Rubrics and the independent learner

In my post from September 9, I talked briefly about rubrics; in short a rubric is a scoring tool that many teachers use to measure the quality of student work – to grade that work. They are used for more subjective assignments such as an essay or project – you don’t create a rubric for a vocabulary quiz – and a rubric has primarily three parts: dimensions on which the work is measured; a rating scale for each dimension; and definitions or descriptors that elucidate what is being measured, to fit within the rating scale. Click on the visual below to see a rubric template.

A template for building rubrics

There are many places on the web to find rubric templates, sample rubrics that teachers have created, discussions about rubrics, etc. Google yourself crazy on that topic. But let me highlight what I feel to be most important about rubrics: They help shift the locus of power in the classroom, if used as yet one more way to nurture independent learners.

Too often students don’t know what’s expected of them when assigned a project or paper; they are asked to write an essay on The House on Mango Street but without well-defined standards for how that final product will be measured. No wonder students often say, when they get back graded work, “I got a B.” That language needs to shift, to a verb that I hear from time to time when traveling in schools in the southern US: “I made a B.”

Students should always get a rubric before they start their work; in fact the best rubric is the one that they have created with the teacher. The teacher might begin that process by sharing exemplars with her class, to spur discussion about just what makes for a really effective paper on The House on Mango Street – or a Prezi show on the life of a cell or an oral presentation on a US state. As they talk, they build the rubric together: what will be measured, how it will be measured, and how much emphasis will be given to what is measured. You can imagine the ownership that students feel after completing this process and their deep understanding of just what will make for an effective final product.

That issue of ownership was on display when, several years ago, I talked with a 5th grader at an elementary school in Elkton, Maryland, a school filled with teachers that were using rubrics very effectively. This boy and I were talking about final products that were up on the wall outside his classroom, he showed me his posted and graded paper, and I remarked that he had done well, save for one section, where he had made a zero on that portion of the rubric (a score of four was the best). When I asked him what had happened, his answer went something like this: Yeah, I know, but I got up this morning to finish this and did not feel like drawing the map that I needed, but I knew I was gonna get a zero, and I’ll just have to plan better next time.

Yes, I bet his parents groaned when they heard that explanation – but I smiled and I bet his teacher smiled too: This 5th grader owned that assignment. Sure, he didn’t make the greatest choice, but he understood and accepted the consequences. And no doubt, with the help of his teacher, he learned more by not doing that map than he might have by doing it. Not only was he engaged in that assignment but, more importantly, he was also engaged in thinking about the assignment, and I know that a thoughtful teacher and the use of rubrics got him there.

So, sure, ask your daughter’s teacher about the use of rubrics in class. Then ask: How will you guide students so that they can generate their own rubrics?

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3 Responses to Rubrics and the independent learner

  1. Your comment that the best rubric is the one created with students really gets to the heart of what quality rubrics are all about. I do struggled with your first sentence, though. To me, rubrics are a tool to communicate expectations, not just a way of communicating how a teacher will be grading a project. Scoring guides can communicate the point values of a project or an assignment while a rubric talks about quality of a product or process. I see this as two very different goals of communicating with students. The real life implication for me goes to the question: can you count quality? Is a text with six adjectives better than one with one adjective? (Cormac McCarthy might say no while Danielle Steele would say yes) While it is critical to help students understand what will be measured, I wonder if it’s just as, maybe more important, to help students understand what quality is and that we all start as novices or beginners so that low level isn’t bad or failing, rather it’s an initial attempt; sometimes, people break the mold and do amazing things and that top level can help they envision what that might look like without laying it out. Look forward to hearing your thoughts!

  2. It depends on how they see the usefulness of the rubric. It somehow showing them how they gauge work and its goals for a certain period of time. Work comparison as you go along a certain project or plan.

  3. Pingback: The Rubric as a General Purpose Quality Tool « Quality and Innovation

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