Even Experts Need Roadmaps: leveraging grading rubrics to improve assignment outcomes and student success

Concurrent Session 2

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Adjunct instructors are often hired for their subject matter expertise and placed directly in the classroom. In non-education disciplines, SMEs rarely have formal training in pedagogic practice. This presentation will explore a pilot of grading rubrics to facilitate robust feedback and streamline grading for a cadre of adjunct instructors.


Dr. Carter has a PhD in biology with a focus on molecular biology from the University of Alabama and a MS in education with a focus in instructional design and technology from Purdue University. After completing her PhD, Dr. Carter worked for a private forensic company, as a consultant for the MITRE Corporation, and as a research scientist for the US government. She is currently Lead Faculty-Science in the Department of General Education and Psychology. Her passions including lifelong learning and making science accessible to everyone.
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers received a BS and MS in Biochemistry from Kansas State University. She also holds a PhD in Environmental Science from New Mexico State University. Dr. Nemmers has taught science at all levels, from grade school to graduate school. Her instructional experience has included traditional on-ground instruction, as well as distance, online and blended courses. She has been working in online education for over six years, and is currently the Lead Science Faculty at Colorado Technical University. She is particularly interested in facilitating the success of under-represented and non-traditional students; via innovative instruction and delivery, and real-world applicability of content. Dr. Nemmers has lived in six different countries, giving her a broad perspective on global educational trends. She has three amazing children in University, allowing her great insights into the student perspective and challenges of college life. Dr. Nemmers and her husband enjoy traveling to off the beaten path destinations, to experience the cultures and hospitality of our global neighborhood.

Extended Abstract

Higher education institutes increasingly draw upon adjunct faculty members as classroom instructors, especially online institutes focused on growing student populations. In many cases these adjuncts are subject matter experts (SMEs) in a discipline related to the topic(s) of the course, but not the field of pedagogy. The sciences in particular have a long history of faculty, both adjunct and full time, with strong scientific roots but little to no pedagogical training.

Colorado Technical University hires adjuncts from pools of working SMEs, with invaluable expertise and experience across a wide range of target disciplines. As a career university, it is important that faculty have deep professional working experiences. Faculty will utilize their individual expertise to evaluate the quality of student submissions, but may do so from very disparate lens. For example, an “Introduction to the Sciences” course may employ working geologists, biologists, and chemists. All are equally qualified for the overall nature and level of the course but will have differing strengths in their abilities to evaluate assignments with an equally broad focus as the scientific backgrounds of the instructors. As such, students may experience differing levels of scrutiny over the length of a course, as faculty expertise grows closer to or drifts from the specific topic of individual assignments. Additionally, faculty begin as instructors with very different training, or even exposure, to pedagogic considerations. One particular area worth considering is faculty use and application of assignment feedback.

For many, in both student and instructor populations, feedback within the gradebook is simply about the score itself. Too often the utility of feedback as a teaching tool itself is poorly recognized or utilized. Additionally, without proper pedagogic training, faculty may be unaware of how to give specific and detailed feedback. As a final factor to consider, given the working professional hired to serve as instructors within most STEM courses throughout higher education, faculty time is often limited as they serve the university and students in addition to their “day jobs.” We believe that similar pedagogical concerns may be found throughout adjunct instructor pools across higher education, regardless of field of expertise. More and more institutes are growing their adjunct pool in response to fluctuations in student needs and population sizes. However, few discipline-specific programs incorporate pedagogy into the general curriculum, despite the growing number of working professionals who take on teaching appointments in addition to their occupations.

We have developed pilot efforts to provide assignment-specific rubrics for each individual assignment within lower-level undergraduate science courses. These rubrics have not taken away instructor individuality, however, as each faculty still must interpret how well students have addressed assignment requirements within the categories and points available for allocation.  These rubrics were also designed to facilitate the actual grading process itself, with automatic calculations provided and precise factors to consider when grading. Efficient use of the rubrics allow faculty to provide precise feedback on where points were deducted without much time commitment, thereby freeing up valuable time to provide more focused comments on individual areas. We additionally offer professional development opportunities to faculty to train them in the use of these rubrics while also emphasizing the pedagogic tool and utility of robust feedback. When faculty have a better understanding of feedback as more than ‘just a grading’ requirement, they provide students guidance that helps them improve before progressing into more demanding, higher level courses.

The presentation will provide details on pilot efforts to utilize assignment specific grading rubrics across several CTU science courses as a case study in the combined use of assignment specific rubrics and professional development in pedagogy. Strategies for training faculty in their use as a feedback tool as well as evaluation criteria will be discussed. Audience members will be encouraged to consider opportunities for the integration of specific, well-defined rubrics into existing courses by identifying opportunities for synergy, composing talking points to establish institutional support, and developing first steps to rubric creation and implementation.