Rubrics are an essential tool for any instructor, but they play an even more compelling role in online courses. By creating rubrics that describe different levels of student performance, instructors not only make it easier and quicker to grade assignments, but also better communicate expectations, encourage self-assessment, and foster engagement.
As we suggested in our article “Engagement in Online Courses,” engagement in online courses occurs in three ways:
- Interaction between students and content
- Interaction between students
- Interaction between students and the instructor(s)
Assessment feedback is one of the key ways that you interact with students in online asynchronous courses, particularly if that feedback abides by best practices. (See the section on providing effective feedback in our article “Grading and Providing Feedback: Consistency, Effectiveness, and Fairness” for more on this topic.)
Nearly all instructors want to provide more feedback to their students, but are already inundated—if not overwhelmed—by the time that grading requires (not to mention all the other responsibilities demanded by academic employment). So how can you provide effective feedback while also reducing grading time? The answer is by using rubrics.
What Is a Rubric?
As Stevens and Levi (2013) remind us, the origin of the word rubric has a historical basis in both the notion of redness (rubrica in Latin) and authoritative direction (in particular, liturgical instructions on conducting church services). Fast-forward to today, and a rubric refers to a scoring tool that clarifies your expectations on an assignment. It lays out specific criteria by which you will evaluate students and provides qualitative descriptions of different levels of success within each criterion. So you might see how the traditional red pen used for corrections and the need to communicate clear instructions trace back to the word’s origins!
A rubric, then, serves a dual purpose in both articulating your expectations and laying out a scoring mechanism. It is often formatted as a table, with rows identifying qualities on which you intend to evaluate the students and the columns representing different levels of acceptable or unacceptable performance, often with a point value attached. Each cell, then, provides a description of the performance level of each particular criterion. Many rubrics have an additional column that allows instructors to write comments specific to an individual student’s performance on each criterion, if desired.
Why Use Rubrics?
At its core, the use of rubrics can improve student performance considerably. Washington University discovered that 92% of its students demonstrated writing proficiency while also demonstrating low critical-thinking skills. So, in response, the university developed the Critical Thinking Project, which introduced students to a critical-thinking rubric that assessed their achievement of these higher order intellectual skills (Kelly-Riley, Brown, Condon, & Law, 2001). After implementing this rubric, students’ scores improved 3.5 times over their pre-rubric performance (Kelly-Riley et al., 2001).
Rubrics have a number of advantages, both logistical and pedagogical. In their substantial research on the topic, Stevens and Levi (2013) articulate the following advantages of using rubrics:
Rubrics help make feedback timely.
Feedback is obviously critical to student success, but effective feedback is all the more important in an online course, given the lack of opportunity for face-to-face interaction. Regardless of the modality of course delivery, however, it’s essential that students receive that feedback in a timely manner.
Research confirms that the greater the gap between an assessment and its feedback, the lower the impact of that feedback (Rucker & Thomson, 2003). Many instructors struggle with the time commitment that grading requires, and at first glance, the time investment required to create a rubric may seem daunting. Although it does take time to design effective rubrics, they provide instructors with an easy-to-use, skills-based tool that can quickly supply students with valuable feedback. In addition, many learning management systems provide tools that let you build rubrics within your online classroom, which can save you time both in constructing the rubric and later using the rubric to grade assignments.
Rubrics familiarize students with the highest level of achievement.
Rubrics provide students not only with feedback, but also with a scale against which you are measuring their performance. By circling or checking off a criterion on a rubric, you provide students with not only their grade, but also descriptors of the proficiencies required to improve. Thus, when students receive their scored rubric, they know exactly what steps they need to take to improve the skills you’ve identified as essential in your course.
Of course, a rubric isn’t as effective if students aren’t familiar with the vocabulary it uses. For example, students may not be familiar with what “critical thinking” actually means, or with the specific components of a well-articulated thesis. Accordingly, it’s important to take time to discuss your rubrics with students, ensure there is a common understanding of the language involved in your evaluations, and make yourself available in case they have any questions.
Rubrics encourage critical thinking.
A rubric provides a snapshot of a student’s performance on an assignment. Thus, students are likely to notice recurring problems and improvements they can make to their work, particularly if multiple rubrics use the same criteria. By allowing students to reflect on their scores once they receive a graded rubric, rubrics can encourage habits of self-assessment and reflection that, in turn, help motivate students to succeed in the online classroom by addressing their specific areas for improvement.
Rubrics facilitate communication about the assessment.
Nearly all instructors deal with concerns from students about their grades. Rubrics serve to create a common language that both instructors and students can turn to when they discuss questions about students’ performance. Having this common language may reduce—and in some cases even eliminate—complaints about grades. In addition, it’s not uncommon for multiple instructors to teach the same online course at an institution. In these instances, it’s important that instructors grade assignments consistently and fairly. By outlining the specific criteria students need to achieve to be successful, rubrics help instructors do just that.
Similarly, some students might be taking advantage of outside help (e.g., a tutor or a writing center). Students can share rubrics with tutors to both reduce clarifying questions to the instructor as well as receive more targeted help.
Rubrics help refine teaching skills.
Because rubrics provide a snapshot of students’ success on assessments, they can also illustrate how effectively instructional materials are preparing students for those assessments. Detailed reviews of rubric scores can give you valuable insights into common challenges that, if addressed, can lead to course improvement. For example, if a rubric indicates that most students struggled with citing their research, you may want to consider modifying the curriculum to include more resources on this topic. In short, rubrics help to ensure alignment between your learning objectives and your assessments—two key components of the Course Design Triangle.
In this way, using rubrics can encourage opportunities for practice. Effective feedback requires opportunities for students to practice the skills you’d like them to develop. Otherwise, you run the risk of students ignoring your feedback or focusing exclusively on their numerical grades. Fundamentally, practice and feedback require each other to be effective (Ambrose et al., 2010). Rubrics foster critical reflection on whether students are truly receiving the opportunity to improve and on the nature of those opportunities.
In addition to giving students the information they need to succeed on assignments, well-constructed rubrics reduce the time instructors have to spend evaluating student work and minimize inconsistent scoring. Simply put, rubrics provide the sort of alignment and clarity that is necessary throughout the instructional design process to create an effective course focused on deep learning. They help students understand the course narrative, encourage fair and prompt grading, and encourage alignment between course objectives and assessments. Although they take time to construct, the effort is well worth it for the benefits both you and your students will experience.
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kelly-Riley, D., Brown, G., Condon, B., & Law, R. (2001). Washington State University critical thinking project resource guide. Retrieved from https://web.uri.edu/assessment/files/WSU-Critical-Thinking-Project-Resource-Guide.pdf
Rucker, M. L., & Thomson, S. (2003). Assessing student learning outcomes: An investigation of the relationship among feedback measures. College Student Journal, 37(3), 400–404.
Stevens, D. D., & Levi, A. J. (2013). Introduction to rubrics. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.