Grading with Rubrics in Writing-Intensive Courses
Guest Post Written By: Jarrell D. Wright
The connotations of the word rubric are not necessarily positive; the term can imply a degree of inflexibility and formality, even authoritarianism, which we are often reluctant to impose upon our students. But a rubric need not embody these qualities, and my own experience with rubrics has been rewarding. It began as an experiment after my first year of teaching. Graduate students assigned to our freshman composition course were encouraged to use a very different assessment methodology, portfolio grading: students’ individual essays during the course were marked but not graded, and final grades were assigned based on student-assembled portfolios submitted at the end of the course. As a beginning teacher, I valued the space that this evaluation tool opened up for me; I learned how to read and respond to student writing before having to assess it with a letter grade. But the seemingly unbounded subjectivity of the process made me feel uncomfortable, and I sympathized with students who complained that their final grades surprised them, not always pleasantly. I wanted to adopt a grading methodology that addressed both of these problems, and I turned first to the rubric.
By far the greatest benefit that I have obtained from rubric-based grading has been the insight that flowed from the process of developing the rubric in the first place. Even if I had never used the rubric that emerged from these efforts, the task of identifying and articulating the features of student writing that I value has made me more reflective about my teaching and grading practices and, as a result, a more effective teacher. The exercise of preparing a grading rubric can be eye-opening for graduate student-teachers and seasoned educators alike—I amend mine every semester to incorporate new insights about student writing, and I adapt it to new courses as an important part of my preparation for teaching them.
And the rubric itself has proven to be beneficial for me and for my students. I attach it to my syllabus and briefly discuss it on the first day of class, and my students generally report that they appreciate this—it gives them a sense of my expectations at the outset of a course, and prepares them for doing better work on early writing assignments. Because the actual form of my rubric contains ample space for comments, I can attach one to each graded assignment and retain a photocopy for my own files. Having a record of each student’s evolving strengths and weaknesses is a powerful tool that allows me to provide much more effective feedback on their work throughout the semester; rather than a series of discrete, unrelated comments on different assignments, I can now provide a coordinated and consistent sequence of comments that become part of a student-teacher dialogue about writing. These attachments also make it easier for students to compare different pieces of their own work, an especially important benefit in writing-intensive courses that feature frequent writing assignments with substantive revisions. And using a rubric has also heightened my sense, and that of my students, that I am treating them fairly; we could not entirely eliminate subjectivity as an element of assessing student writing even if we wanted to do so, but making our values explicit and visible to students can enhance the trust and collegiality that are important to positive classroom interactions.
J. D. Wright, a former attorney, is a training and development professional currently serving as an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is completing his dissertation on recreation and incarnation in the devotional poetry of George Herbert. For more information, please visit his website at linkedin.com/in/jarrelldwright.