Students drop a bomb at the #gafesummit Vancouver: “We don’t like rubrics.” | A Stick in the Sand

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Do students really like rubrics? Are YOU using them right?

CH043082Students drop a bomb at the #gafesummit Vancouver: “We don’t like rubrics.” | A Stick in the Sand.

For my part I quite like rubrics, but I also think many, if not most teachers create unrealistic rubrics.

Grant Wiggins (of Understanding by Design fame, among other things) has written some must-read posts about rubrics.

Consider how a valid rubric is born. It summarizes what a range of concrete works looks like as reflections of a complex performance goal. Note two key words: complex and summarizes. All complex performance evaluation requires a judgment of quality in terms of one or more criteria, whether we are considering essays, diving, or wine. The rubric is a summary that generalizes from lots and lots of samples (sometimes called models, exemplars, or anchors) across the range of quality, in response to a performance demand. The rubric thus serves as a quick reminder of what all the specific samples of work look like across a range of quality.

The place where I see many (if not most) rubrics falling down is that they don’t actually summarize lots and lots of samples.

Now, I can create a pretty good rubric for a programming assignment, but that’s because I’ve seen 1000’s of programming assignments. In order to be able to describe the various levels of achievement in a piece of work, you have to have seen a very large number of samples of that particular work.

I can’t speak for K-12, but I can say that education faculties LOVE rubrics, and when I teach a course in an education faculty, I am usually to produce rubrics for every single “learning task” I create – even if it’s a brand new task. To me this reveals a lack of understanding of what rubrics are and how they should be used. How can I possibly know what exemplary looks like if I have never seen any examples? Well, the answer is I can’t. What I can do (which is what most teachers do when they are creating rubrics) is to invent a wish list of things we want to see. That’s not a rubric. That’s a wish list.

Here’s an example of what I do now:

COMP1103 Player Stats 2014 2.10

While this has many of the same ideas as are intended with a rubric, it allows for a great deal more flexibility – especially since I add comments on each of the categories.

Update: April 26, 2019

The original webpage that prompted this post appears to be gone, so i have taken the liberty of repeating it here (thanks to the WayBack Machine)

Students drop a bomb at the #gafesummit Vancouver: “We don’t like rubrics.”

Update: Here’s a Storify story with as much of the conversation on Twitter as I can capture:


student’s note from the panel discussion

This year we assembled a panel of students at the Google Apps for Education (GAFE) Vancouver Summit we hosted at Mulgrave School. The thinking was, it’s about time we talked to our customers, so to speak.

We had 5 high school students students from three local schools sitting round the table blue-sky-ing the future school. I’ll be posting more of their thoughts later but I thought I’d start with this bomb: the students hate rubrics!

Rubrics are the bread and butter of assessment these days. The IB Diploma program, for example, depends on them. One student did say that on the upside, rubrics provide some security against teacher bias (real or perceived.) But, all of the kids said, rubrics feel too standardized: “We want something more personal than a number or letter that refers to some canned comment.”

Good rubrics are built by students and teachers, collaboratively, so this comment from the kids might mean we’re not doing a good enough job consulting the major stakeholders in the assessment. My sense was, however, that this was not the problem and that students were touching on something much deeper. As Yong Zhao said in the summit keynote, so long as outcomes–whether employable skills or university entrance requirements–are prescribed by an external body, schooling becomes an exercise in squeezing all students through the “sausage-making machine.” It’s an impersonal activity, by definition, because in this structure we are not cultivating personal talents but rather bending and shaping people to meet some externally determined standard.

Zhao keynote


For an outstanding example of what cultivating talent looks like, watch this video of Benjamin Zander teaching a 15-year old student to play cello. It remains the best teaching I’ve  seen. “You can give an “A” to anybody,” says Zander. Listen to him explain what great teaching and assessment look like at about 5:45 on.

I recall reading somewhere of a study that suggested that rubrics did not actual provide any more objectivity or consistency that good teacher judgement: the same student essays were given to two different groups of teachers with one group using a rubric and the second, their good judgement. The study reported no statistically significant difference in the scoring. If anyone can get their hands on this or similar research I’d be grateful.

Also, five students are admittedly a ridiculous small sample size. I think I need to at least send out a quick poll to increase the numbers and draw on a more representative sample.

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