Struggling with rubrics? Throw them in the trash!

Before I start formally discussing all my reservations about Standards Based Grading, I figure I should likely contribute something that other people can criticize.  After a twitter conversation the other day, how and why I regularily co-construct criteria with my students instead of handing out teacher made rubrics seems like as good a place as any to start.

*Disclaimer – I have done almost all my learning about co-constructing criteria with Dr. Anne Davies & her resources.  There is nothing original about what I do, so if you’re familiar with her work this will likely be the most boring post ever.  End disclaimer*

When I first started teaching, rubrics were the be all end all to assessment and evaluation.  A good rubric would clearly outline all expectations and ensure that all students could really understand what quality work should look like.  A bad rubric, while not so helpful for students, would likely at least make your task of evaluating easier.  Lets pretend for a second that we all only make excellent rubrics.  There are still some inherent issues with just giving students a rubric – it’s your criteria, for your project, in your language. This is perfect for students who are high achieving super hoop jumpers.  These students don’t need you to tell them what quality looks like in the first place, but they appreciate the checklist.  Your average to struggling student however?  Has a) no idea what your rubric is asking for; b) a good idea what you’re looking for, but will only do the minimum required for the mark they want (be it a 50 or an 80 it’s still hoop jumping) or c)  loses the rubric (and likely any instructions relating to your assignment).

While sometimes I do get all hung up on outcomes in my curriculum that seem like hoop jumping, even to me, I do hope the majority of things we do can be made relevant in one way or another.  Co-constructing criteria with students can help show relevance in that during the process of co-constructing your students will get to have valuable conversations about the “why” both with other students and with you.

In the twitter conversation that sparked this post, we were specifically discussing conversations about rubrics relating to problem solving, so this is what I would do instead of giving out a rubric.

Problem solving using equations is often a sticky bit for me with my grade 9s.  Most of the questions in their textbook are REALLY boring.  Many students don’t NEED to use an equation to solve it, they can guess & check just fine.  For me, at this point in math, what I really want them to understand is how important communication is between mathematicians.  So, on day 1 I give them a bunch of different problems to solve in partners/groups of 3 and just let them go at it however they can.  The problems are not all solvable with an equation, but some are.  One might be a “trick” question.  Don’t ask more than 4 questions or your next job becomes too big.  Goal of the class (or two if they’re having lots of fun) is solve as many of these as possible by throwing whatever you can at it.  Only rule?  Include all your work in your final product as you would if it was getting marked (but it’s not getting marked).  Periodically I might let groups “send out a spy” to ask another group a question if I sense many groups are feeling stuck or overwhelmed.  At the end of the determined time, I pick up all their work.

The next bit is a bit rushed – I look through the problems and find different ways to solve each question and different levels of quality in their answers.  I remove all names and cut, tape and copy a jumbled set of different answers for each questions the groups were working on.  With a really diverse group this is sometimes 7-8 different answers per question, sometimes I’m lucky if I get 4.

The next day I hand the groups out these jumbled answers.  For each question, I ask them to rank the solutions from best to worst AND to give their reasons for why their #1 is better than #2, why #2 is better than #3 and so on.  This is by far the most important bit – all of a sudden those students who like to write down nothing but an answer next to some scribbles no one understands get to see and talk about why that’s not the best solution for an external reader.  Students who have great thought processes but are a disorganized mess?  They get to see an example of how you can organize your work so others can follow it.

Then, as a whole class, we try to arrive at consensus for the rankings.  This is often quite lively and sometimes consensus just isn’t possible.  My job is to keep the students focused on articulating their whys and to act keep the reasons mainly focused around communicating in mathematics.  Once consensus is more or less achieved, we can generate our master list of what we value in an excellent solution.  I put these up in a big jumbled list, as students, myself & anyone else who might be in the room think of them.  If this has been complicated, or you are doing something for which the criteria are not coming easily, stop here for the day – everyone needs to walk away and have a chance to think about it (including you).

If you have paused, insert any criteria that seem to be missing now that you & your students have taken a break.  Carrying on, now you group similar criteria together.  I typically do this just by making shapes beside items in our list – you will likely find most of your criteria naturally group themselves into 3 or 4 categories, and again the sticky ones are always the good discussion points.  Sometimes criteria winds up being classified “nice to have be not necessary,” sometimes it’s taken off, sometimes we have to look for a more expert opinion.  Lastly, I let the students name the categories and then if the criteria will be used to evaluate something we decide the mark breakdown together in a way that makes sense to reflect what we’ve said we’re really valuing in our problem solving.  I type up the final copy, and voila!

Yes, this process is lengthy.  You can cut out the day or two where the students solve problems and just use exemplars from last year/different class to save a little time.  Sometimes I won’t have exemplars and it doesn’t make sense to do a project without criteria first so I’ll send the students to do some research before we build our criteria.  For example this year, they needed to do a little research into what “good design” looked like in an interest area of their choice and bring some examples of good & bad design.  The time investment is really worth it – the quality of product I receive is typically far superior to handing over my own criteria.  The students will inevitably draw up a criteria list that is almost identical to mine anyway, the difference is that theirs will be in their language and that they will have seen and discussed the reasons why each piece is on the list.  There is a deeper understanding of all the whys.  This process is also really great to help struggling learners, who often have no idea how to get from where they are to excellent – you’ve provided them with examples in the middle that are more attainable.  Lastly, a criteria list doesn’t automatically function like a checklist – if every single criterion is met this does not necessarily imply a mark of 100%, as your list may have open ended items on it.  Really high quality work has qualities you can discuss with your students, but is rarely so simple as including everything off the list.

I think I best leave anything else to the comments or no one will ever make it to the end of the post!

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2 thoughts on “Struggling with rubrics? Throw them in the trash!

  1. I love the idea of having students participate in the development of criteria! I can see that it would be time-consuming but I bet it’s worth it in the long run.

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