I have been thinking about rubrics lately. I have always been instinctively dubious about them, but that dubiousness was redoubled when I read a recent article in Inside Higher Ed by Denise Crane, who teaches writing at Santa Clara.
She expressed her doubts:
If our goal is to foster this long-term, deep learning, we should question whether rubrics hinder that ideal. Rubrics, after all, ask students to focus on the short term. They direct students’ attention to a single writing moment and don’t encourage an expansive view of writing and all it entails.
She then did a survey of her students to understand how they use rubrics and why they value them. The most telling of the results:
86% noted rubrics helped them to understand what the professor wants. That was the most popular response. 83% noted rubrics helped them “to understand assignment criteria,” and 74% noted that rubrics helped them “to know what they can do to get a better grade” or “what to check off for the assignment.”
My experience is that student writing is getting more formulaic and lifeless. I suspect that reliance on rubrics is training students to “check off” items (thesis statement-check!, two pieces of evidence-check!) and not to write with any concern for originality, verve or playfulness. In reading up on rubrics I ran into a guide to rubric writing that cautioned against including creativity as an assessment criterion in rubrics. Apparently, because creativity is not taught, it ought not be considered when assessing student work. So follow the formula, do as the rubric says, don’t get too creative and get a good grade.
Bryan Caplan has argued that one of the character traits that a college degree signals to the world about someone who holds one is conformity. The use of rubrics for grading and assessment would seem to lend support to that argument.
Usually the comments sections of these articles are an intellectual wasteland, but there were some very thoughtful comments on Crane’s piece. The best of them (or the one I was most include to agree with) and entirely consonant with Caplan’s views was this:
I share the idea that rubrics are a barrier to students learning to write. I’d like to point out that the higher education system is not designed to do that. It appears that higher ed is designed to make clear to students that their success depends on their ability to give some superior authority what they ask for. The rubric is perfect for that purpose. You do the things on the list, you get an ‘A’, or tenure, or your bonus, etc. Note that there are multiple levels to the design. At the higher level, there is a rubric called the gen ed distribution requirement. It requires that students take a semester of English Comp or two (as at my college); among other things. This is what gives most of us our jobs. That higher level rubric might also need to go away if we really want students to learn to write. To make that happen, our relationship might have to change from grading the students (this is apparently the students’ point-of-view) to supporting the students in the writing situations that they care about.
Seconds after I first published this I encountered this bit of playful writing on twitter: