When students do more work deciphering a rubric than they do actually learning, we have a problem. How often do students really understand what’s being asked of them in our classes?
Teachers try to combat this question in many ways: rubrics, guidelines, models, and more. No matter your strategy and the activity, it’s essential to realize that not all assignments are created equal. For better or worse, assessment criteria vary from school to school, teacher to teacher, and sometimes, from day to day.
In addition to working hard to ensure that students are able to show growth and learning in writing and assessments, we need to make sure that they understand what’s being asked of them. Clarity of purpose, good directions, and scaffolding can all lead to better outcomes. With clarity, students are more comfortable with their learning; teachers have to do less work explaining expectations; and most importantly, the work and learning is better in the end.
Students need guidance to really understand and meet teachers’ expectations, and this can often be achieved with an effective rubric. Rubrics are great tools to help students understand how to meet standards or expectations. They can also ensure consistency in grading and help to provide feedback, but rubrics–and any assessment guidelines–are only effective when our students understand them.
Ask yourself: what’s more complicated, the assessment or the rubric?
Too many rubrics are written in adult, academic, and obscure language—they’re built for the teachers or testing companies, not the student learners. But by helping students develop strategies and skills in understanding and applying rubrics, they will not only better understand expectations but be able to use rubrics as tools for growth, feedback, and critical thinking.
When students build, deconstruct, and reconstruct rubrics they develop stronger understandings of expectations and learning outcomes.
Students can’t follow directions they don’t understand. Ask students to rewrite and summarize rubric-based language as student-centered language. Focus on the learning outcomes with “I will” statements or by restating and simplifying the most important parts of the rubric quality. Students can understand and own the language they create while showing a more critical understanding of any rubric task. As they become more and more comfortable with rubrics and academic language, these skills will transfer to all rubrics—your assignment, class, standardized tests, and beyond. The easier it is for a student to understand expectations, the more time they can focus on the work of learning.
Understanding Through Creation
Once students have a clear understanding of how a rubric functions and some standard qualities, have them create the rubric for the next assignment. This allows students to take ownership over the standards and qualities for success. Help drive them towards your objectives by scaffolding expectations or by providing starter stems and adjectives to describe success. Ask students questions like, “What does good organization look like?” to help them begin to describe it for themselves. Then, have students compare their creations with your rubric or testing rubrics to address gaps, misconceptions, and levels of understanding.
Peer- and Self-Application
After students demonstrate their understanding of rubrics through creation and deconstruction, it’s time to apply their learning for mastery. There’s no better way for students to apply and evaluate their learning than peer- and self-assessment. Students need to use the rubrics as meaningful tools that demonstrate progress and communicate feedback. By moving the power of the rubric from the teacher to the student, the pressure of grades and scores is alleviated, and students learn by both giving and receiving the feedback. Like with any other new skill, students need to be taught to give constructive, specific, and meaningful feedback. Strong rubrics and strong student understandings provide a framework to make this possible.
Critical Thinking in Reflection
Recreating, creating, and applying rubrics will make student understandings about expectations visible and transparent, but the learning can be extended by asking students to justify and explain their choices. Push students from application to critical thinking by requiring written or verbal explanations for each rubric score and asking students to support their choices with textual evidence–no matter the text or assignment. This helps students to view and use the rubric as a tool for feedback, not just for a grade. Another strategy is to have students provide feedback to justify peer or teacher rubric scores, so that they can synthesize and evaluate the data from multiple perspectives.
The rubric is a regular fixture in today’s world of testing and accountability, so it’s up to the classroom teachers to make it a meaningful tool for our students. By creating, deconstructing, and reconstructing rubrics, and by focusing on feedback and growth, we can help students do and understand more. Students should struggle in their learning with higher level thought and application, but they shouldn’t need to struggle with understanding directions or expectations. Help students to understand more about rubrics so that they can put the real effort in where it matters: the learning.