by Rosalind Diaz, English
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2018
Grading rubrics are an invaluable teaching tool. Ideally, they promote fairness and transparency in assessment, and help students set reasonable goals, develop metacognition, and practice self-assessment. But a rubric can also act as a gatekeeper of knowledge. Vague, abstruse, or circularly defined wording forms a barrier between instructor and student, while masquerading as constructive feedback. This barrier can be particularly formidable for first generation students, students who grew up speaking another language at home, and others who feel uncertain of their facility with standard academic English. A grading rubric in a writing class, for example, might identify strong papers as fluent, well-supported, nuanced, and a host of other laudable things, but how does saying so help a student writer trying to achieve these goals?
To operate as a fair, equitable, and effective teaching tool, a grading rubric should represent an agreement between instructor and student, a clear statement of what we consider to be good writing. With this goal in mind, I decided to bring the project of constructing the rubric into the classroom by inviting my students to collaborate with me on writing this important document. I integrated four phases of rubric creation into the class during the first five weeks, alongside the work of reading, writing, and revising.
1. Reading as writers—We began by reading and assessing examples of the types of texts that students would later be asked to compose (short analytical essays). We took notes on what we found effective in each one and what we considered essential to the genre.
2. Brainstorming categories—Students worked in small groups to identify a set of categories that captured the essential elements of a strong analytical essay. Each group added their list of categories to a Google Doc. Then we discussed these categories and worked toward a consensus. I sought out complexities and fissures, highlighted the interpretive choices that we made, and encouraged the class to think about what factors informed our decisions.
3. Defining each category—Students worked in small groups to flesh out each category and establish criteria to distinguish between A-, B-, and C-level essays. I encouraged groups to think about creating a tool that would be useful for other writers, and to attend to process as well as product—for example, by tackling the question “How do you develop a strong thesis?” and explaining how we recognize a strong thesis when we see one. Then we reviewed the entire rubric. Students were given time to reflect and comment, edit, or clarify their work.
4. Using the rubric—Every time students turned in a draft or a revision of an essay, they included a written reflection on their writing process and a self-assessment of their essay, using the rubric to identify specific strong points and areas for improvement.
The finished rubric looked a lot like rubrics I have written in the past—and yet, because my students composed it with me, they related to it in an entirely different way. After actively debating and defining collective standards for high-quality writing, students were able to apply a more discerning lens to their own work. Students identified and tackled more specific goals, which improved the quality of their writing. Moreover, this task helped shape students’ attitudes toward one another. The class took pride in creating a tool for student writers, by student writers, designed to help classmates succeed. Participating in this shared project drew the class together and established a strong ethic of mutual support from the first weeks of the semester onward.