Historically rubrics have primarily been used for grading and communicating expectations to students, whereas their benefits in the learning process of students have often not been fully exploited.
As we’ve highlighted previously, feedback is powerful and is key for student growth and learning. There are many qualities of good feedback, and rubrics can help scaffold some of these, especially that of goal-oriented and actionable feedback.
In this article, we’ll dive into understanding why we use rubrics, what they really are, and how they can contribute to the student learning process.
Rubrics have become a staple in education, and for good reason, boasting a multitude of benefits for both summative and formative purposes.
In essence, rubrics help instructors assess performance, but they also allow instructors to communicate expectations, add a layer of structure to observations and can play a role in students' formative learning process .
For a long time, rubrics have been primarily used in summative assessment in a teacher-centered way, meaning they are mostly used to quickly and reliably grade student work. Now there seems to be an increasing shift towards using rubrics in a student-centered way, which focuses on student learning . When used in formative assessment rubrics help students ask and reflect on questions such as: Where am I going? Where am I now? And where am I heading next?  Facilitating a learning environment where students can ask themselves these questions is crucial in supporting student agency and self-regulatory processes (monitoring their progress towards goals, and redirecting their efforts when unsuccessful).
Rubrics are extremely popular in education, and increasingly so. This also means there is a multitude of research, articles and exemplars on rubrics available, in this sense, it can be hard to gain an overview of what they actually are. So let's zoom out and take a look at the bigger picture. There are two major components: (1) sets of criteria; (2) descriptions of levels of performance for these criteria. Criteria convey what we are looking for in the work and the descriptions describe what the actualization of those criteria look like across levels from low to high. All rubrics should include both of these in some shape, form or manner, but how many criteria and levels of performance depends on the type of rubric.
In general, there are two main types of rubrics, holistic and analytic. After deciding on a type of rubric, these can then be operationalized as either general rubrics or task-specific rubrics. We’ll explore these four distinctions below.
Using a holistic rubric means a single score is provided based on the overall judgement of work quality. It does boast some advantages such as faster scoring and less time to achieve inter-rater reliability, but these benefits are more in line with the teacher-centered approach and summative assessments.
When using an analytic rubric, work is described on each criterion separately, in the domain of education and adopting a student-centered approach, analytic rubrics offer more benefits than holistic. For example, by focusing on one criterion at a time students get more detailed feedback on where they need to focus their attention in relation to the different aspects of work. Moreover, teachers also gain more detailed diagnostic information on their students' progress.
The next distinction that needs to be made is general and task-specific rubrics. Both can be interpreted quite literally. General rubrics use criteria and descriptions that can be used across a variety of tasks, for example, a rubric on teamwork and collaboration. Task-specific rubrics are specific to the task for which they are applied. They fall more in line with the teacher-centered approach because they help facilitate quick and objective assessment. One big downside to task-specific rubrics is that often they can’t be shared with students because they give too much away about the task itself, so in this sense, they are missing the most powerful aspect of rubrics, their ability to help students monitor their learning and progress.
Overall, general rubrics have a lot of added benefits when it comes to facilitating student growth, we’ll explore some a little deeper  :
- They can be shared with students at the beginning of an assignment, which can support student self-regulatory processes: They do not give away answers, instead, they contain descriptions, which focus on what the students' learning goal should be (such as reasoning, or argumentation). They clarify for students how to approach the assignment, so over time, these rubrics help students understand what it means to perform a skill well.
- They can be applied to a range of tasks, which can help students focus on the skills that they’ll develop over a longer period of time: General rubrics focus students on knowledge and skills they are learning, rather than the specific task. By using general rubrics, students learn over time to focus on the general learning and skills needed to be successful instead of what is needed to complete the task successfully. Moreover, using a similar rubric over time, allows students to start noticing if there are any recurring patterns in areas that may need some more attention from their side. This process of discovery and reflection is crucial for their learning but also helpful for teachers to monitor student progress and development over time.
- They allow for students to approach success from various approaches: General rubrics keep the question of how students reach that learning goal a little more open-ended, meaning students with different learning styles and approaches can all be successful.
- Promote teacher focus on students' skill development instead of task completion: Not only from the students' side but instructors themselves become more focused on observing how students are developing their skills rather than whether they have met every specific task requirement set for the assignment.
- Help save precious teacher time as they can be applied to various assignments, ease familiarity and understanding of criteria for students: We all know that teachers are under increasing time constraints, with a standard general rubric, which can undergo minor tweaks over time, teachers save valuable time, and students learn to better understand what is expected from them.
To summarize the information provided in the article, and to help you decide which rubric is the most appropriate rubric for your courses, check out this decision tree, as well as an example of the differences between general and task-specific rubrics.
At this moment in time, we are currently witnessing a shift away from a teacher-centered approach to rubrics – meaning a move away from solely using rubrics to facilitate quick grading – towards a student-centered approach, wherein the use of rubrics is focused more on student learning, reflection and other self-regulatory processes.
It is important to remember that rubrics should, whenever possible, describe learning and not tasks. Having said this, we also want to highlight that this is by no means an easy task to do, so make sure to check out this article detailing how to create feedback rubric.
Did you enjoy reading this article and find it helpful for your course design? You can find more content like this by checking out our ebook – "Feedback for learning: A comprehensive guide".
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