The Benefits of Rubrics

Today we have a guest post from Sarah E. James (sarah [dot] james [at] g [dot] harvard [dot] edu), Colin Brown (colin [dot] brown [at] northeastern [dot] edu), and George Soroka (soroka [at] fas [dot] harvard [dot] edu.)

At the 2020 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, we led a workshop on writing rubrics for the political science classroom. Rubrics may not be a cure-all for student writing, but we do believe that college faculty underestimate their benefits for teaching advanced writing skills. They can also be a powerful tool for developing a mindful teaching practice.

The use of rubrics is extremely common at the K-12 level (at least here in the U.S.), and there is considerable evidence to support their effectiveness at teaching beginning writing skills (Heidi Andrade’s work is a good starting point, for example, here, here, and here). There has been less evidence for their effectiveness at the university level, but the few existing studies point in the same general direction as the elementary ed studies:

  • Rubrics help students learn specific skills, and make them aware of their own learning processes.
  • Rubrics make grading more efficient, while simultaneously increasing student perceptions of how fair the grading is.
  • Rubrics help expose aspects of the “hidden curriculum” in our writing expectations and may help the most disadvantaged writers the most.

Our key takeaway for participants in our workshop: rubrics let you deal with subjective measures, but in a transparent way, and without being arbitrary. Generating a good rubric requires you to be clear about what you actually value, and on what you expect students to be able to demonstrate. From the students’ side, this is a clear signal of where you want them to spend most of their time. From the instructor’s side, this is a good way to make sure that you’re following the adage of “if you didn’t teach it, don’t test it.” And when we think of the kind of genre-specific writing skills we demand of students, this sort of clarity can be extremely helpful for students who may “write well” in a general sense but who may have no experience in how things like evidence, counterarguments, citations, and literature reviews work in political science specifically.

Rubrics can only capture so much, and when you use one, you are limited to only a certain number of skills or aspects in your assessment. At our TLC workshop, the most common concern our participants had was, “what happens if we end up having to give a good grade to a bad paper?” This is a (small) risk, but we encouraged our participants to step back for a second and think about the rubric as a mindful teaching exercise. If a paper feels like it should get a lower grade than the rubric suggests, are there skills that should be included explicitly in the rubric? (They can be added next time!) If not, then what’s causing you to think the grade should be lower—and is it really something that should be entering into your assessment?

For those interested in designing their own rubrics, we provided examples for an introductory and an upper-level course, as well as a worksheet to help in setting it up. Our examples are designed to focus much more on discipline-specific skills (using evidence, critical thinking, professional norms) than on the quality of prose itself, and our instinct (tested to limited effect in our JPSE article) is that this is the most productive use of rubrics in the college-level classroom. But the structure of rubrics allows them to be adapted to the instructor’s aims, whatever they are—and they force the instructor to make those aims clear to themselves and to their students.