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Tips for Designing and Using Rubrics

by Andrew Miller

Rubrics are a beast. Grrrrrrr! They are time-consuming to construct, challenging to write and sometimes hard to use effectively. They are everywhere. There are rubrics all over the web, plus tools to create them, and as educators, it can overwhelm us. Rubrics are driven by reforms, from standards-based grading to assessment for learning. With so many competing purposes, it only makes sense that rubrics remain a beast to create and to use. Here are some (only some) tips for designing and using effective rubrics. Regardless of the reforms and structures you have in place, these can be used by all educators.

1) Use Parallel Language
Make sure that the language from column to column is similar, that syntax and wording correspond. Of course, the words will change for each section or assignment, as will the expectations. But in terms of readability, you need to make sure that the rubric can be easily read from left to right or vice versa. In addition, if you have an indicator described in one category, then it needs to be described in the next category, whether it is about “having” or “not having” something. This is all about clarity and transparency to students.

2) Use Student Friendly Language!
Tip #1 hints at a larger issue. If the students can’t understand the rubric, then how do you expect it to guide instruction, reflection and assessment? If you want students to engage in using the rubric, they have to understand it. Make sure the language is learning-level appropriate. If you use academic language or concepts, then you’ll need time to teach students those meanings and concepts.

3) Use the Rubric with Your Students… Please!!!
You have to use the rubric with the students. It means nothing to them if you don’t. We’ve all had that time when we gave students the rubric and they threw it away, or the papers lay across the room like snow at the end of class. In order for students to keep a rubric, and more importantly to find it useful in terms of their learning, they must see a reason for using it. Students should understand that the rubric is there to help them reflect, self-assess, unpack, critique and more. Use it as a conversation piece during student-led conferences and parent-teacher conferences. If students and stakeholders use a rubric, they will understand the expectations and their relevancy to learning.

4) Don’t Use Too Many Columns
This has to do with organization in general. You want the rubric to be comprehensible and organized. We’ve all been in the situation where we feel like it’s a stretch to move a criterion in a rubric across many columns. Perhaps there are just too many columns? Pick the right amount so that the criteria flow logically and naturally across levels.

5) Common Rubrics and Templates are Awesome
Avoid rubric fatigue, as in creating rubrics to the point where you just can’t do it any more. This can be done with common rubrics that students see across multiple classroom activities, and through creating templates that you can alter slightly as needed. Design those templates for learning targets or similar performance tasks in your classroom. It’s easy to change these types of rubrics later. In terms of common rubrics, students need routines, and what better way to create that routine than with a common rubric for a department or grade level? Students feel more confident when they go into different classrooms with the knowledge that expectations are the same. The easiest rubrics I have seen are used commonly for practices that all teachers work on, such as reading, writing and 21st century skills. Figure out your common practices and create a single rubric your team can use.

6) Rely on Descriptive Language
The most effective descriptions you can use are specific descriptions. That means avoiding words like “good” and “excellent.” At the same time, don’t rely on numbers, such as number of resources, as your crutch. Instead of saying “find excellent sources” or “use three sources,” focus your rubric language on the quality use of whatever sources students find, and on the best possible way of aligning that data to the work. It isn’t about the number of sources, and “excellent” is too vague for students. Be specific and descriptive.

These are some useful tips for rubrics, and I’m sure you have many yourselves that come from your experience as educators. One of my favorite books for rubrics is Creating and Recognizing Quality Rubrics. It has helped me refine my rubrics and work with teachers to refine their own. It has great examples and non-examples, as well as a rubric for rubrics! Funny, huh? There are many books and resources out there to help you create rubrics, and many rubrics that are great. However, I encourage you all to not only create your own in order to practice and improve your abilities as educators, but also to avoid adopting a rubric instantly. Consider whether is has to be customized to fit your needs and, more importantly, the needs of your students. Be critical of the rubrics out there, but at the same time use the resources that are already available. Please share your best practices with the community!

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