Many of my columns in this space center on finding ways to communicate better with students. Being transparent about a course objective—whether it’s giving students feedback more often or collaborating with them on a personal technology policy—can go a long way toward helping you achieve it. If students fully understand what you’re trying to do, what they should expect of you, and what you expect of them, you can greatly increase the chances of a successful course. You'd think, then, that I'd be in favor of using rubrics.
There are a lot of good reasons to use rubrics in your classroom. As a document that explains the criteria you'll be using to assess students, a rubric is essentially a tool for just the sort of openness that I often lobby for. A good rubric will make clear to students what you expect of them. Students come from various backgrounds—as do faculty—and yet many instructors still make students guess exactly what "A work" consists of in each particular classroom. A rubric can help cut through that confusion. It has the added benefit of pre-empting student complaints about grading. When a student stays after class to beg for a extra couple of points to be lifted out of C range, you can just point to the rubric. See? This is where you fell short.
In a commentary in a recent issue of College Teaching, Linda Hodges makes the case that a well-made rubric can be an effective weapon in the war against grade inflation. Although I am on record as believing that fears about grade inflation are overblown, Hodges makes an interesting case that avoids much of the knee-jerk conservatism that usually surrounds discussions of the subject. "Inflating grades," Hodges writes, "is a natural consequence for when we really don't have clear expectations for student achievement—when we don't exactly know what caliber of work we should expect from students or how best to communicate those expectations to our students." Grade inflation is the sense that the grades given to students are higher than they should be. That implies there is confusion over what the grades should actually be. Enter the rubric. If students know what it takes to get an A, then it follows that there will be less pressure on teachers to give out As when student work fails to meet the criteria.
Another benefit of using a rubric is that it can improve your teaching by forcing you to clarify your pedagogical goals. Having to actually think about what you're hoping students do on assignments and exams can make your objectives that much clearer to you. Rubrics can help give you a structure to provide more effective feedback to students, zeroing in on the skills they're still lacking. In that sense a rubric can also provide you with valuable information about which aspects of your course are working well, and which are not.
All of which seems to make a good case for rubrics. So you would think I would like using them, but I don’t. In my experience, rubrics generally fail in practice because they're not good rhetorical tools. Most rubrics do not speak a language that students understand. Too often, in trying to isolate the skills we want students to master, we fall back on vague and abstract language that means little to them. I don't know about your students, but telling mine that they should "employ language to control the ideas" or "reflect the generativity of the topic" doesn't really help them understand why they can't seem to do better than a C+. Yes, you can work to use more effective language on your rubric, but the problem remains that, abstracted from actual assignments, rubrics often fail to show students what is expected of them in real terms.
So how do we get the benefits of a rubric without falling prey to its drawbacks? How do we explain our assessment philosophy without making our students' eyes glaze over? I think I have an alternative.
It starts with past student work. Find examples of assignments from past years that were completed at various levels of success. Ideally, the past assignment is one your students will do this year. If not, at least try to find examples that typify the kind of work they will be doing. You can have them read the examples as homework or, better yet, break them into groups and have them read them in class. Give out those sample assignments without the grades attached, and have each group discuss them, their strengths and weaknesses, and give each one a grade. Then take the discussion classwide and go over each sample, having the groups explain what grade they think each anonymous student should have gotten. Thenreveal what grade each sample assignment actually got, and explain why in detail.
At this point, your students will be pretty familiar with the examples at hand, and will be able to properly understand your reasoning for the grades. They will hear your expectations spelled out, not in the abstract, but in relation to the actual work they'll be doing. You can point out what the "A" example did that the "B" example didn't do, and students will see what it actually looks like to "use evidence to support your argument," or whatever it is you're hoping they demonstrate in their work. You'll communicate your expectations to your students without handing out a jargon-loaded document that they would probably ignore anyway.
This point in the semester, when midterm doldrums start to set in, is the perfect time for an exercise like this one. It allows you to take the pedal off the gas a little bit on challenging content, give students a better understanding of what's expected of them, and provide a preview of the assignments and exams that most likely will carry a large percentage of the students' final grades. You may be hesitant to use up valuable class time on such an activity, but I think it will pay off great dividends when grading time rolls around. And your students will thank you for not having to decipher another rubric.