Teaching Tips: How to Make Clear and Fair Rubrics Part II

Last week in “How to Make Clear and Fair Rubrics Part I,” I discussed the importance of having rubrics for your class. Now, I’m going to give you some tips on the nitty gritty of actually creating clear and fair rubrics.

Purple Spikey Cone Flower
I’m continuing the purple, spiky flower theme from the last post in this post. Why? I have no idea. Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

1.  Use your department’s and school’s learning objectives to see what you need to be teaching students and including in your assignments. This kind of touches on another post—“Teaching Tips: Secrets to Making the Major Assignments.” I’ve been told by several seasoned teachers that each major assignment should address at least two learning objectives, but I think that this might vary from school to school.

2.  Use each skill that you want students to demonstrate as its own category on the rubric. If you want students to have a thesis, then have that be its own category. If you want them to demonstrate understanding of a certain concept, then make that its own category. If you want them to correctly cite sources in a certain citation style, then make that its own category. This method will break things down for your students and for yourself when you’re grading.

3.  Create different levels of possible scoring for all of your categories. I usually like “high,” “middle,” and “low” because those are relatively unoffending category titles, but choose whatever you feel is best for your class and your personality.  The levels will help you when you grade, and it will contextualize the points for students.  Think about it.  What does a 4 mean to you without any context?  Nada.  Make the points mean something for your students.

Rubric Example
Here’s a page from one of my rubrics so that you can see how I usually break things down. I also include the points, page requirement, and due date for students. I’m not entirely happy with the rubric because it has a lot of stuff to go through. In my best of all worlds, I’d like to simplify it without losing clarity. Also, there are some vague words here like “good” and “successful” that I may reconsider. Yet, I also like the wiggle room that they give students and that they give me as a grader. Graphic By: Elizabeth Preston

4.  Weight each category according to how important it is for your field and for your students at the present moment. I’m going to use English as an example, because it’s what I know best. At the beginning of the semester, I use clarity and “grammar” (although the term is much more nuanced in reality, my class, and my rubrics) as a category, but I weigh it very lightly point-wise. This is because I want my students to focus more on getting their thoughts down on paper and thoroughly explaining those thoughts before I want them to worry much about comma placement. That doesn’t mean I want them to turn in something that is not proofread and not spellchecked. It just means that I’m putting more emphasis on foundational skills first. I weight clarity and “grammar” more and more as the semester goes on because they’re getting more and more able to handle everything plus learning how to handle clarity and “grammar.” So, think about the foundational skills for your students first. What is most important in the moment? Weigh that more heavily than other categories.

5.  Make each category worth a point amount that is divisible by how many point “levels” you have. This one took me a while to figure out, but it makes grading sooooo much easier. I personally like things divisible by three because I have three scoring levels. For example, let’s say that my category is having a clear thesis (I have more elements, but I’m doing this for brevity’s sake), and the total possible points for this category is 12 points. Then, I’ll have high be a score of 9-12 points, middle is 5-9, and low is 0-4. This gives me some wiggle room when scoring elements. Also, the total points being divisible by three gives me clear scoring boundaries for each level.

Purple Spiky Flower
Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

6.  Use vague language purposefully, and use as much clear, specific language as you can.  There’s a place for vague language—it can allow students to think “outside of the box,” to use their imaginations, and to help them explore lots of possibilities.  But understand that when you use vague language, your students’ answers may not be what you had in mind. You must be prepared to deal with that and/or accept that and not hammer them for it. Use vague language purposefully. Give clear boundaries if you have clear boundaries in mind. For the most part, though, try to use specific, concrete language. If you want them to explain the significance of Newton’s discoveries in light of today’s aeronautical technologies, then say that. Don’t say something like, “Talk about Newton.” That leads me to . . . .

7.  Don’t hide what you want from your students if you have something specific in mind. I don’t think that rubrics and assignments should be guessing games.

8.  Understand that detail within rubrics has its benefits and downsides. Admittedly, I like a lot of detail in my rubrics, because I feel like that makes my grading as transparent as possible. I tell students at the beginning of the semester that my rubrics are what my brain looks like when I grade. I like this method because when I grade, I can circle items that they are either doing well or that need attention as opposed to writing them out. This gives students specifics, which are helpful to learning. At the same time though, the more detail you give, the more you possibly “box in” your students and the more cluttered your rubrics are going to look. There’s a chance that students won’t read all that writing. Then again, some may argue that at least students are given the choice whether or not to read the details. As an undergraduate, I liked choices. Heck, I still do. But there is a balance, and, honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve found that balance yet.

9.  If something doesn’t work for your class, then don’t be afraid to change it. One of the great things about being a teacher is that if you find that something doesn’t work for your class, then you have the power to change it. Tailor your rubrics to your class, particularly if you find that students are struggling with some of your rubric’s language. This is probably more doable in college than in high school or elementary school.

Purple Cone Flower
Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

10.  Go over your rubric with someone outside of your field. You may know what you mean in your rubric, but someone else who isn’t in that head of yours might not know. Get a friend, relative, or a colleague if you don’t know anyone outside of your field to look over your rubric and highlight anything that is unclear or confusing.

11.  Go over the rubric with your class and ask if students have any questions. This will alert you to things that need to be changed, which will lead you back to #9 in this list.

12.  Give the rubric to your students at least 2 weeks before the assignment is due. I once had a professor that gave us a major assignment’s rubric one class before the assignment was DUE. No. No. No. No. No. You have to give students ample time to prepare and change their work before turning it in, and one class time before the work is due is nowhere near ample time.

13.  Look at other rubrics to help you make something that will work for your class, your discipline, and your grading style. You don’t have to start from scratch. Pick and choose from others to customize your rubric.

14.  Remember when you were a student. Regardless of how long ago it may have been, I know that you remember being a student. I know that you remember being handed a rubric and feeling that dread and anxiety of having a new, major assignment. Create a rubric that would be fair to your past student self. Create a rubric that you would have found clear. Create a rubric that would guide you. Do for your students what your best teachers did for you, and avoid what your worst teachers did to you.

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