Rubrics Make the Grade
Alphabetical list of Handouts & Guides

Words of Wisdom

Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy - which many believe goes hand in hand with it - will be dead as well.

— Margaret Atwood

by Nancy Vazquez

This article has been re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Spring 2005.

Scoring tool simplifies a tough job: grading students' papers

For many instructors the least enjoyable part of teaching writing is grading papers. Not only is it time-consuming, it's often baffling. One paper has solid supporting evidence, but a weak introduction and a practically non-existent conclusion. Another paper does little but parrot back your lectures, yet its sentences flow smoothly and convincingly. A third argues persuasively but is laden with surface errors. Which one is best? What grade does each deserve?

Many writing instructors have turned to rubrics to help demystify the grading of written assignments. A rubric, or scoring sheet, is a list of the basic traits the instructor values for that assignment. The number and nature of the categories varies from instructor to instructor and even from assignment to assignment.

For example, the five key traits on a research paper might be quality of research, development of ideas, organization, format, and style/mechanics. The number and nature of the categories varies from instructor to instructor and even from assignment to assignment. For a marketing report, the instructor might feel audience awareness is crucial. For a biology paper, the instructor might think that demonstrating knowledge of basic scientific principles is the most important criteria.

For each category, the instructor assigns a point value. Each category can be worth the same number of points, or some can be weighted more heavily. If you feel developing a persuasive argument is more significant than an absence of surface errors, for instance, you can assign more points to the argument category.

The instructor also develops a description for each point level in each category and shares them with students. For instance, the description of a paper that achieves a maximum score in the research category might read like this: "The paper draws on five or more primary sources and demonstrates a critical awareness of the relative merits of those sources. Quotations and data are seamlessly integrated into the student's own sentences and contribute to the persuasiveness of the argument."

The description for a paper earning the lowest score for research might say "The paper draws on only one or two secondary sources and offers no assessment of the worth of the information presented. The use of source material is awkward and fails to support the student's argument."

Whatever kind of rubric you develop, your students will likely be familiar with the concept, since rubrics are increasingly popular in secondary education. They're also employed routinely in evaluating writing on standardized tests, situations in which multiple graders need to adhere to consistent standards and process a daunting number of papers in minimal time. Such situations highlight some of the genuine advantages of using rubrics:

  • They simplify the grading process, allowing a reader to move more rapidly through assignments.

  • They clarify expectations for both instructors and students. Some instructors seek student input when developing a rubric.

  • They reduce the subjectivity of the process by focusing the grader's attention on specified criteria.

  • They reduce or eliminate the need for written comments. Rather than writing a note about the paucity of a paper's development, the instructor can simply check the "development" box on the form and refer the student to the description of what constitutes adequate development of ideas.

Of course, rubrics aren't perfect. Developing them takes time, and relying on them too much can lead to formulaic assignments and responses. Some students may also find them too impersonal, which is why many instructors offer to discuss papers in person for students who want a more detailed response.

If you're looking for a way to respond to papers fairly and efficiently, though, you might want to consider a rubric.

For more on rubrics, click to the pedagogy pages of the faculty section of the UWC Web site: