. I have also added about a page to every outline, detailing exactly what each barely-defined objective means to me. What I want to do now is to refine that page and use it as a course rubric, so students can track their own progress and so we can, as a class, track our overall progress. I’ll also make sure that assignment criteria are more specifically defined by distributing my marking rubrics before the due date, and not just as a cover on the returned assignments.
What to you think about having students review former students’ work and identify standards of their own?
Love it! I plan to incorporate this strategy – I think it helps students in many ways. First of all, it gives them a sense of control and input. Secondly, it helps them identify personal and universal goals, strengths and weaknesses. Finally, it helps them see how to implement the learning objectives in their work.
What to you think about using rubrics as the basis for conversations with students?
‘Conversations’ is a rather broad term. In any case, I think using rubrics in most student-teacher interaction could be useful, assuming that neither party is hiding behind the rubric rather than addressing actual problems. I believe that one of the most valuable things about using rubrics is the transparency – students can see exactly what to aim for, and can see exactly where they have made or lost points. As such, using the rubric as a reference – “I deducted 5% here because, as indicated in the rubric, 5% of the mark depends on the cover page and there isn’t one” – can be a useful strategy, and serve to remind students of the importance of observing criteria. But I also think that the student and teacher have to agree to put the rubric aside occasionally, and engage in whatever further discussion is needed to help the student.
What to you think about having students review each other’s work using rubrics?
I am a firm believer in peer assessment, not least because I think that teaching is a great way to learn. Having students review and respond to each others’ work allows them to see the assignment from the teacher’s perspective, and gradually instills in them (I hope) an automatic “how will the teacher see this” reaction when it comes time to write their next assignment – in other classes, too. Rubric-based peer review, I would assume, also gives students an opportunity to clear up any personal misconceptions about the criteria with each other, rather than finding out “the hard way” that they have misinterpreted a criterion. Also, using a rubric for peer work should help peer discussions go beyond the “this is pretty good” stage and allow the students to genuinely help each other, particularly if a peer assessment relationship develops and they can track each others’ progress in problem areas.
What to you think about sharing or developing rubrics with colleagues?
Actually, I love sharing rubrics and other assessment tools with my colleagues. I am fortunate in that my office mate is seriously into pedagogy and she and I spend a lot of time discussing exactly this sort of thing. We have exchanged rubrics and other ideas, and have developed a “I must share this with Maggie/Maria immediately” attitude to new inspirations.
What to you think about using rubrics to reveal my standards to off-campus audiences?
I have never been asked to do this – although my marking sheets are available to my students and therefore anyone with whom they choose to share. I hope my students do show these sheets to people – parents, other teachers, peers – if they have any questions or concerns about how I assign grades or what criteria I’m looking for. I would certainly be happy to share my rubric(s) with as large an audience as necessary. I have nothing to hide, and only hope that transparency benefits all involved.

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