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Best practices for creating rubrics and writing instructions for students

Matteo Rinaldi
|
July 30, 2020

With the transfer from face-to-face lectures to a more online environment during the 2020 pandemic, rubrics have become one of the best ways to help students understand what is expected from them, as well as providing a smart toolbox for higher education instructors.

A selection of use cases and rubric templates for self, peer, and group assessment, which have been designed and successfully adopted by institutions worldwide.
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The benefits of grading rubrics range from providing consistent feedback to students, to using a flexible instrument in many different parts of your courses, or to decreasing the overall grading time.

A definition of rubric can be that of a coherent set of criteria through which students’ work is evaluated from teachers or even by students themselves. In fact, maybe the greatest quality of rubrics is their flexibility. They can be created for teachers to evaluate students’ work, or created for students in order to evaluate their peers on different sets of criteria, like work criteria (quality, content, methods) or skills criteria (accountability, punctuality, attitude, teamwork spirit).

The classic rubric layout takes the form of a table. Each goal to achieve is clearly stated in each row, while different levels of expected performance forms the columns. Students benefit greatly from knowing what is expected from them, and especially from knowing what the criteria to evaluate their peers are. Thus, the principal goal of a rubric is to be as clear as possible.

While rubrics usually have quite a similar template among them –you can find some great examples here and here– their content differs depending on the type of assignment. On what a rubric should focus to help students evaluate each others’ Peer Reviews? Which elements should be included when students are being graded for their individual paper? And what if it was a group work? What should be included instead if it is a presentation?

This all boils down to the two main criteria a rubric can be composed by: work criteria and skills criteria.

Work Criteria

Work criteria are those regarding more theoretical abilities and they are the “hard” part of a rubric. Here are some examples that a good rubric should include as work criteria.

1. Layout and structure - Assignments must have a structure (introduction, methods, analysis, discussion, etc.), thus was the structure respected? If an introduction is to be expected, the section should be present in the rubric and shall be evaluated from the lowest performance (for example, “The introduction was not present or was not including the needed elements”) to the highest one (for instance, “The introduction included a Research Question, Hypothesis, and introduced the main keywords of the paper, together with societal and scientific relevance).

2. Writing style - The way the assignment is written can be of highest importance for an academic paper, less for a presentation (where the text is kept at a minimum). However, in the former case, a good rubric should include a work criteria about the style, how topics are related, any kitchen-sink approach, and the respect of citation rules.

3. Theories and references - Is the content related to the theories discussed during the course? And how well are those theories integrated? This is a fundamental criteria for any scientific based work.

4. Formulas, code lines, and models - If the assigned work included a lab experiment, or maybe a coding solution, it is possible that some code lines or experimental passages were to be required in specific fashion or sequence. The rubric should be able to assess that, for example by asking “Was the gplot(x) code used to create the graph for the assignment?”.

5. Inclusion of data and/or other elements - If data or other elements were expected to be displayed or added to the assignment, the rubric should account for them. Qualitative studies, for example, must report interviews in their entirety and such elements should always be present as an appendix.

6. Clarity - Is the content presented in a clear fashion? Are there equivocal statements, bad term use, or generic phrasing? A well designed rubric will have a criteria to evaluate this.

7. Original contribution - Last but not least, a rubric can be used to evaluate the ability of a student to think critically and add their own thoughts and perspective to the discussed topic. A typical rubric criteria might be “Was the student able to add personal thoughts, come up with original ideas, and/or coming up with creative solutions and point of view?”.

Skills Criteria

Skills criteria can also be identified as “soft skills”. They represent the ability of students to work well in a team, respect deadlines, actively engage during the course, etc. These criteria are very useful to include in a rubric when students engage in Peer Reviews or have to evaluate other group members (for example using the Group Member Evaluation tool).

Here are some examples:

Reliability and accountability - The rubric should ask if the work was delivered in time and if the student was able to actively participate in, for example, group meetings or activities. For example, “How much was Member X actively engaging during meetings? (asking questions, taking notes, proposing for tasks, etc.)” or “Was the student able to attend lectures in a satisfactory manner?”.

Teamwork skills - Was the student a good teamplayer? Or was relying on other people’s work, free-riding? A rubric could ask, for example, “Was communicating with Member X easy during the group meeting?”

Participation and Contribution- A rubric can also be used to evaluate the levels of engagement of students during lectures. A typical criteria would be “How much was the student actively participating in class discussions?”

Attitude - Students’ behavior can also be included as a very valuable rubric criterion. Students can be assessed on their enthusiasm, motivation, adaptability and positivity towards the course. For instance, “Did this peer show interest and enthusiastic commitment to the subject?” or “Was this student’s behavior a positive influence for the rest of the class”?.

An example: a rubric for a presentation assignment

Presentations are a meaningful way to test both theoretical and practical skills. Teachers have the opportunity to see how students are able to not only search and categorize information, but also to deliver it to an audience.

If a presentation is due, some must-have in your rubric are:

1. Delivery time - Was the presentation too long or too short? You can decide how lenient you want to be.

2. Vibe of the presentation - Were students rushing through the material? Was the tone and speech relaxed? This can greatly affect understanding by the audience.

3. Presentation structure- Was the presentation following a clear scheme? Were the different parts following a convincing logic or the students seemed to touch topics at random? Was there cohesion between the group members’ discourse

4. Reference to theories - In case this is important given your course content, it may be one of the goals you want to check for: did the students connect their presentation content with the theoretical framework you presented in class?

An example of a presentation section for a rubric can be found here.

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