The Merits of Rubrics

This time of year, I see lots of facebook posts about piles and piles of grading. As grade submission deadlines near, some faculty find themselves questioning why they assigned an end-of-semester paper that they now have to grade. Rather than question the assignment (although there’s merit to reflecting on all aspects of our course design!), perhaps it’s time to question the grading methods.

I am a big fan of rubrics for streamlining grading, giving students effective (and consistent) feedback, and retaining a focus on the assignment objectives. To achieve these outcomes, though, you need to create the rubric as you are designing the assignment – and with an eye towards what you want students to demonstrate about their learning.

So here are a few ideas and tips to keep in mind as you reflect on this semester’s assignments and consider what you’ll do differently next time.

What the Assessment Gurus Say:

  • “Responding to writing does not begin when you start to read student essays; it starts much earlier, at the point when the assignment is made.”
    (Edward M. White, Assigning, Responding, Evaluating, p. 126)
  • “As teachers, we know that most students find it difficult to imagine a reader’s response in advance, and to use such responses as a guide in composing. Thus, we comment on student writing to dramatize the presence of a reader, to help our students to become that questioning reader themselves, because, ultimately, we believe that becoming such a reader will help them to evaluate what they have written and develop control over their writing.”
    (Nancy Sommers, “Responding to Student Writing,” p. 148)
  • Nancy Sommers cautions teachers to keep the goal of the assignment in mind when responding to student writing. She notes, “teachers’ comments can take students’ attention away from their own purposes in writing a particular text and focus that attention on the teachers’ purposes in commenting” (“Responding” 149). Sommers suggests striving for continual reinforcement between comments on students’ writing and classroom instruction and activities.
  • Multiple studies reaffirm the importance of addressing surface-level errors within the context of students’ authentic writing, but research also cautions that students are more likely to apply comments about lower order concerns to their future writing if teachers engage in “minimal marking.” In other words, identifying a few (two or three) categories of errors (i.e., articles, commas after introductory clauses, comma splices, etc.) in each project and prioritizing those that interfere with meaning will have more impact on future writing than identifying all errors in the project.


Value of Rubrics

  • Rubrics challenge us to articulate our expectations well before we begin grading – ideally as early as when we are designing the assignment.
  • In addition to being used for faculty feedback, rubrics can be used during the writing process for students’ self-assessment of their writing to help them anticipate how readers might respond and to become critical readers of their own work.
  • Rubrics help faculty readers keep the goal of the assignment in mind as they are assessing student work. Well-designed rubrics also can reinforce and work symbiotically with faculty members’ other classroom instruction.
  • Rubrics also help faculty prioritize items for response. If the primary intent of an assignment is to assess students’ ability to apply disciplinary content to a new problem, using a rubric can help faculty focus response on criteria related to that application, rather than getting bogged down in editing students’ papers (which might not help students’ avoid those same sentence-level errors in the future, anyway).


Tips for Constructing Rubrics

  • Create a rubric that fits your context and that is tailored to the specific assignment. (One-size-fits-some rubrics can leave us all frustrated!)
  • Focus on and prioritize student learning outcomes associated with the goals for the assignment.
  • Format your rubric in a way that will help you use it consistently.  If you want wiggle room to recognize exceptional performance on a characteristic of the assignment, build it into your rubric, so that you are more likely to use the rubric (and less likely to discard it because it doesn’t fit your grading practices).
  • Select a format that matches your goals for providing feedback.
  • After you grade a set of projects, make some quick reflections on how well the rubric worked so that you can revise it for future use.
  • Involve students in the development of rubrics. You can:
    • Ask them to identify grading criteria based on the assignment description. What do they think you are prioritizing as goals for the assignment?
    • Ask them to write descriptions for levels of performance on grading criteria. Based on class discussions and readings, what would constitute excellent work on criteria A? Average work? Work that needs improvement?
  • Use rubrics to guide peer-review and students’ self-assessment. If students have questions about evaluation criteria, or if you notice that they are misinterpreting an item, you can redirect them before they submit a version for you to grade (and hopefully simplify your grading, as a result).

Rubrics are not one-size-fit-all, so they do take some time to develop and adjust to fit the learning outcomes you hope to achieve with your assignment. As examples, here are two I used this semester for two different classes – a first-year writing class and a professional writing class. Click on the thumb-nail to see a full-size snapshot.

As I wrap up my own end-of-semester grading, I’m thankful I spent time when I was writing the assignments to also compose corresponding rubrics. What are your strategies for constructing rubrics that facilitate assessment of student learning and effectively communicate information to student writers?



Sommers, N. (1982). Responding to student writing. College Composition and Communication, 33, 148-156.

Walvoord, B., & Anderson, V. J. (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

White, E. M. (1999). Assigning, responding, evaluating: A writing teacher’s guide (3rd ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. [or subsequent editions]