Crossing the Rubricon: Assessment of Online Discussions

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RussellBy Rich Russell
Honestly, I don’t remember my teachers in high school or college (as an undergraduate) using rubrics, and so if they did, I certainly never saw them. The first time I saw a rubric was when I was starting a Master’s in Teaching program at The New School; this was the year after I had graduated with a B.A. in English/Creative Writing/Vagabondage from NYU, and my mother “encouraged” me to get a teaching degree. “Rue brick? What is this?” I wondered. “Is this a chart? Excuse me — I think there’s been a mistake. I want to be an English teacher. This looks like one of those spreadsheets I’ve heard about.” Of course, as teachers we all learn to love the rubric. Sometimes we sit around and sigh to ourselves, “I can’t remember what my life was like before rubrics.” Someday we might look back and declare this to have been the Golden Age of Rubrics — a time when rubrics were the rage. One might imagine the cocktail chatter in faculty lounges as follows:

“So, how often do you use rubrics?”

“Oh, I use rubrics every day! Sometimes two or three different rubrics in a single class meeting!”

“Are you talking about rubrics? (I couldn’t help but overhear.) I hear Bob has a rather impressive rubric.”

“Have you seen Donna’s new rubric? So cute!!

And so on.

Rubrics are important not just to expedite grading (though they do) but also to give students a clear understanding of what is expected of them. (For full effect, rubrics must be used as both formative and summative assessment aids.) This is especially true for us English teachers, who grade a lot of original student writing; many students think they receive A’s in English class based on whether or not the teacher likes them, and that with each new semester they are subject to the “whims” of individual writing instructors. (Our department has generated a standard rubric used as a model for assessing student writing.)

Rubrics are even more vital when assessing online work, including online discussions (as I mentioned in my first post). When I was teaching at the high school level, I would have students fill out their own participation rubrics each semester; these were some of my favorite times of the year. Students would turn them in, with a section for comments (read: pleas for mercy) at the bottom of the form, and then I would decide whether I agreed with the student’s self-assessment — where they saw themselves in terms of attendance, level of engagement in class, listening skills, participation, and preparation — or whether the student’s self-assessment showed a warped view of reality, in which case adjustments were made, conferences had. I must admit: I don’t as fastidiously score participation in my face-to-face college classes. Then I started teaching online. Without my coaxing students to participate, would there be an incentive? I feared not, and thus whipped up a rubric with great help from my friend and colleague Regina. (They broke the rubric for excellence in teaching when they made Regina.)

The criteria for my online discussion rubric include:

number of discussion posts required (usually at least two per week);

connections to both the readings and responses to other students;

proper citation of evidence from articles;

length requirement of each post;

and a requirement that students read all of the posts of their classmates.

Blackboard allows us to “see” how many posts the student has actually read. This is one benefit to an online environment, I’ve found: no one can hide. This is the (enforced) democracy of the online class: everyone must have a say (at least twice a week).

Like a fussy chef, I am constantly trying to improve the recipe, and welcome your suggestions as to what ingredients you think are essential in a rubric for online discussions.

About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell earned associate degrees in liberal arts and general studies from Atlantic Cape, a bachelor’s in English and creative writing from New York University, a master’s in secondary education from New School University and a master’s in English literature from University College at the University of London. Russell has been an adjunct instructor at Atlantic Cape since 2007 and served as co-advisor of Atlantic Cape’s student-run literary magazine, Rewrites.

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