A resolution and a note on rubrics

I always wish I had a habit of writing down teaching realizations immediately after every class. I do it sometimes but not systematically, and I’ve lost some good ideas and observations as a result. Starting this semester, I resolve to annotate my syllabus after every class and keep a running document that includes notes ranging from things I noticed about my assignments to things that happened in class that confused students or stimulated a good conversation.

Even though I kept forgetting to write it down, I miraculously remembered one realization I had last semester about my final paper rubric, and so I’m making a note of it now as I plan for next semester. The categories for that rubric (for a compare/contrast paper) were: Thesis; Evidence and Quotation; Progress of Ideas and Paragraphs; Grammar and Spelling; and Clarity. I realized while grading the papers that I wished I had a category that assesses to what degree the students understood the texts. I had assumed that all the categories together would address that question, but I discovered that I wanted a category dedicated entirely to that question.

The rubric in question.

The rubric in question.

One of my students, for example, wrote a thesis that made some kind of coherent sense but depended on many misreadings of the texts. According to the way he was reading the texts, his thesis worked. But, his thesis was nonsense because he misunderstood the texts. I wanted to be able to applaud his understanding of what a thesis does (he had made a controversial, interesting argument that was text-specific and somewhat complex) but I didn’t feel I had enough room on my rubric to show him that his misreading of the text was a significant problem even though he had understood what I wanted from a thesis. I think I circled the “B” column for “Thesis” and the “C” or “D” column for “Evidence and Quotation” (even though he had used many quotes as evidence, quotes he misunderstood and therefore mishandled) but that didn’t seem to sufficiently describe the problem I found in his paper. I explained it in depth in my comments to him, but the circled assessment categories didn’t really match the comments closely enough.

So, next semester, in addition to the categories I already have on the rubric, I will add a category that assesses the degree to which a student has shown mastery of the text. A simple adjustment, and one of many I could make if I systematically noted my observations.

While I’m on the topic of rubrics, I would like to ask any readers for their feedback on a question I ask myself every time I make a new rubric. The categories on my rubrics aren’t weighted. No category officially counts for more or less of the total grade. I tell the students that if I had to choose, the “Thesis” and “Evidence and Quotation” categories count the most (without them, there’s no hope of getting a good grade) but do people assign actual numerical values to their categories (i.e. “Thesis” counts for 30% of the paper grade)? And if you do that, do you find it useful or too constraining? I kind of like the wiggle room that not assigning weights to each category gives me, and that’s why I continue to keep it unweighted, but sometimes I feel like I’m not being clear enough with my expectations. Any thoughts or experiences would be really appreciated!


  1. Catherine says:

    Thanks for sharing your rubric and bringing up this important topic. I’ll be seriously reordering my rubric for performance reviews this semester and your post made me realize just how necessary the tweaking is. I do weight the components of the writing and I find it helpful. The thing is, I ask for so many specific things in my review (playwright, theatre name, director, describe acting, lighting, set design…) that it can seem like the students are checking off boxes (“ok, I mentioned that and that, moving on…”). Of course, I do require that a strong critical assessment of the performance is the most important part of the review. But, in reading your rubric, I think I am not spending enough time on what high-quality writing actually is.

  2. Meechal says:

    Hi Catherine! Thanks for your comment. I’d love to see your rubric sometime and see how you weight things. I’m sensing a real interest in rubrics in the air these days. I think next semester we’ll have to have a roundtable on designing and using rubrics.

    Anyway, I’ve found that keeping my categories broad helps me describe to the students my expectations for the paper in general. Then, if students haven’t included basic information, for example, I’ll find a place to mention that next to one of my broad categories. So for example, I might circle the “B” column for clarity, and then next to the column I’ll write something like, “since you didn’t mention the [name of the author/text/genre/etc] it was hard to follow your argument. You have to make sure to give us all the relevant basic information so we can spend our energy understanding your really interesting argument. Clarity on the basic info helps with clarity on the level of your argument…” So I’ll find a category I can fit that complaint/problem into and write a note about it there.

    I think rubrics are really helpful, but obviously they are limiting in a lot of ways. They can make the paper seem too prescriptive. Weighting can be too limiting. Categories can end up being superfluous or you discover you should have included something you didn’t. So it seems, not surprisingly, that the trick is to balance rubrics with written feedback and let students know in advance that the rubric is a part of the picture but not the only part.


  1. […] up a good rubric, and on some tips and techniques for making them (I wrote another post on rubrics here, at Baruch College’s cac.ophony.org) but in this post I want to focus on just one question: […]

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