Written by Arthur Russell

Just about every discussion of rubrics begins with a caveat: writing rubrics are not a substitute for writing instruction. Rubrics are tools for communicating grading criteria and assessing student progress. Rubrics take a variety of forms, from grids to checklists, and measure a range of writing tasks, from conceptual design to sentence-level considerations.  

As with any assessment tool, a rubric’s effectiveness is entirely dependent upon its design and its deployment in the classroom. Whatever form rubrics take, the criteria for assessment must be legible to all students—if students cannot decipher our rubrics, they are not useful.  

When effectively integrated with writing instruction, rubrics can help instructors clarify their own expectations for written work, isolate specific elements as targets of instruction, and provide meaningful feedback and coaching to students. Well-designed rubrics will draw program learning outcomes, assignment prompts, course instruction and assessment into alignment. 

Starting Points

Course Rubrics vs. Assignment Rubrics

Instructors may choose to use a standard rubric for evaluating all written work completed in a course. Course rubrics provide instructors and students a shared language for communicating the values and expectations of written work over the course of an entire semester. Best practices suggest that establishing grading criteria with students well in advance helps instructors compose focused, revision-oriented feedback on drafts and final papers and better coach student writers. When deploying course rubrics in writing-intensive courses, consider using them to guide peer review and self-evaluation processes with students. The more often students work with established criteria, the more likely they are to respond to and incorporate feedback in future projects.

At the same time, not every assignment needs to assess every aspect of the writing process every time. Particularly early in the semester, instructors may develop assignment-specific rubrics that target one or two standards. Prioritizing a specific learning objective or writing process in an assignment rubric allows instructors to concentrate time spent on in-class writing instruction and encourages students to develop targeted aspects of their writing processes.  

Developing Evaluation Criteria

  • Establish clear categories. What specific learning objectives (i.e. critical and creative thinking, inquiry and analysis) and writing processes (i.e. summary, synthesis, source analysis, argument and response) are most critical to success for each assignment? 
  • Establish observable and measurable criteria of success. For example, consider what counts for “clarity” in written work. For a research paper, clarity might attend to purpose: a successful paper will have a well-defined purpose (thesis, takeaway), integrate and explain evidence to support all claims, and pay careful attention to purpose, context, and audience. 
  • Adopt student-friendly language. When using academic terminology and discipline-specific concepts, be sure to define and discuss these concepts with students. When in doubt, VALUE rubrics are excellent models of clearly defined learning objective and distinguishing criteria.  

Sticking Points: Writing Rubrics in the Disciplines  

Even the most carefully planned rubrics are not self-evident. The language we have adopted for writing assessment is itself a potential obstacle to student learning and success. What we count for “clarity” or “accuracy” or “insight” in academic writing, for instance, is likely shaped by our disciplinary expectations and measured by the standards of our respective fields. What counts for “good writing” is more subjective than our rubrics may suggest. Similarly, students arrive in our courses with their own understanding and experiences of academic writing that may or may not be reflected in our assignment prompts. 

Defining the terms for success with students in class and in conference will go a long way  toward bridging these gaps. We might even use rubrics as conversation starters, not only as an occasion to communicate our expectations for written work, but also as an opportunity to demystify the rhetorical contexts of discipline-specific writing with students.

Helpful Resources 

For a short introduction to rubric design, the Creating Rubrics guide developed by Louise Pasternack (2014) for the  Center for Teaching  Excellence and Innovation is an excellent resource.  The step-by-step tutorials developed by North Carolina State University and DePaul Teaching Commons are especially useful for instructors preparing rubrics from scratch.  On the use of rubrics for writing instruction and assignments in particular, Heidi Andrade’s “Teaching with Rubrics: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” provides an instructive overview of the benefits and drawbacks of using rubrics.  For a more in-depth introduction (with sample rubrics), Melzer and Bean’s “Using Rubrics to Develop and Apply Grading Criteria” in  Engaging Ideas  is essential reading. 

Cited and Recommended Sources