Using Rubrics to Evaluate Writing

by Harmony Button

Student writing is notoriously difficult to evaluate. No matter the task the student was asked to accomplish, there are always several factors that influence the efficacy of the assignment, and they all seem interconnected. When faced with student writing, teachers tend to be disproportionately influenced by things like handwriting, length of response, or our currently held perceptions of the student.

Here’s a concerning trend: the less effective a piece of writing, the less helpful the feedback we tend to give on the writing. The piece of student writing that is really struggling with ideas, structure and organization is often also plagued by mechanical errors in spelling, grammar, syntax (the way the sentence is organized) or diction (word choice). Unfortunately, when faced with a hot mess of an essay, we naturally gravitate towards commenting on the sentence level mechanical errors, instead of taking on the overall efficacy of the thinking, on a broader level. This is not the most helpful feedback to give to a student who needs to deal with the big ideas before grappling with the execution of those ideas.

Using a rubric as a means of evaluating different aspects of a student’s performance can help a teacher keep clear learning goals in mind, and it can help scaffold the feedback to the student so that they can better understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinking

A rubric is a document that describes the expectations of an assignment by listing the criteria on which it will be evaluated. Rubrics come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from simple checklists to elaborate charts. Some rubrics come with point values assigned to each category, so that completing the rubric results in a grade for the assignment. Some rubrics are designed to be more holistic, so that students can see how they measure up to expectations on a sliding scale.

If you haven’t ever used a rubric before, consider starting simple. Think about the foundational traits of your assignment: what kind of thought does a student need to engage in to complete your task? Usually, this is some kind of analysis or analytic assertion (a claim). Then, think about the logical presentation of this claim — what kind of synthesis, analysis, or explanation do you expect? Then you want to think about the structure in which you expect the student to respond. What are the conventions of your discipline? Then, think about issues of organization on a smaller scale — what is going on, on a sentence level? What do you expect for their sentence fluency, use of appropriate vocabulary, or tone of voice?
By scaffolding your evaluation in this way, you might realize that a student response that looks like a disaster is actually an example of solid thinking that is having a communication crisis. On the other hand, you might realize that a piece of prose that looks quite polished is actually devoid of analytic thought. The rubrics reminds you to take into consideration the different weight of each category (for example, you might want to forgive fluency issues in a test situation, but not on a final project) and it also provides some structure to your feedback to students, who often see every piece of marginalia on the page as an individual comment about that particular assignment, instead of an organized reflection on the overall writing and thinking skills of the student, as demonstrated in this particular assignment.

If you start using rubrics as part of your grading process, consider sharing the rubric with the students ahead of time, so that they can see the expectations on which they will be evaluated. You can also ask the student to use the rubric as a tool of self-evaluation: you can ask them to fill out the rubric for themselves (and justify their choices in writing) and then you can compare it against your own evaluation, to see how self-aware the student is about their own strengths and skills. You can use the rubric in peer review to give shape to the feedback and help students practice thinking through layers of revision. If you use rubrics frequently, you can compare multiple rubrics over time to see how a student has progressed in the pursuit of a specific learning goal.

The Application

Check out the rubrics feature offered through Canvas — at first, it seems like a lot of work to set up, but if you find a general rubric structure that you like, it’s actually very simple to “add” a rubric that you’ve used on past assignments. This is a really handy way to evaluate multiple assignments of the same type, such as response papers, discussions, thought-experiments, journal entries, etc. If you have students complete a certain kind of assignment on a regular basis, they actually often appreciate it when you use the same rubric to evaluate each week’s work, so that they know what to expect and can easily track their own progress.

Here are a couple of tips:

* Don’t discount your gut. Sometimes, you just know that the paper you are reading is a B kind of paper, even though your rubric says it is a B-. If assigning point values to each aspect of your assignment feels like it goes against your teacher-gut and you don’t like it, as a practice, you don’t have to link the rubric to the overall grade. You can use the rubric to rate specific qualities of the assignment, but then override the rubric’s output with your own letter or number. Sometimes, your gut will tell you to take another look at the rubric, and then you’ll realize that it doesn’t accurately reflect what you value in the assignment, and that’s why the grading scale seems off. A rubric is a grading tool and it can be as detailed or scaffolded as you want, but you are still the architect of the assignment. You are your own best grading tool.

* If you think that the use of the rubric is the death of personalized feedback, make sure you check the option on the Canvas rubric that gives you the ability to write comments to accompany each category.

* If it takes you an hour just to design a single rubric, simplify. A rubric doesn’t have to be the only way you give feedback on an assignment. You can pair the rubric with in-text comments and marginalia, and you can always include end-notes for summative evaluation.

* There are all sorts of free resources for designing rubrics.  If you want to check out a wide variety of options, do a simple Google search for Rubric Design, or check out this site.

* If you want a really basic structure for evaluating writing, consider these:

Basic Rubric for Analytic Writing: Claims, Evidence, Analysis, Organization, Clarity, Mechanics.

The Six Traits of Writing: Ideas, Organization, Word Choice, Voice, Sentence Fluency & Convention.

*  Rubrics work best when they feel intuitive and natural to you.  They should feel like a helpful form for providing feedback, not redundant busywork.  Here are a couple of examples of ways you can tailor your rubric to fit your thinking:

This version is a rubric without point values. You can treat each category like a spectrum, and put a check mark along the sliding scale, or you can write in the box to describe the issue.

Excellent Good Needs Work Missing
Claims & Thesis X
Evidence & context X
Analysis & explanations X
Structure & Organization X
Clarity: fluency & tone of voice X
Mechanics, format, & conventions. X

The next example is a rubric that assigns a point value to each category, and then leaves room for commentary.

Claims & Thesis Your thesis statement is solid, but you’re having trouble breaking it up into sub-claims for each paragraph. 12 /15
Evidence & context /15
Analysis & explanations / 25
Structure & Organization /15
Clarity: fluency & tone of voice Your diction (word choice) is effecting your tone. Try to stay in an academic tone. Phrases like “bummer for Odysseus” are too casual. / 15
Mechanics, format & conventions /15

The Habit

A rubric helps a student understand the expectations of the assignment before it is graded, and can be used as a tool to guide the student during the drafting process. Rubrics also help teachers stay on mission and avoid the “halo effect” of grading for students they expect to produce strong work (or the opposite). Using rubrics helps organize a lot of feedback and information for the student, and reinforces student self-awareness of skill sets and learning goals.

A bonus: rubrics in Canvas can be built to include “outcomes” — a learning goal that is shared across the department. If you want to see how many students in the Class 10 are still having trouble with sentence fragments (or factoring in math, or referencing primary texts in history), you can pop that “outcome” category into your rubric, and then your department chair can collect all kinds of statistics that could be useful to us as we design curriculum.

If you have any questions on how to design a rubric that would be helpful to you, or you just want someone to walk through the process in Canvas, feel free to stop by or shoot me an email.  I’m happy to help if I can.

Merry Rubrics,


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