Imagine for a moment the perfect chocolate chip cookie. What would it be like? Would it be big and chewy or small and crisp? Would it have lots of chips, or fewer chips and just a touch of salt to complement the sweetness? each of us has a vision of our ideal chocolate chip cookie, just like we all as instructors have a vision of what high quality student work should look like.

How does this relate to rubrics? Rubrics are tools for making the elements of a learning task clear: what is the desired performance (i.e., the ideal chocolate chip cookie) and at what levels this performance can be achieved (e.g., some chocolate chips are necessary, but the ideal ratio of chip to cooke is...). For example, the idea of "class participation" or "writing a journal-style research paper" may be clear to us as instructors, and rubrics can make transparent what we are looking for. Specifically, rubrics:

  • Create a common framework and language for assessment for students and instructors
  • Can expedite the process of evaluating complex or ill-structured products or behaviors
  • Enable multiple raters to apply the same criteria and standards
  • Are criterion references rather than norm references - raters ask, "Did the student meet the criteria for level 4 of the rubric?" rather than "How well did this student do compared to other students?"
  • Can promote shared expectations and grading practices among faculty when they collaborate to develop a rubric

Types of rubrics

There are two main types of rubrics:

Analytic: Analytic rubrics are more common and can be more useful because they outline levels of performance for each criterion. Here is an example course project from an introductory level non-majors biology course, and the associated analytic rubric

Holistic: Holistic rubrics do not separate levels of performance for each criterion. For example, the chocolate chip cookie could be categorized as:

  • Excellent: Cookies are approximately 3 inches in diameter, consistently containing ~10 chips, texture is crisp around the edges and soft in the middle
  • Acceptable: Cookies are between 2 and 4 inches in diameter, containing a varying level of chips with a minimum of at least 5 chips, texture varies from cookie to cookie
  • Unacceptable: Cookies are either smaller than 2 inches or larger than 4 inches in diameter, there are no chips or the number of chips varies widely from cookie to cookie, texture suggests the cookies are undercooked or overcooked

Writing and using a rubric

Create the rubric. One way of creating a rubric is to:

  1. Determine a task that would benefit from a rubric. This can be a specific assignment such as a project, poster, paper, or presentation, or an overall behavior such as lab citizenship or class participation.
  2. Identify the features of the task that represent the scope of desired performance. In an analytic rubric, these would be the list of criteria that comprise the desired performance.
  3. Determine the levels of mastery or performance for each task. Set the ideal performance at one end of the rubric, and unacceptable performance at the other end. There can be one, two, or even three levels inbetween ideal and unacceptable. Aim for the smallest number of levels that would allow for discrimination between levels of performance. Three or four levels altogether is usually sufficient; more than four levels often becomes difficult to discriminate. Here are some options for levels:
    • Exceeds expectations, meets expectations, near expectations, below expectations
    • Exemplary, proficient, marginal, unacceptable
    • Mastery, proficiency, developing, novice
  4. Add explanations for each level of performance for each criterion. What does it mean to exceed expectations? Meet expectations? Be near meeting expectations, but not quite meet them? Be below expectations? 

Get feedback on your rubric. Once you have drafted your rubric, share it with a colleague, graduate teaching assistant, or undergraduate learning assistant for feedback. Are the criteria clear and aligned with the task? Are the levels of performance clear, distinct from one another, and reasonably representative of what students in the course will be able to accomplish? 

Make rubrics available to students. Once you are satisfied with your rubric, give it to students when you assign the task. This will make your expectations clear from the outset. Consider asking students to use the rubric to self-assess their performance, for example by assessing their own class participation for the preceding week or evaluating a draft of a project. Also consider asking students to assess one another's performance. This will give them practice interpreting and applying the rubric in a way that will help them use the rubric to improve their own work.

Revise rubrics as needed. As you use your rubric, you may find it necessary to revie the criteria, the levels, or the explanations of each. Make notes as you use your rubric so you can revise it for future use. Try not to make changes while the task is in progress so that students don't feel like expectations are shifting. Changes can be made if it has become clear that the rubric is unclear or unfair. Any changes, including the reasons changes are being made (e.g., to clarify expectations, make grading more fair, etc.) should be communicated clearly to all students in class and through Canvas. 

Learn more

For more on creating rubrics and examples of rubrics, see: