The Trouble With Rubrics

I used to be a practioner of Standards Based Grading (SBG). It was a step away from traditional grades and an important move as it helped signal to me the meaninglessness of traditional grading systems. In the midst of this, one of my colleagues would often talk about “Heberts effrots to rubricize the world.” At the time, I took it as a badge of honor: “That’s right. Everything in my course exists on a rubric. Students know exactly where they stand in each of the areas I deem important.”

Over time, however, I came to realize two things:

1. Standards Based Grading was still an attempt to quantify student learning. At the end of the day, I’m unconvinced that something as complicated as “learning” can be quantified. If it can be done, I’m pretty sure it’s not something that can be easily done, and I need someone to teach me this advanced skill.

2. That final phrase of my “badge of honor” statement above really began to bother me: “…the areas I deem important.” To be sure, I’m the expert in my classroom, but when we’re talking about textual interpretation why should we only focus on what the teacher deems important? Shouldn’t we consider what the students deem important?

These two insights caused the demise of rubrics in my classroom. First, I was still finding it difficult to assign some kind of point value to something like “Creativity.” How do I measure that? Once measured, how do I determine how that measurement should fit into the student’s overall grade for the assignment? For the grading period? For the year?

Second, I really want my classroom to be open to new possibilities. This is where rubrics really let me down. If all that matters on a given assignment are the things that I deem important, then I’m squashing the creativity and intellectual firepower of my students. I’m not giving them the option to color outside the lines. I hate that!

When we give a student a rubric, what we are saying is: “These are the things that matter. Only pay attention to them. Please and thank you.”

How awful is that?

That’s certainly not how I want to be treated! I want my independent thoughts to be valued. I want others to see what I think is important. Surely, my students feel the same way.

Rubrics work like a box. The things that go inside the box are valuable; the things that don’t are not. If we want to inspire creativity and outside-the-box thinking, then we shouldn’t trap students by putting them inside the box that they are supposed to get out of!

Rather than providing rubrics for the class or for individual assignments, I now give students prompts for assignments and then make comments on their work to let them know what I felt was effective and what wasn’t. I want students to enter into a conversation with me about this. Why did I think it was effective? Why not? Why did you, student, think it would be effective?

If we’re going to encourage students to be independent thinkers, then we need to encourage them to think independently and this includes allowing them to explore what they think is valuable.

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