The trouble with grading rubrics

DSC05957Most of the advice I read about grading points to the importance of rubrics. Blackboard even lets me put a rubric up on the site. Why is this? What is a rubric? What is the trouble with rubrics? Well, according to Wikipedia, a rubric makes things fair by saying exactly what you get points for.

So why then do I have a problem with them? It is because a rubric turns education into counting. What if a brilliant student answers one part of a question at a level that borders on creative scholarship but completely forgets to do another part? What if a student gives far more detail than needed in one area and too little in another? I would like to have the subjective ability to give extra points when I see the student clearly has a deep understanding that is unevenly demonstrated with a rubric.

But there are problems with deviating from a rubric. What if your assessment of the student’s brilliance is based on recognizing the name and thinking highly of the student? Clearly this will not do. Ideally, you should grade tests without being aware of whose test they are. A rubric rigidly adhered to will help with this kind of bias.

But I still would prefer to deal with potential bias directly than to be too rigid about rubrics. In fact, I can think of at least three undergraduates that went on to become outstanding graduate students that would not have done as well had I adhered rigorously to rubrics. Their problem was that they loved the material, thought really carefully about many aspects of evolutionary behavior, but did not necessarily remember all the details of the studies. They all got As.

I read a study of poster judging that I can’t find at this moment that said that different judges came to very different conclusions when asked to do detailed points by rubrics. When they simply were asked to judge the posters A to C based on criteria not specified, grades were much more concordant.

It has been my experience and those of some of my colleagues that less experienced professors and teaching assistants are more likely to adhere to rubrics. One colleague even spent the weekend regrading a set of tests that were graded in too picky a way by a teaching assistant.

I think a rubric is a great place to start, but think about the uneven student who performs so much past standards in one area and forgets another. Testing is an imperfect business and fails us when we cannot reward the student that shows deep understanding.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Teaching, The joy of teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The trouble with grading rubrics

  1. We are fair to our students when we communicate, up front, what is expected on an assignment and the process by which the assignment is transparent. We are unfair to our students when they do not know the full basis upon which their assignment is evaluated at the outset. When an instructor takes the liberty of providing more points to students for subjective things that are not included in a rubric, this often takes the form of an *unconscious* cultural bias, even among professors who work hard to avoid cultural bias.

    If it is critical to reward deep understanding, then the components of such deep understanding could be the partial or full basis of a rubric.

  2. Pingback: Friday links: the research conveyor belt, in (modest) praise of impact factor, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  3. Pingback: Quantitative & Qualitative Grading | janicecarmell

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