Demystify Assignment Rubrics to Promote Student Agency

A common approach to grading is to use a rubric. They provide clarity to students about grading criteria, may reduce student anxiety around grading, provide transparency around grading, and possibly reduce friction between students and faculty about scores. 

And yet, rubrics have their own challenges in teaching. They follow a top-down approach. Additionally, the key reason for creating a rubric–offering clarity around assignment grading–may not be met. This is because some criteria or explanation for criteria might sometimes still be muddy for students. Furthermore, if students write only to the rubric, then the writing that they produce might be rigid. Worse still, students may not develop their own author voice and feel constrained by what might seem to be the shackles of the rubric. 

I have been aware of these challenges, and this caused pause and trepidation with regards to the use of rubrics. I therefore chose to write free-form comments on student assignments, and students then had the opportunity to revise their writing based on this feedback. I wanted students to decouple the notion of feedback from grades, and to see their growth as an iterative process. Another goal was for them to develop a growth mindset around writing and to see revisions as an integral part of the writing process. Students earned full points if they revised their written assignments based on peer and instructor feedback. One big challenge, however, was that students did not appreciate not knowing their grades till the very end of the quarter. Students earned full points at the end of  the quarter, which required me to compare the new work to the original work and revise scores for all assignments. That made for a lot of grading for me to complete at the end of the term.

This past quarter, I therefore, decided to shift my grading practice. This change in practice was informed by my readings of Paulo Friere and bell hooks. They urge instructors to transgress banking methods of education and find ways to empower students. They further call on educators to create equitable learning environments that invite students to be active participants in their own learning. The more recent works of Linda Nilson and Martha Burtis and the alternate grading community also informed my thinking. I introduced an alternate grading scheme within my writing intensive course that offers students choice. I also decided to bring in a scoring rubric that I would use alongside comments. This approach meant my grading would be distributed throughout the quarter, instead of significant labor right at the end. It also removed the element of uncertainty for students to know grades 

collaborate by Nithinan Tatah from Noun Project

I wanted to be honest with my students and share my trepidations about the use of rubrics. I also wanted to invite students to the messiness of grading a piece of writing and to contribute and modify the rubric if they felt that the criteria did not make sense. My hope was to co-create a rubric that students had contributed to and felt like their labor and sense of meaning-making were reflected in grading the product of their work. I hoped that students and I found a way to allow their authentic self to show up in their written work, that their work truly was a reflection of them, while also enabling them to meet course learning objectives. Thus the writing was not ” choose your own adventure” type writing but writing that did have parameters while also offering students flexibility to write creatively.  

Before using the scoring rubric, I wanted students to critically analyze the rubric itself. So, first students used a draft of the rubric I created to grade a piece of writing that was similar in style and content to the one that they would write for the class. Then, students compared their rubric scores with each other. I also prompted them to pair-share their reasoning for the scores they assigned. I then invited students to share their observations about the discrepancy in scores they assigned as part of a full class debrief. 

The discussion that followed focused on big picture and small picture issues. Small picture questions were about the expectations around writing that assignment and clarifying the point values of different criteria on the rubric. The big picture conversations were around definitions of professionalism, the purpose of completing writing tasks, and writing for varied audiences. The surprise? Students who had not said much earlier participated in the debrief with insightful comments. 

This exercise also forced me to pause and think carefully about the scoring rubric. I was willing to revise the rubric based on student feedback but students were content with the explanations I provided and so I did not edit the scoring rubric. I ended up socializing students to the rubric without having made any substantial changes to it. 

At the end of this class session, I reminded students that this was the start to grade their work in a way that made sense to them and with their input. I used the rubric along with the comments feature on the learning management system to further highlight areas of writing that were strong and areas that students could improve. We revisited the grading scheme after I graded their work using this grading rubric. In addition to using the rubric, I also offered feedback in the form of written comments. I wanted to hear about additional thoughts and suggestions to revise the rubric. There wasn’t additional feedback from students this time for they felt that the grading scheme made sense and was fair. To further reduce anxiety about written work, I offered students one week time to revise and resubmit the graded assignment for score improvement.  This reduced anxiety about final scores for students and reduced stress around grading revised work at the very end of the term for me. 

I found the process of inviting students into my own thought processes and rationale for the use of the grading rubric to be useful. More importantly, it opened up meaningful dialogue at the beginning of the quarter in a safer space that I felt increased student agency and engagement for the rest of the quarter. 



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