This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on September 26, 2016. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Editor’s note: There are two articles in this issue on rubrics. First, Raz Kerwin shares how he engages students (via Google Docs) in the creation of assignment rubrics, while Perry Shaw’s piece focuses on how faculty can improve their use of rubrics. Both articles reflect the growing interest in and use of these more elaborate delineations of grading criteria.
Wide consensus confirms the usefulness of rubrics. For instructors, rubrics expedite grading with standards; at the same time, they reinforce learning objectives and standardize course curricula. For students, rubrics provide formative guidelines for assignments while—ideally—spurring reflection and self-assessment.
Rubrics can do these wonderful things for students only if students actually look at, understand, and use them. Many of us have seen students do just the opposite—file them away or, even worse, toss them out. How can instructors ensure that students engage with rubrics when they work on their assignments?
One suggestion: Let students collaboratively build the rubric. People (yes, undergraduates are people too!) often do not value that which has been freely given; however, they value highly what they have worked to create. In my experience as an undergraduate-level technical writing instructor, I have found that students who have developed the assignment rubric are much more likely to use it.
Ending up with a rubric that accurately reflects the effort and complexity of the subject material requires careful instructor guidance. The first step is imparting a working body of knowledge. Students must be able to descriptively evaluate what makes a “good” or “bad” assignment submission. Once students have this working knowledge and realize that they can determine their assignment criteria, the rubric becomes a powerful tool to use when completing an assignment.
I use Google Docs to facilitate this collaborative rubric-building. As many of you know, Google Docs is a multiauthor online collaborative document space. As you might imagine, a live document with 25 editors can quickly become chaos. But if this chaos is constructively controlled, the end result can be amazing. My students typically draft along parallel lines of thought, build upon each other’s work, make corrections, and ultimately select the “best” version of work, all in real time. The end result is often a very high-bandwidth human discussion about the classroom subject material, wherein metrics for success and failure are critically engaged by students. In my experience, I regularly end up with a student-created rubric much like the ones I’ve created—but with a key difference: students are full stakeholders in the rubric. They know exactly what a rubric is, what it’s good for, and how to use it.
I’d like to share what I’ve learned that makes this a manageable and successful process. First off, you need to get the class onboard with the importance of rubrics. Students will follow your lead here; they pay attention to how you run the class. When they realize they have the chance to develop a rubric that you’ll be using to grade the assignment, you’ll have plenty of student buy-in.
You’ll need to set up the Google Doc, assigning access and editing capabilities to the students. At this point, you’ll need to decide whether or not the students will be anonymous. Both options are possible with Google Docs. In my experience, anonymity does not hamper the collaborative process, provided that the instructor is present and offers a moderating influence. Occasionally a student who aspires to amuse the class may post something silly; I’ve found, though, that once the initial novelty wears off, the silliness does too.
To get started, I find it’s best if you “seed” the rubric with the learning dimensions you want assessed, and the categories by which they will be judged. In my technical writing courses, the learning dimensions include items such as formatting, organization, grammar, mechanics, and reader effect; the assessment categories can vary depending on how you want to score assignments—from weak to strong, letter grades, or some other assessment criteria. Following this framework, students fill in the details that make an assignment “good” or “bad.”
As students begin to collaborate, they will need guidance. Their first inclination is to use very generic terms. For example, in a technical writing formatting section of the rubric, students may initially put something like “poor formatting.” I use this as a teaching moment. I ask them what qualities, specifically, make for poor formatting in a document. How will we know when we see poor formatting? What are the tell-tale signs? I remind them that opinions are often subjective and fluid, but that grades should be based on objective standards and identified best practices. They may consult the textbook or lecture notes. Putting students in the position of an evaluator helps to challenge them. An assignment isn’t graded as “weak” because evaluators simply know a weak assignment when they see one; an assignment is graded as “weak” when it fails to meet specific criteria.
When the student-created rubric is proclaimed to be “done,” you’ll likely need to do some copyediting and educational quality control. Ultimate responsibility for the grading criteria used on a given assignment rests with you.
When students are involved in the creation of assignment rubrics, something profound occurs. You’re demonstrating in a very real way that the tools for success reside in their own hands. You’re empowering students to take ownership of the measures of success and failure, instead of being passive agents acted upon by the teacher, you’re turning them into active and engaged scholars with the ability and means to control their own academic destinies. And, in all probability, your students will enjoy using a powerful multiauthor collaborative tool such as Google Docs to generate a document; it really is kind of cool to see so much cognitive activity happening all at once on a single page!
Razmus Kerwin, Missouri University of Science and Technology.