Grading Rubrics: Steps in the Process
Think through your learning objectives. Put some thought into the various traits, or learning outcomes, you want the assignment to assess. The process of creating a rubric can often help clarify the assignment itself. If the assignment has been well articulated, with clear and specific learning goals in mind, the language for your rubric can come straight from the assignment as written. Otherwise, try to unpack the assignment, identifying areas that are not articulated clearly. If the learning objectives are too vague, your rubric will be less useful (and your students will have a difficult time understanding your expectations). If, on the other hand, your stated objectives are too mechanistic or specific, your rubric will not accurately reflect your grading expectations. For help in articulating learning objectives, see Taxonomy of Learning Objectives: Explain What You Want Your Students to Do (pdf).
Decide what kind of scale you will use. Decide whether the traits you have identified should be assessed separately or holistically. If the assignment is complex, with many variables in play, you might need a scale for each trait (“Analytic Rubric”). If the assignment is not as complex, or the variables seem too interdependent to be separated, you might choose to create one scale for the entire assignment (“Holistic Rubric”). Do you want to use a letter-grade scale, a point scale (which can be translated into a grade at the end), or some other scale of your own devising (e.g., “Proficient,” “Fair,” “Inadequate,” etc.)? This decision will depend, again, on how complex the assignment is, how it will be weighed in the students’ final grade, and what information you want to convey to students about their grade. Also, consider how many gradations your scale will have (e.g. three points, five points, etc.). Always use the minimum gradations consistent with your learning objectives. The more gradations your scale has, the harder it will be to apply consistently, and the longer it will take for you to grade. A good rule of thumb is to use six gradations or fewer.
Describe the characteristics of student work at each point on your scale. Once you have defined the learning outcomes being assessed and the scale you want to employ, create a table to think through the characteristics of student work at every point or grade on your scale. You might find it helpful to use a Rubric Worksheet for an Essay (doc). Instructors are used to articulating the ideal outcomes of a given assignment. It can be more challenging (but often far more helpful to the students) to articulate the differences, for example, between “C” and “B” work. If you have samples of student work from past years, look them over to identify the various levels of accomplishment. Start by describing the “ideal” outcome, then the “acceptable” outcome, then the “unacceptable” outcome, and fill in the blanks in between. If you don’t have student work, try to imagine the steps students will take to complete the assignment, the difficulties they might encounter, and the lower-level achievements we might take for granted.
Test your rubric on student work. It is essential to try your rubric out and make sure it accurately reflects your grading expectations (as well as those of the instructor and other GSIs). If available, use sample work from previous semesters. Otherwise, test your rubric on a sampling of student papers and then revise the rubric before you grade the rest. Make sure, however, that you are not substantially altering the grading criteria you laid out for your students.
Use your rubric to give constructive feedback to students. Consider handing the rubric out with students’ returned work. You can use the rubric to facilitate the process of explaining grades and to provide students with clear instructions about how they can do better next time.
Some instructors prefer not to hand out the rubric, at least in the form that they use in grading. An abbreviated form of the rubric can be developed for student communication both before the paper is handed in and when it’s handed back after grading. Here is an example of an assignment grading rubric from Integrative Biology (pdf).
Use your rubric to clarify your assignments and to improve your teaching. The process of creating a rubric can help you create assignments tailored to clear and specific learning objectives. Next time you teach the assignment, use your rubric to fine-tune the assignment description, and consider handing out the rubric with the assignment itself. Rubrics can also provide you, as the teacher, with important feedback on how well your students are meeting the learning outcomes you’ve laid out for them. If most of your students are scoring a “2” on “Clarity and Strength of Argument,” then you know that next time you teach the course you need to devote more classroom time to this learning goal.