Rubrics: Communicating Expectations to Students

How do we communicate to students our expectations for writing assignments? First, we give students a detailed outline of the assignment. The specifications for a writing assignment should be clear so that students know what is expected of them as they navigate through the task. But there is another way in which we can communicate what we expect from students. A well -constructed rubric is an important method in which we can work with students to help them decipher what and how their work will be evaluated. A well thought out rubric can also help faculty during the grading process. There are a number of elements that teachers can use to evaluate student writing and the following will outline some of the key features that a rubric might contain to support the grading process.

The first question is to determine whether you are going to use a numerical scale or a grade level measurement. I prefer a grade measurement over a numerical code because students are more likely to evaluate their work as commensurate to a grade level. In this way, they can determine what an “A” paper will look like compared to a “B” or a “C.” Importantly, this is your chance to communicate your expectations to students as to what features student work will need to contain for specific levels of work. Think of a rubric as the first point of contact that begins the conversation about student writing.

Rubrics can guide students through the writing process. I give students the grading rubric when I first assign the project. Here, students can identify what elements of their work can be considered good writing. For example, key parts of my rubric include the presence of a strong thesis—with and “A” being a clearly defined thesis to a “D” grade where there is not an identifiable thesis. Other elements of my rubric include the presence of supporting arguments, organization, voice and tone, word choice, sentence fluency, quotations, conventions and format. In this case, the students will have a well-organized checklist to follow as they work through the process of a final product. A rubric that breaks down the proper elements of good writing can give students more confidence as they navigate through the writing process.

There is a debate surrounding the use of rubrics. Although rubrics can be a successful means of measurement of students work. The use of rubrics also has its drawbacks. One of the positive aspects of using rubrics is that it serves as a consistent means of measurement for student writing. Meaning, rubrics can help ensure that grading is fair to all students because rubrics offer a clear evaluation of student writing. All papers will be measures in a similar fashion. The difficulty with rubrics, however, is that it does not effectively measure students who negotiate the writing process as English language learners. The enigma is then how do we evaluate students who have not mastered the conventions of the English language? These are students who may have difficulty expressing themselves in the English language, yet they demonstrate a clear understanding of what constitutes the elements of good writing. For example, they show good comprehension of concepts and theories. These students may also have precise supporting arguments, a distinct thesis and a strong voice throughout their work. These are cases when a rubric may hinder the grading process. For these students, I evaluate students on the process of their writing. Have they improved during the development of each draft? I also grade students on their potential for good writing. Communication between faculty and students should be encouraging rather than disparaging. A rubric serves as an initial point of contact and can be a rough outline that allows students to generate the untapped potential in their writing. The difficulty with rubrics is that although they are tools to measure student writing fairly, much is left to the discretion of the grader. I tend to evaluate writing in favor of students especially those students who show a clear understanding of what constitutes the overall qualities of good writing.

The use of rubrics can enhance the writing process for students as well as help faculty through the grading process. Importantly, it sets a precedent for students as to how they are going to be graded and at times can “even the playing field” during the evaluation. As I have noted, the use of rubrics has its complications, specifically for students who have not yet developed a clear understanding of conventions. A good rubric not only evaluated conventions, but includes other important aspects of writing so that students can have a chance to show that they understand and include other important facets of writing such as a clear thesis, topic sentences and supporting arguments. Despite the drawbacks of rubrics, I believe they can be used an effective teaching tool. Rubrics have the potential to initiate communication about writing between students and teachers. They should be one of the first things a student sees as a guide to the final product during scaffolding and they are the culmination of the last elements of the writing process that dictates the shape of their final grade.