The Power of Student Built Rubrics

Letting students build their own evaluation tool is a great way to cultivate motivation, clarify purpose, and provide an opportunity for authentic student engagement. 

   When students spend 12 years in school being evaluated by teachers, it is difficult for them to develop an intrinsic sense of quality.  They only know the values that exist outside themselves in the form of rubrics, scoring guides, and standards-generated data.  However, I want students to own their educational experience.  How can I encourage students to develop internal motivation, self- awareness, and intellectual autonomy, unless I allow them to define the expectations by which they will be evaluated?

Recently I questioned a senior class about their experiences with rubrics.    Many students said they almost never understood how they were being evaluated in any class.

“Teachers give us rubrics because they’ve been told they have to, but they don’t really use them or they don’t use them the way they’re designed,” said Sarah. “They have an idea in their head of what they’re looking for, and if your essay matches that, you get a good grade regardless what the rubric says.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “Do your teachers go over rubrics in class with you?”

“If a teacher goes over a rubric with us in class, I only half listen,” said Gwen. “I mean, I’ve always just been confident in my abilities as a writer to carry me through.”

“Okay, but if you actually read the rubric, do you understand what’s being asked of you?” I asked.  There were some shrugs around the room, then Constance spoke up.

“When teachers give you a rubric, that’s the limit.  I mean, that’s all you have to do to complete the assignment, and then you can quit.”

“So once you fill that box, you’re not required to do anything else? No thinking outside the rubric?”

“Yeah, there’s no room for creativity.”

“Interesting.  And, as writers, whose opinion is the first one you should consider?”

“Our own,” Gwen said.

“That’s right. So what if I said you were going to write your own rubrics for your writing assignments?”

Crickets.  Then finally, Gwen spoke up.  “I guess if I wrote my own, I would have to read it.”

 

Each six weeks in my junior/ senior writing class, each student proposes a writing project to the rest of the class. Along with the proposal, each student submits a timeline for completion and a rubric by which the final product will be evaluated.  It’s project-based writing.

Before they submit their first proposal, I walk them through a generic rubric for a narrative.    I tell them a rubric should be a simple 4×5 table with the first column indicating the different degrees of merit, such as:  Above Average, Average, Below Average or Excellent, Good, Poor.  (Meredith chose to rank her rubric, “Current Zac Efron, Early Judd Nelson, Every Charlie Sheen.” )  The row across the top of the table should indicate the categories by which the project will be assessed, such as purpose, style, organization or mechanics.  Then students are required to write descriptions in the table.  Wherever a level of merit intersects with a category, the student writes four points of description.

Here’s a sample rubric, which might be used to score a constructed response for an analysis of a literary text.

Organization Development Style Correctness
Above average Organization is original & coherent with a logical progression of ideas and effective transitions to clarify relationships among ideas.

 

The essay uses ample and convincing evidence drawn from the passage to support the writer’s analysis.

The essay maintains a clear and consistent focus on analysis.

Well-constructed sentences and precise word choice clearly and effectively convey ideas Although there may be few minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics, meaning is clear throughout the essay.
Average

 

Organization is coherent with some logical progression of ideas and clear transitions to clarify relationships among ideas. The essay uses sufficient convincing evidence drawn from the passage to support the writer’s analysis.

The essay maintains a consistent focus on analysis.

Well-constructed sentences and some precise word choice clearly convey ideas. There are a few errors in grammar, usage and mechanics, but they are rarely distracting.
Below average

 

 

 

Organization is not clear, with little or no evidence of the logical grouping of ideas. The essay uses no evidence drawn from the passage to support the writer’s analysis.

The essay usually maintains no focus on analysis.

A  few sentences and some word choices convey ideas clearly. Errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics are frequently distracting and may hurt understanding.

 

We would discuss the above rubric in relation to the original assignment, then I would give them a blank rubric template, like the table below, to use to create their own.   They would need to identify the categories and then write a description of each level.

 

Category #1 Category #2 Category #3 Category #4
Above average DESCRIPTION DESCRIPTION DESCRIPTION DESCRIPTION

 

 

Average

 

DESCRIPTION DESCRIPTION DESCRIPTION DESCRIPTION

 

 

Below average DESCRIPTION DESCRIPTION DESCRIPTION DESCRIPTION

 

In addition to conceptualizing their writing project in the proposal, students must additionally think about how they want the writing to be evaluated when they build the rubric. Making the rubric gives them more think time to flesh out exactly what they perceive as an excellent piece of writing. That exercise alone is worth its weight in academic gold.                   I asked my students to reflect on the process of designing their own rubric, and here are some of their responses in no particular order:

 

  • Style is easy to identify, but hard to articulate. Mechanics are much easier to define.
  • The power of creating the rubric gives hope that it won’t be another vague formulaic grade.
  • I am struggling to define what is quality in terms of style, or even what style actually is.
  • Some rubrics may be set up to give certain pieces better grades even if they really aren’t.  A piece could get a higher grade, even if it’s not a better piece.
  • We face the eternal struggle of quantitatively evaluating the merit of writing.
  • Being specific is better than being vague.
  • I liked it because I’m setting goals for myself. I can only go as low as I’ll let myself go and as high as I let myself go. Plus, since I made the rubric, I’ll care about it more. It made me be very thorough about what I wanted to achieve.

 

A teacher’s job in this activity is to save students from themselves.  Step in when a low-baller has identified subpar categories headings just so she can receive a higher grade.  You always have those kids who will try to play the system even if building their own rubric is an opportunity to step away from the “system” and invest in self-discovery and reflection. On the other side of that coin, you must also intervene when a student defines the above average as impossible and the average as spectacular.

Letting students build their own rubrics is an excellent way to empower them, to differentiate their writing experience, and to put them in the driver’s seat of their own education.

 

 

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