Raising the Floor


Oliver Dreon, Ph.D

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Rubrics and Assessing Student Learning OutcomesI’m teaching an online class with several graduate students enrolled in our online teaching program. In a discussion forum last week, one of the students brought up the use of rubrics. Since many of the students in this class are also practicing teachers in local schools, the rubric comment struck a nerve and sparked a lively discussion with the group. Looking across the comments from the class, it seems there are a lot of strong feelings (positive and negative) about the use of rubrics.

For those readers who may be unfamiliar with the concept, a rubric is a tool that outlines the criteria for which student work will be assessed. A well-designed rubric provides a uniform standard for educators to evaluate subjective assignments which can make the assessment process easier. When shared with students prior to the start of an activity, a rubric can provide a road map for students so they know which areas of the assignment are the most important. Rubrics also inject transparency in the assessment process, allowing students to know exactly how they’ll be assessed for a given assignment.

While rubrics sound like a critical tool for teaching and learning, I find that few educators enjoy making them or using them. I attribute this to several reasons. First, good rubrics are hard to make. It can be difficult to capture the essence of an assignment in objective and observable terms. It can also be challenging to break up an assignment into specific criteria with clear levels of development and quality. While tools like iRubric and Rubistar can be provide a good starting point, developing a good rubric requires a great deal of thought and energy. I also find that few educators hit the mark with their first version of a rubric. Most rubrics will need to go through multiple revisions before they’re really strong. Some rubrics may never get there.

Beyond the challenging development process, some educators also have reservations with how students respond to the use of rubrics. I’ll be the first to admit that rubrics can have a normalizing effect on students’ creativity. When the elements of an assignment are detailed clearly and objectively, rubrics have a way of “lowering the ceiling” of student work. When I provide rubrics for an assignment, I find that I get a lot of really good products from students but fewer “out-of-the-box,” “knock my socks off” creations. But I also get fewer poor student creations as well. In a way, rubrics work to “raise the floor” with student submissions. Since students know how they’ll be assessed, they have a better idea of the minimum expectations that will be allowed. Depending on the nature of the class, the assignment or the students, “raising the floor” may be enough of a reason to incorporate rubrics. While I doubt this rationale will make any educator fall in love with the concept of rubrics, it may promote their use.

This post was made possible through a collaboration with The 8 Blog—a blog that Oliver Dreon, Ph.D, developed as the Director of the Center for Academic Excellence and Associate Professor, Educational Foundations at Millersville University. (Posted in Teaching & Learning)

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