What exactly is a rubric?

A rubric is a scoring tool that is developed by the instructor to guide the evaluation of students’ work on performance assessment tasks. Rubrics contain the essential criteria for the performance assessment task and appropriate levels of performance for each criterion. These criteria and performance standards are commonly arranged in a matrix (see Sample 1) to enable instructors to evaluate students’ work efficiently and to help students to understand how their work will be evaluated.

Rubrics are most commonly employed to assess written work of all kinds, but they can also be used to evaluate projects, field experiences, performances, and any other assessment that requires the instructor to make a judgment of quality.

Why use Rubrics?

The advantages of using rubrics as a part of the grading process involve fundamental best practices in teaching and learning such as providing students with explicit performance expectations and qualitative feedback on their work. Generally speaking, using rubrics makes life easier for instructors and improves student achievement. More specific benefits of using rubrics include:

Magnifying Glass

Rubrics help to clarify vague, fuzzy goals.

Instructors who have clear expectations of student performance in mind are more likely to produce valid and reliable assessments of students’ work. Students who better understand what exactly they are expected to do, where they should focus their energies, and the quality of work that merits the possible performance levels will result in fewer questions about expectations, a more rewarding experience for students, and superior achievement.

Feedback

Rubrics improve feedback to students and can help them self-improve.

If instructors encourage students to use the rubric to self-evaluate their work before turning it in, they are helping them to develop the critical lifelong skill of metacognition. Marked rubrics give students detailed qualitative feedback on their performance that they can use to improve that is superior to a few marked comments on a paper.

Target

Rubrics make scoring more accurate, unbiased, and reliable.

They ensure that every assignment or assessment is evaluated using the same criteria so that instructors grade groups of students consistently and multiple instructors who use the same rubric grade similarly.

Checklist

Rubrics make scoring easier and faster.

While using a scoring guide may seem to add an extra burden to the grading process, rubrics actually make the process faster because they remind the instructor of what they are looking for and require fewer written comments.

Handshake

Rubrics provide clear expectations to students.

Explicit and clearly-articulated criteria help to mitigate student questions about their grades (“Why did he get a B- when I got a C+?”). Students will better understand what is expected of them and why they receive the scores they receive. As a result, conversations with them can focus on how they can improve rather than the defense of the instructor’s grading practice.

Rubric Types

The two main types of rubrics are analytic rubrics and holistic rubrics. The main difference between the two is that analytic rubrics allow for the separate evaluation of each criterion while holistic rubrics require the evaluation of the criteria as a set. 

Which Type of Rubric is Best?

Descriptive Rubrics

Descriptive rubrics represent the gold standard of rubrics. The descriptors that spell out what is expected of students at each performance level for each criterion make the assessment more reliable so that an instructor can evaluate a group of students’ work more consistently and multiple instructors using the same rubric grade similarly. Without descriptors, it can be difficult to discern the difference between performance level labels such as “excellent” and “very good.” The descriptors also help students to understand exactly what good (or bad) performance looks like at each level and enable instructors to give them more detailed feedback so they can clearly recognize areas of their work that need improvement.

Rating Scale Rubrics

Rating scale rubrics are an alternative to descriptive rubrics for smaller assignments or assessments and when time to evaluate students’ work is scarce. While they provide more sophisticated evaluations of students’ work than do checklist rubrics, rating scale rubrics are not as reliable as descriptive rubrics because their lack of descriptors can make it difficult to differentiate between performance levels. Still, rating scale rubrics are relatively easy to create and use.

Holistic Rubrics

Holistic rubrics may be used when an assessment project is so massive that analytic rubrics would take too much time, such as students’ entrance essays or senior portfolio projects. Holistic rubrics may also be appropriate for minor assignments for which a quick holistic judgment is sufficient. Remember, though, that this type of rubric can prove unreliable if instructors struggle to distinguish between the performance levels.

Checklist Rubrics

Checklist rubrics are appropriate for simple assessments such as those in which the mere presence of the criteria is what is being evaluated.

How are rubrics created?

While there is no exact formula an instructor can follow every time a rubric is created, what follows is a basic process that may be effective for most rubric types and for most assignments or assessments.

Step 1: Develop a List of Criteria

The first step in this process is to list the criteria that students need to demonstrate in the completed assignment or assessment. This step applies to the creation of all rubric types. Consider the following questions as you envision the criteria:

  • Why are we giving students this assignment? What do we want students to learn by completing it?
  • What are the knowledge and skills we want students to demonstrate in this assignment?
  • What are the characteristics of good student work? What are the characteristics of good writing, a good presentation, or a good lab report?
  • What specific characteristics do we want to see in completed assignments?

If the first draft of criteria is long, it should be revised to include a manageable number of criteria. Rubrics that include too many criteria are more time-consuming to score and make performance expectations less clear to students. Effective rubrics should have between three and eight criteria. To shorten the list, reduce it to the most significant tasks, knowledge, skills, and abilities students need to demonstrate. Then edit the list so that each criterion is expressed using concrete terms and action verbs.

Step 2: Create Performance Levels

The second step in this process is to define the performance levels that make up the rating scale. This step applies to rating scale, descriptive, and holistic rubrics. Consider the following possible performance level terms:

  • Exceeds standard, meets standard, approaching standard, below standard
  • Complete evidence, partial evidence, minimal evidence, no evidence
  • Excellent, very good, adequate, marginal, inadequate

Begin by establishing performance levels for adequate and inadequate performance, plus an exemplary level to motivate students to achieve more than what is merely adequate. If more performance levels are needed, consider adding intermediate levels between “inadequate” and “adequate” and between “adequate” and “exemplary.” Effective rubrics should have between four and five performance levels. If more than five levels are established, instructors may struggle to differentiate between the various levels.

Step 3: Articulate Performance Descriptors

The final step in this process is to create descriptors for each criterion at each performance level. This step applies to descriptive rubrics only. Consider the following central question when articulating descriptors:

  • What kind of work merits scoring a student’s work for this criterion at this level?

Remember that effective descriptors use descriptions of rather than judgments about students’ work. If vague or overly-subjective language is used, the descriptors will not help to clarify the difference between the performance levels. For example, “uses good grammar” is less clear and more subjective than “contains no grammatical errors.” The latter expression is a much more effective descriptor.

Using Rubrics for Grades

Converting rubric scores to grades requires some careful thought and planning. There are two challenges to converting rubric scores to grades. First, there are times when instructors prefer that each criterion be weighed differently. Second, often times the performance levels on a rubric do not align to the point percentages students must earn for letter grades. The flexibility and adaptability of rubrics allow for creative solutions to these challenges. What follows are a few examples of how to address them.

Weighing the Criteria

Sometimes instructors do not want each criterion to count for the same portion of a student’s overall grade. The simplest method to overcome this challenge is to include a multiplier for each criterion (see Sample 7). More important criteria should be given weight that represents their relative importance to the task. In the sample below, “Historical Accuracy” counts as 60 percent of the students overall grade, while “Organization” and “Bibliography” count as 20 percent each. To score the rubric, the instructor would multiply the performance level by the multiplier for each criterion.

Sample 7 Rubric

Aligning Performance Levels to Grades

Converting rubric results to letter grades can be difficult because the point values of performance levels do not align to the intended letter grade equivalent. It is generally not a good idea to think of rubrics in terms of percentages. For example, in the sample above, “Adequate” may be intended to equate to a “C” letter grade. If the instructor adds up the points earned and divides it by the total possible, however, a student who receives an “Adequate” for all the criteria would receive a 50 percent (which is an “F” in the most common grading scales). There are two primary methods for overcoming this challenge. The first method is to simply modify the point values of each performance level so they align to their intended corresponding letter grades. For example, a rubric with five performance levels such as Sample 5 could use 10, 9, 8, 7, and 6 rather than 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. The second method is to create a conversion table that articulates the equivalencies between rubric scores and grades (see Sample 8).

Sample 8 Rubric

Note: It is important to remember that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges. Instructors should use what works for them and what fits comfortably into their individual grading system. If you would like assistance creating rubrics or converting rubric scores into letter grades, feel free to contact the Assessment Coordinator.