Questions like these drove me into the arms of colleagues who were expounding upon the virtues of rubrics. The concept of a rubric is quite simple: they standardize criteria that teachers use to grade student work—before students start working on the projects.
When creating rubrics, some teachers make a table. On one axis of the table, grades are labeled. The other axis includes a number of criteria by which the finished product or performance will be judged. In the internal boxes are descriptions of what the student needs to accomplish or how the product should look to achieve each grade level on each criteria.
For example, a teacher might choose to explain that an “A” paper will have only two to three minor errors in the spelling category. Perhaps a “C” paper has a thesis, but a muddled or ineffective one. But most important, rubrics allow teachers to set specific expectations for an “A” or a “C” assignment before the students begin.
A Good Setting
I work in the Education Academy at Skyline High in Oakland, California. After 15 years as a history teacher, this past year I found myself teaching no history class. Instead, I was teaching a career/technical elective called Introduction to Education.
In the academy, students are organized into a cohort that shares the same English, history, and science teachers. In addition, each student takes a career-based elective class. In 10th grade, they take my Introduction to Education class. In 11th grade, they take Education Psychology. Seniors in the Education Academy take Peer Education.
Perhaps teaching a career elective focused on education places me in an advantageous position for involving my students in the creation of their grading rubric. Frankly, teaching students how to build a rubric is time-consuming. In my class, though, it’s an authentic assignment—my education-career students get to practice a skill that real-world teachers use regularly.
Last fall, my class began a project in which they took the short stories that they wrote for their English class and turned them into children’s books. Before we began working on the books, I took three days to lead the class through a process whereby they would create the rubric that I would later use to grade their projects.
On our first day, my students thought about what made a good story good. They talked with a partner about their thoughts. Then they spent some time writing about all the elements that go into a good story. Finally, as their “exit ticket” for the day, they wrote down the one element of a good story they thought was the most important. That evening, I eliminated the redundancies and found that my students had come up with this list:
- Rising Action
- Central Conflict
I ran this by the English teacher, and she pointed out that this was not a complete list. (We were missing tone and structure, to name a couple.) I was torn between wanting to encourage my students to add these missing elements to our list and not wanting to overly influence them in their process of creating their rubric. My English-teacher colleague reassured me that my class’s list was sufficient to form the basis of a rubric.
The following day, we went through the same process for children’s books: thinking, talking, and writing about the additional elements that children’s books have that are unique to those kinds of stories. We added to our list:
- Age Appropriate
- Cover and Construction
Our next step was to group our ideas like so:
- Plot/Central Conflict/Rising action/Climax/Resolution
- Age Appropriateness
The class divided into seven table-teams, each one charged with creating a column of our rubric for one of these mutually decided-upon criteria. In general, we agreed that each criterion would be judged on this five-point scale:
- 4: Awesome! We could seriously publish this!
- 3: Great! We can’t expect any more from a mere 10th grader!
- 2: Meh...It’s okay.
- 1: Seriously? You’re turning this in??? With your name on it?
- 0: SMH (texting talk for “shaking my head”)
After each table-team created a poster for their criterion’s five-point scale, they put the posters on the wall for a gallery walk. During the walk, each student offered feedback on each poster using post-it notes. With their peers’ suggestions in hand, each table team reconvened to create a final draft of their criterion.
That evening, it was my job to transcribe the posters into the final, one-page rubric.
During the next two weeks, students worked on their individual children’s books. We took time to mark our progress as compared to the rubric. When it was time for a partner to give feedback, that too was based on the rubric.
In my classroom, results were mixed. On the one hand, I didn’t see the significant change in grades that I was expecting. Students who had been earning Ds and Fs on prior assignments earned a D or an F on this one, too. On the other hand, even as they were turning in their books, students seemed to know what grade they would receive for their work.
I think the most impressive result of the rubric assignment was my students’ eagerness to create more rubrics. Three other times during the remainder of the year, I asked my students to create a grading rubric. They jumped right into the task. By the third time, we completed the entire process in a single class period, rather than the three we had taken to create the first rubric.
Even my colleague across the hall got on the student-created-rubric bandwagon. In an email, she wrote, “It was painful, but I made a rubric with my kids!” Her class’s rubric focused on 21st century skills. Her class first played charades, trying to guess what several experts listed as the top 21st century skills. Afterward, they selected the skills they thought were most important to their biology class. As in my class, they then split up the skills so that individual teams built a scale on each specific skill in their class rubric.
The children’s book projects were easy to grade. Instead of writing extensive comments on each project, I simply chose the description for each criterion on the rubric that I thought best matched the student’s work. Then I added comments about what was unique about each book, as well as comments that offered tailored advice about what the student might want to work on in a next draft.
Students didn’t complain about their grades. Unusually, I never heard once, “Why did you give me a ...?” My students understood exactly why they earned the marks they earned. I wish I could tell you that the overall quality of their work improved, but that would not be entirely true.
My colleague, the science teacher, reported that her students were thrilled, not only to have clear and up-front criteria for their behavior and participation grades, but also to have had a hand in creating it. She overheard her students using the language of the rubric to encourage one another to participate more.
This fall, I’m going to expand my use of student-created rubrics. They are definitely an investment in time — the rubric for my children’s book assignment took three class periods to develop. I think, though, that the time was well spent.
Having my students involved in the creation of the grading rubrics did not eliminate the question, “How good does this have to be to earn a C?” But it did reverse the direction of that question, as I was the one who was asking them!