A student looking at her books wishing she had a rubric.
Borrowed (thank you!) from Flickr user CollegeDegree360 with under CC license.

Recently, a student in an online class asked me “What is this rubric thing?”  Well, what purpose does a rubric serve?  As I tried to explain it to her–and realizing that the vocabulary was already getting in the way–I posited that probably very few people actually know what one is and so I thought I’d lend to the discussion.


What is a Rubric?

From http://www.ascd.org/,

A rubric is a coherent set of criteria for students’ work that includes descriptions of levels of performance quality on the criteria.

This article from RPI (http://provost.rpi.edu/learning-assessment/assessment/what-are-rubrics) does a great job of detailing different types of rubrics. The ultimate goal of a rubric is to help students understand different levels of anticipated performances.

Why Write a Rubric

Rubrics are a benefit for everyone (student, instructor, and institution). Here are a few reasons:

  1. Rubrics help students to know exactly what is expected of them.  Have you ever had an instructor whose assignments were a complete shot in the dark?  A rubric doesn’t get to the nitty-gritty, but it details the primary points that an instructor wants his/her students to address. Further, it helps students to distinguish between ascending levels of caliber of submission.  Students can know what they should do rather than guess.
  2. Rubrics help instructors by reducing grading time.  They really do.  I  learned to make one, myself, as an instructor in graduate school.  However, it was mainly only to reduce grading time.  Up front there is a time consumption but, in the end, a good rubric actually saves instructors from being distracted with minor details (at least it does in math).  With that said, it doesn’t take a mathematician to recognize that even 2-3 minutes saved on a test adds up over even a single class.  When  I was teaching large sections of 100+ students, writing my dissertation, and spending time with my young family, those were valuable hours.  (This is the worst of the good reasons to write a rubric.)
  3. Rubrics help level the playing field.  From a legal standpoint, all foul play can be disregarded.  When a student complains of unfair treatment on an assessment, one question can be asked:  did a student do what he/she was expected to do or not?  Or for a student who recognizes that he/she was (in fact) treated differently, with rubric in hand, a strong case can be made to the appropriate authorities.  In both of the cases, the institution can then choose to treat both instructor and student appropriately.  But, the rubric is the lynchpin in cases like these.
  4. Rubrics help you to decide what it is that you really value.  Almost a corollary of the first item in this list, when you write your rubric for an assignment you actually prioritize what it is that has value to you.  You might find out that some of the content and some of the aspects of your assignments are not ultimately what you hope your students will learn.

Clearly, I advocate the use of rubrics.

The Public Nature of Writing a Rubric

Perhaps you’re saying that you’re not very good at writing a rubric.  Remember that few of us get training to be better teachers during our graduate careers–it’s okay.  Ask to look at the rubrics of others.  At some institutions, an atmosphere of collegiality may not exist.  But, with time, this can be built.  Putting yourself out there, admitting that you’re uncertain of the rubrics you were building (or that you’re completely lost) is a trust builder.

There are also many example rubrics on the internet.  A quick search can help you find those that have been written and shared by others in your field.  Not only does this teach you aspects of rubrics you like and dislike but it shows your students that they’re being held to similar standards as at other institutions. (Give credit where credit is due.)

Remember, that a rubric really doesn’t help your course to meet its potential unless you have published it to your students.  While it may reduce your time in grading, an unpublished rubric won’t help the students to maximize their performances (the real reason to publish a rubric).  Then, clearly a secondary result, your grading cannot be as efficient.


If you design your classes to be a “gotcha”, then rubrics aren’t for you (and I offer my condolences to your students).  However, if the point of your course is to help students learn what it is that your course is supposed to share, then a rubric is an asset.

Does writing a rubric require a time commitment?  Of course!  Take the time, it’s worth it for everyone involved.  The effort reduces time (later) and minimizes (or at least eases) student/instructor conflict.

In my experiences, rubrics have improved every aspect of my course.  I expect that you’ll have similar outcomes.


Four Reasons You Should Use a Rubric
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