Rubrics – More than Just Assessment


Dr. Renee Aitken

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When I first started using rubrics, I was a technical trainer for a large telecommunications company and the reason for using them was simple. It was a way to assure trainees could perform the required skills. It was important to know when the next step after class was taking care of equipment controlling up to 100,000 customers’ telephones. There was a list of skill level outcomes and the trainees had to be able to complete these tasks effectively to pass. The tasks used Bloom’s taxonomy verbs and were all skill based. We used them until the company was sued because one of the trainers failed a prominent trainee (the son of a telecom company president). The suit was dropped but we ceased to measure performance. If you came to the class and sat through it, you were qualified. I thought it was a shame to not hold the trainers or the trainees accountable.

I went from the corporate world to the academic world using my skills as an instructional designer. The number of faculty who didn’t use Bloom’s taxonomy was staggering. Then I started teaching communication classes and hated giving grades – it was so arbitrary. I thought about those old rubrics. I started reading up on rubrics and how to develop them. I tried one out in my class for a presentation. I gave it out to the class ahead of time and said “Here is what I will use to grade you.” The class did very well on the assignment as a whole and I thought it was a great idea – tell the students what your expectations are and do it in black and white. I started using rubrics for every assignment. I didn’t find too many other faculty members using them – or even Bloom’s taxonomy – to demonstrate measurable outcomes. While working with faculty as an instructional designer, we often built rubrics and they would come back and say how much it helped with their grading (it is a lot easier to decide a grade when the criteria are clearly stated). When asked if it improved the student learning, sometimes I got the response “Well, it may help, but this was the best class I ever had!” (Of course it was, you told them what you wanted and they did it.)

Rubrics are pretty commonplace now and I know a lot of faculty were discovering their benefits long before I started, but I cannot imagine a class without them, especially online. The benefits are tremendous because even if you are grading a creative assignment, you can build the rubric to include creativity. Rubrics give faculty members guidelines for what is good, bad, or ugly student work. In many online courses, the syllabus is set and the faculty only teach the course, so knowing what the designers expected the students to do as stated in the rubric is so helpful.

Rubrics give students clear goals. A student can achieve things like “2-3 pages, written in APA, discuss the importance of the topic in relation to someone’s theory” way better than “Write a 3 page paper on someone’s theory.” Students who turn in a 14 point 2 page paper will know they missed the mark and will most likely not be angry with the faculty for marking them down when the rubric clearly states APA (which has formatting instructions). (Of course some students see education differently and will argue about their not “A” grades no matter what – but that’s another blog!)

Rubrics help create a contract between the faculty and student. The faculty put the requirements in writing and quantify them for the student. If you do A, B, and C with these criteria, you will do well. The student can’t come back and say “Oh, I didn’t know you wanted A, B, and C done any one way.” The contract is especially important when working online as most of the time you only have the written word to create the connection. A well written rubric creates an elegant connection.

And finally, but certainly not the least important way rubrics help faculty is during grading. If the requirements are written in black and white, the faculty can read and tick off the rubric box as they go. For example, if the rubric criteria is “create a connection between Bloom’s taxonomy and the development of rubrics” then the faculty will be looking for that connection during grading and when they see it, the student will get a good grade. When the faculty partially see it, the student will get partial credit, and when it just doesn’t exist, the student will not get credit. The stress on grading is reduced because you know what you are looking for right from the start and you know your students know because you gave them the rubric. No one is second guessing the other.

Yes, assessing students is important and keeping track of the assessments is all but required anymore, so rubrics are essential to assessment because of their consistency in learning. But rubrics can clarify instructions, provide a contract for grades between the student and the faculty, and save grading time for the faculty. These benefits make taking the time to build a rubric more than worthwhile.

OLC is a great resource to help you with your own assessment strategies. These upcoming workshops are a great start: Creating an Interactive Syllabus, Creating Rubrics
Fundamentals: Frameworks for Quality DesignCreating Multiple Choice Quiz Questions


Dr. Aitken has extensive knowledge and experience in adult and higher education. She spent 24 years in technical training with AT&T/Lucent serving in a variety of functions including managing a global training initiative. She earned a PhD in Education with an emphasis on adult and higher education from Capella University, a Master of Science in Telecommunications Management and Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder, a Master of Arts in Organizational Communication, and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, both from The Ohio State University.

Dr. Aitken has been an adjunct for 15 years in both face to face and online courses with traditional and non-traditional students including teacher candidates and military personnel. She has served on both master’s thesis and dissertation committees and has held fulltime university positions as an Assessment Coordinator, the Director of Instructional Technology and eLearning, a Distance Learning Coordinator, Instructional Design Faculty, and as an Instructional Design Project Manager. She currently holds a fulltime position at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio where she is the Assistant Vice President of Educational Effectiveness and Institutional Accreditation. Dr. Aitken guides several of the Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan-C) workshops and works with Clemson University faculty as a course development leader. Dr. Aitken has administrator experience with learning and assessment management systems including eCollege, Blackboard, WebCT, Desire2Learn, ANGEL, SAKAI, Moodle, TaskStream, TK20, and Folitek.

Dr. Aitken is serving her third 5 year term on the editorial board for MERLOT and is a peer reviewer for JOLT, the Journal for Online Learning and Teaching. She is a reviewer for the OLC conference and has been a Master Chef in the OLC test kitchen where faculty share new technology. She lives in Xenia, Ohio and is a big Ohio State hockey fan.




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