Short shot #46: rubrics

From the April 10 issue of The Teaching Professor:

Two Reasons Why I Still Use Rubrics
By Kevin Brown, Lee University, TN

I began using grading rubrics for essays several years ago, and I was initially rather unhappy with how they worked. I found I was giving grades that I wouldn’t have given when I graded without the rubric. Often the grades were higher, but not always. I gave enough lower grades to cause me to notice those as well. (link)

The piece goes on to use just plain rubric — the short version of grading rubric — throughout (without explanation or examples; the readers are supposed to know the word already). I could work out roughly what rubric meant in this context, given OED2’s chain of senses for the word:the color red; a heading printed in red, or a passage so marked; a heading in general [note to etymological purists: no printing headings in black, or any color other than red!]; an injunction; a general rule. So a rubric in the teaching context is presumably some sort of rule for assigning grades. But it sounds like something more specific is intended. And so it is.

The word is teacher jargon (using jargon neutrally, for expressions used by a particular profession or group and not easily understood by others, usually serving to provide short reference to some concept important to the group). A rubric — the Teacher Planet site here has dozens of them, for history, math, social studies, and so on, even for the design of scavenger hunts! — provides a set of factors (each factor representing an expectation for specific knowledge, ability, or performance) and for each factor, descriptions for assigning a student to one of a certain number of levels. For the Scavenger Hunt Rubric:

Factors: Contribution to Group, Sites, Questions, Cooperation, Final Hunt Results

Grading for Sites: 5 Sites found are all relevant to project and good source for questions. 4 Sites found are mostly relevant to project and good source for questions. 3 A few of the sites found are relevant and provide a fair source for questions. 2 Few sites are relevant. Sites are not a good source for questions. 1 No relevant sites are included. Sites are not good sources for questions.

The descriptions require some judgment on the part of the teacher, of course.

So rubrics break down expressing expectations, setting goals, and assessing performance into a number of explicit factors for the purposes of grading. It would be interesting to see something about the history of the technique and its possible relationship to similar assessment tools in industrial, business, etc. settings.

9 Responses to “Short shot #46: rubrics”

  1. Short shot #46a: graduatize « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Short shot #46: rubrics […]

  2. lynneguist Says:

    I was surprised to see that it’s a TN source. I never heard this till I moved to a UK university, and now I hear it all the time. But more than ‘grading rubrics’ (which here would be ‘marking rubrics’, but anyway), we have exam/assessment rubrics, which are essentially: how many questions the exam will have, of what form, how many the student needs to attempt, how many marks (points) one gets for answering any particular question. See, e.g.:

  3. F. Escobar C. Says:

    It must have been around for a while: in Spanish, in Puerto Rico, “rúbrica” is used with the meaning of a model or template used to grade papers, exams, etc. The principal Spanish dictionaries do not carry the word with that meaning yet, but educators and textbook editors know it quite well and attest to its continued use for years. It is very likely that the word was picked up from English-language textbooks in the field of education.

  4. vrai.cabecou Says:

    My two children, in elementary school in New York City, are graded by this method frequently, and sometimes have to fill writing rubrics out themselves, as self-assessment. They make me uneasy, though, because they actually remove the element of judgment: You have three examples of X in your essay? You get the top score! It doesn’t matter that your examples are inapt, or that your essay would be better without one or all of them. You’re graded by how well you follow the formula, not how persuasive your essay is. It’s rather like the new writing section of the SAT, in which you get top marks if your grammar and spelling are correct, even if your premise or facts are all wrong.

  5. F. Escobar C. Says:

    Veering slightly away from the linguistic content of the post, I share vrai.cabecou’s concerns with rubric-driven grading. This may be an unwarranted association, but it reminds me of the reliability vs. validity debate in psychiatry, recently brought up by L. Menand in a New Yorker article (link). What seems to matter is the predictability of grades (lawsuit-proof, one could say), when something much more revealing could lurk in the less predictable aspects of an evaluation. Malcolm Gladwell’s comments on IQ testing in his book Outliers come to mind.

  6. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To lynnequist: In the U.S., the practice along with the name seems to have started in elementary schools and then moved up, so (depending on the timing) it would be no surprise if you weren’t familiar with it from before you left the U.S. for the U.K.

    I don’t know the extent of it in U.S. higher education now.

  7. JNM Says:

    Ah yes, grading rubrics; I remember them well! I’m not a teacher, but when I was in high school, I took several AP classes, and we were frequently handed rubrics in preparation for the AP tests, especially those tests with essay components. They never really taught us anything new about the material, just the best way to write the essays that were most likely to get us a top score. This isn’t to say they were completely useless; in my junior AP English Comp class, we spent the entire class period every Monday writing essays to respond to questions from previous years’ tests. Our teacher would then grade them according to the AP test rubric, but she would also comment on them. In that sense, the rubric helped us hone our writing skills for a specific task, but I wonder if the same thing might have been accomplished if we were taught to do so through more generally applicable lessons: writing articles for serial publications, for example, or writing academic papers, formal letters, etc.

  8. Sili Says:

    Some of those meanings are covered in Danish, but the only one of those I’d use personally is the last one “Cell/field (with headline) in schema/questionnaire”. Something like the cells in a crossword might qualify as well. A census form will have ‘rubrics’ – in Danish at least (of course, we don’t have censuses, but …).

    I do know of the headline/heading sense, but that is journalist jargon – to me at least.

  9. blahedo Says:

    We definitely used the word “rubric” in this sense at Brown University in the late 90s, although I recall some pushback from at least one professor who said this was an improper use of the word. As @JNM notes, the word is strongly entrenched in the context of AP exams, but the chief purpose there is not as much to drive the syllabi and the learning process, but rather to keep grading consistent among multiple human readers of the free-response problems. On the AP CS exam, a comparatively small one, we might have 20 different people reading a given problem; on some of the larger exams, it could be more than 100. Hewing closely to a rubric ensures that all of the readers are using the same criteria to assign points.

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