It’s one thing to teach lessons. But it’s a whole other thing to assess how well your students have mastered the lessons. For many teachers, rubrics are the method of choice for assessing student learning, particularly in instances where tests aren’t applicable or aren’t enough. Chances are, if you’re a teacher, you’re familiar with creating rubrics. But are your rubrics as effective as they could be?
In the Walden University course Designing Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, MS in Education (MSEd) students study Susan M. Brookhart’s book How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading. Specifically, students review Brookhart’s first chapter, titled “What Are Rubrics and Why Are They Important?”1 It’s a thorough overview of teacher evaluation rubrics and is worth reading for anyone interested in teaching strategies. The following are direct excerpts from the chapter:
A rubric is a coherent set of criteria for students' work that includes descriptions of levels of performance quality on the criteria. Sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately, this definition of rubric is rarely demonstrated in practice. The internet, for example, offers many rubrics that do not, in fact, describe performance. I think I know why that might be and will explain that in Chapter 2, but for now let's start with the positive. It should be clear from the definition that rubrics have two major aspects: coherent sets of criteria and descriptions of levels of performance for these criteria.
The genius of rubrics is that they are descriptive and not evaluative. Of course, rubrics can be used to evaluate, but the operating principle is you match the performance to the description rather than “judge” it. Thus rubrics are as good or bad as the criteria selected and the descriptions of the levels of performance under each. Effective rubrics have appropriate criteria and well-written descriptions of performance.
Like any other evaluation tool, rubrics are useful for certain purposes and not for others. The main purpose of rubrics is to assess performances. For some performances, you observe the student in the process of doing something, like using an electric drill or discussing an issue. For other performances, you observe the product that is the result of the student's work, like a finished bookshelf or a written report.
State standards, curriculum goals, and instructional goals and objectives are the sources for what types of performances your students should be able to do. When the intended learning outcomes are best indicated by performances—things students would do, make, say, or write—then rubrics are the best way to assess them.
About the only kinds of schoolwork that do not function well with rubrics are questions with right or wrong answers. Test items or oral questions in class that have one clear correct answer are best assessed as right or wrong. However, even test items that have degrees of quality of performance, where you want to observe how appropriately, how completely, or how well a question was answered, can be assessed with rubrics.
Rubrics give structure to observations. Matching your observations of a student's work to the descriptions in the rubric averts the rush to judgment that can occur in classroom evaluation situations. Instead of judging the performance, the rubric describes the performance. The resulting judgment of quality based on a rubric therefore also contains within it a description of performance that can be used for feedback and teaching. This is different from a judgment of quality from a score or a grade arrived at without a rubric. Judgments without descriptions stop the action in a classroom.
Analytic rubrics describe work on each criterion separately. Holistic rubrics describe the work by applying all the criteria at the same time and enabling an overall judgment about the quality of the work.
For most classroom purposes, analytic rubrics are best. Focusing on the criteria one at a time is better for instruction and better for formative assessment because students can see what aspects of their work need what kind of attention. Focusing on the criteria one at a time is good for any summative assessment (grading) that will also be used to make decisions about the future—for example, decisions about how to follow up on a unit or decisions about how to teach something next year.
One classroom purpose for which holistic rubrics are better than analytic rubrics is the situation in which students will not see the results of a final summative assessment and you will not really use the information for anything except a grade. Some high school final examinations fall into this category. Grading with rubrics is faster when there is only one decision to make, rather than a separate decision for each criterion.
On balance, for most classroom purposes I recommend analytic rubrics. Therefore, most of the examples in this book will be analytic rubrics. Before we leave holistic rubrics, however, I want to re-emphasize the important point that all the criteria are used in holistic rubrics. You consider them together, but you don't boil down the evaluation to the old "excellent-good-fair-poor" kind of thinking along one general “judgment” dimension. True holistic rubrics are still rubrics; that is, they are based on criteria for good work and on observation of how the work meets those criteria.
General rubrics use criteria and descriptions of performance that generalize across (hence the name general rubrics), or can be used with, different tasks. The tasks all have to be instances of the same learning outcome—for example, writing or mathematics problem-solving. The criteria point to aspects of the learning outcome and not to features of any one specific task (for example, criteria list characteristics of good problem-solving and not features of the solution to a specific problem). The descriptions of performance are general, so students learn general qualities and not isolated, task-specific features (for example, the description might say all relevant information was used to solve the problem, not that the numbers of knives, forks, spoons, and guests were used to solve the problem).
Task-specific rubrics are pretty well described by their name: They are rubrics that are specific to the performance task with which they are used. Task-specific rubrics contain the answers to a problem, or explain the reasoning students are supposed to use, or list facts and concepts students are supposed to mention.
To write or select rubrics, teachers need to focus on the criteria by which learning will be assessed. This focus on what you intend students to learn rather than what you intend to teach actually helps improve instruction. The common approach of “teaching things,” as in “I taught the American Revolution” or “I taught factoring quadratic equations,” is clear on content but not so clear on outcomes. Without clarity on outcomes, it's hard to know how much of various aspects of the content to teach. Rubrics help with clarity of both content and outcomes.
Really good rubrics help teachers avoid confusing the task or activity with the learning goal, and therefore confusing completion of the task with learning. Rubrics help keep teachers focused on criteria, not tasks. I have already discussed this point in the section about selecting criteria. Focusing rubrics on learning and not on tasks is the most important concept in this book. I will return to it over and over. It seems to be a difficult concept—or probably a more accurate statement is that focusing on tasks is so easy and so seductive that it becomes the path many busy teachers take. Penny-wise and pound-foolish, such an approach saves time in the short run by sacrificing learning in the long run.
Most rubrics should be designed for repeated use, over time, on several tasks. Students are given a rubric at the beginning of a unit of instruction or an episode of work. They tackle the work, receive feedback, practice, revise or do another task, continue to practice, and ultimately receive a grade—all using the same rubric as their description of the criteria and the quality levels that will demonstrate learning. This path to learning is much more cohesive than a string of assignments with related but different criteria.
The criteria and performance-level descriptions in rubrics help students understand what the desired performance is and what it looks like. Effective rubrics show students how they will know to what extent their performance passes muster on each criterion of importance, and if used formatively can also show students what their next steps should be to enhance the quality of their performance. This claim is backed by research at all grade levels and in different disciplines.
Rubrics for teachers are just one of the many topics you’ll have the opportunity to study in Walden University’s MS in Education (MSEd) program. As an advanced education degree, Walden’s MSEd degree can help you gain the upper-level skills you need to improve your teaching abilities and advance your education career. But unlike many master’s in education programs, Walden’s program doesn’t require you to take a break from teaching in order to earn a teaching degree.
At Walden, you can earn your master’s in education online, meaning you don’t have to worry about living close to a campus. Instead, Walden’s online learning platform allows you to complete your MSEd from home. Plus, when you choose an online master’s in education program, you can attend classes at whatever time of day works best for your schedule, making it possible to continue teaching full time while you earn your degree.
A lot goes into quality teaching. When you take advantage of online education and earn your MSEd degree from Walden, you can master the skills you need to succeed in the classroom.
Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Education degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.
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