Rules for Rubrics

Create effective rubrics that give learners the feedback necessary to reflect and revise.

By Elijah Ammen

Teacher holding a book in front of the chalkboard

Rubrics make life easier. They take most of the subjectivity out of grading, and they give more feedback than just a number or check mark could. Unfortunately, not all rubrics are created equal. Rubrics are a communication tool between teachers and learners, which means they need to be written with the students as the audience. There are a number of problems a teacher can encounter when creating a rubric, which is why it’s important to keep the following in mind.

Use Your Standards

It seems like a simple concept, but often teachers forget to align rubrics. You don’t need to invent your own qualifications of a good paper or presentation—they are already in the Common Core Standards. The Speaking and Listening standards are especially helpful, as Common Core pays heavy attention to presentation and collaboration skills. For easy use, download the Common Core app and have your standards with you at all times. For the grades in your rubrics, use terms like "proficient" or "advanced" in order to acclimate your class to testing categories. In addition, if students clearly see your standards and objectives in your rubrics, you will spend less time explaining your rubric.

Use Student-Friendly Language

While teachers should be striving for the use of academic language in the classroom, there needs to be a scaffolding of your vocabulary, even in high school. I teach in a Title 1 school, and you cannot just assume your class will know vocabulary like substantive, synthesize, or even words like adequate. Use student-friendly language and build the knowledge of academic vocabulary.

Sometimes the best way to get student-friendly language is for your classes to create and use rubrics themselves. This helps learners become comfortable with rubrics and establishes a habit of self-checking and peer-editing. Use a blank rubric for your class to demonstrate their understanding of mastery, or have the peer evaluations of a debate using a persuasive argument rubric.

Less is More

You don’t have to pack a textbook’s worth of instruction into your rubric squares. Keep your categories limited with three or four levels of proficiency. In your descriptions, avoid jargon that will pad your word count. Middle schoolers (and even high schoolers) will become confused and disengaged if they have to decipher too many squares of options. Longer rubrics are often used in higher education (like in the writing portion of the GED), but in middle and high school, rubrics should be to the point so that learners can create a mental rubric to help with self-checks. This rubric is an example of a rubric that balances rigor with brevity and clarity.

Reuse Your Rubrics

While slight modifications are always necessary, try to keep your rubrics consistent throughout the year. Your classes will be able to anticipate requirements and you’ll lose less time explaining new rubrics. Learners who are familiar with your writing or presentation rubrics can also peer-edit more efficiently. The main point of rubrics is to assist in revision, so if someone is familiar with a rubric, they can develop more independence in the revision process. Even if you can't do multiple drafts of a paper, using the same rubric helps students map their progress as they improve on the rubric. You can even have them track their growth on the rubric over the semester or year.

Lesson Planet Resources: 

Critical Essay

A very user-friendly rubric for critical essays that could easily be used for other writing projects. The rubric is very specific without excessively lengthy explanations.

Research Writing

While this rubric has an extensive list of categories, it uses brief explanations of the requirements, and ranks them according to proficiency. This would be a good resource to use as a self-check before turning in a research paper. 

GED Rubric

This is the GED writing rubric, which is a helpful reference, especially for higher-level classes. One note of caution—the description is a bit subjective, which would make it difficult to use with younger pupils. I would adapt this and make the requirements more specific in order tomake it student-friendly.

Student-Generated Rubric Grid

The best way for students to understand rubrics is for them to create and use them. They can fill out this rubric and evaluate themselves, their peers, or even you as a teacher.

Peer-Generated Debate Rubric

Again, peer-evaluations are a great resource. This allows pupils to grade the defending and rebutting sides of an argument. While this resource suggests, “Is cheerleading a sport?” as the topic, it could easily be used for any class debate.