Why I Threw Away My Rubrics

I have a rubric that took over ten years of teaching college English to develop. Want to see it?

I think it’s pretty good. I put a lot of thought into what I wanted to see in my students’ writing, and I took care to explain each category in a way that students would understand.

But I don’t use this rubric anymore. Not ever.

It was only when I was on the receiving end of a rubric, while taking a graduate-level education class, that I had my first critical thought about rubrics. After looking at the rubric the professor had completed for me, I wondered, where is the human response in all of this? My professor had left me some comments, but these comments seemed only to be explaining why she rated my work as she did. This was in contrast to the feedback from my Russian literature professor at Stanford Extension. This professor provided no rubric but left comments that were funny and observant and showed that a thinking, caring person had engaged with my ideas.

I started paying greater attention to my own use of rubrics, and here’s what I noticed. On the surface, rubrics appeared to benefit certain students, usually those who were doing pretty well overall but needed some attention in one specific area, such as organization. But rubrics were unhelpful, even damaging, for two other types of students: 1) those who were successful in all categories of the rubric; and 2) students who were struggling and who rated poorly in almost every category.

For the first category of students, rubrics encouraged “do-the-minimum” thinking. If a student “exceeded expectations” on all categories of the rubric, that was great, but the rubric left me no way to encourage this student to do more. I could add a comment to this effect, but my students already had been trained through years of traditional grading to pay more attention to the grade and the ratings. The rubric failed these students because it gave them the impression that they were already at the top, which can create a fixed mindset. These students would probably continue to do good work, but they certainly wouldn’t push themselves to take risks or try a more difficult approach to their essays. They were already “giving me what I wanted” (according to my rubric), so they would simply continue what they were already doing. Thus, these students would not learn much in my classes.

                Students who rate poorly on a rubric feel shame.

For the second category of students, the strugglers, the rubric was a disaster. How does it serve any student to receive a rubric with abysmal ratings in most categories? The rubric’s only purpose in this case is to justify the failing grade. If students were emotionless robots, then the rubric might help them identify their many problem areas and start tackling them. But we know that students are not like this. Students who receive bad ratings on a rubric feel discouraged and shamed, no matter how hard we might try to soften the blow with uplifting comments.

For these students, arguably the students who needed me most, the rubric worked against my goals. Instead of bolstering their motivation, the rubric killed it. This is true of grades, too, which is why I have moved to a system of no grades except for a final course grade, which I am required to give. (More on that in a future post.) After receiving bad scores on a rubric, even the most strong-minded student will approach new writing assignments with fear and dread, emotions that hamper improvement.

One might argue that most students are served by the rubric; it is only the outliers who are not. But this isn’t true, either. As I thought more about this issue, and as I experimented with removing the rubric and giving feedback only, I started seeing ways that rubrics had altered my own thinking about my students. When I read an essay with a rubric attached, I read with an evaluative mind, looking for where the student had succeeded and or not. But when I read an essay without a rubric attached, I read with curiosity about what the student had to say. I engaged more with the ideas in the essay, and my comments reflected that. Some of my feedback was evaluative, but it was more with the goal of helping students find their best ideas and express them more powerfully.

Ditching my rubrics freed me up to make the kind of comments that could most help my students. I could make observations that had no judgment attached. I could tell the student where I cheered for them and where I was puzzled. I could appreciate specific parts of an essay without worrying how it connected or didn’t connect with the rubric. I could notice what was unique about that student’s writing or make connections to the student’s previous work. I could offer ideas for how the student could expand or pose questions to get them thinking more. I could ask students to respond back to me on a particular issue, thereby starting a dialogue. I could tell my students how I personally connected with what they wrote, which built their trust in me. Most important of all, I could show through my feedback that my students’ ideas were heard — that I cared about what they had to say. I could give my students a reader — not a judge, not a critic, but a reader.

Yes, it’s true that I could still do these things AND use a rubric. In theory. In reality, the rubric took up so much of my energy that I didn’t have much left for the kind of feedback I describe above. Plus, the rubric influenced how I read the essay, so I might not notice the sort of things I could notice if I read with an open mind and a helpful spirit. If I treated my students’ work in the same way that I might treat the work of a colleague, then I could give an authentic, human response that would keep my students motivated or even increase their motivation.

The real reason I think we’re attracted to rubrics is because we like the simplicity and efficiency of them. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make giving feedback into a scientific process? That would be so efficient and so less fraught with uncertainty! But why are we so afraid to admit that the evaluation of writing is subjective and depends much upon the individual reader? I think it comes back to grades. We’re frightened that if we admit that good writing is sometimes a matter of opinion, then we are no longer the authority, and we no longer can defend our grades. (Yet another excellent reason to get rid of grades.) While my students are frustrated by the lack of consistency in their English teachers’ expectations (rightfully so), they never seem to mind when I give them a personal, highly individualized response to their essays. 

                       The sort of comment that I make now

A lot of teachers have told me that rubrics have sped up their grading process. That was never true for me, but I respect this concern. We English teachers spend a lot of time reading and responding to our students’ work, and I agree that we need to find ways to take our lives back. I don’t know if throwing away my rubrics actually saves me time in terms of sheer hours, but I do know that it makes giving feedback a much more pleasant process. A lot of why we hate grading is because we know that some of our grades will hurt or anger our students. However, if I no longer grade but only give feedback, whew! It’s as if a tremendous weight were lifted from my shoulders. I read papers now with a totally different perspective. I am not evaluating, but rather looking for how to help my students become the best writers they can be. When I receive responses from students about my feedback, I know I am on the right path. They seem eager to work more on their essays. They are open to my feedback. They want to revise and improve.

                    The student’s response

I will say that abandoning rubrics requires that we allow and encourage our students to revise. If they are not given this opportunity, then the feedback serves little purpose. When we write our feedback the intent of helping our students revise, though, feedback is much easier to give. It has a clear purpose, and it is a helpful act rather than a self-protective one.

When we acknowledge our students as individuals, when we read their work with respect and openness, we can let go of the terrible psychic burden of being their judges and “executioners.” I no longer dread reading my students’ work. I am excited to see what they have to say and to see how I can help them. Try a semester without rubrics and grades, and you will never go back. For more, read the first chapter from Joe Bower’s amazing book De-Testing and De-Grading Schools.

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