By Denise Krane
No writing course is ever the inoculation students need in order to learn all they can about writing. To compose many texts, students need ongoing practice. Yet when they leave our classes, they should have tools they take with them and a better understanding about how to grapple with writing in general. They shouldn’t just write for one particular audience (us) or be comfortable with only the assignments they’ve written that term.
If our goal is to foster this long-term, deep learning, we should question whether rubrics hinder that ideal. Rubrics, after all, ask students to focus on the short term. They direct students’ attention to a single writing moment and don’t encourage an expansive view of writing and all it entails.
That skepticism has nagged at me since I first began using rubrics at my current institution where faculty development workshops advocated for their usage--for the sake of saving time; for more exact, objective assessment; and for helping students navigate assignments. Indeed, the call to use rubrics rang with the tones of a panacea, and so I set off to bring them into my classrooms.
But I did so with hesitation. My lack of familiarity with rubrics made me question how revolutionary they could be. I’d not encountered them as a student, and my previous institution hadn’t insisted on our using them. So at the back of my mind, I believed that helping students to improve as writers would come from in-class discussions, from written and oral feedback from me, from clearly designed prompts, and not so much from rubrics.
Yet I liked the idea that rubrics could help assignments be even more transparent, and so I worked on developing some, finally completing one that seemed to fit the Platonic ideal. It was thorough--with 7 categories ranging from organization to development to engagement with the writing process. Each category also had four distinct levels of achievement--from exceeding expectations to not meeting expectations--and specific descriptions about what that meant.
It was also 3 pages long in 11-point font, and once I was done, I hated reading it.
I couldn’t imagine the student who would sit down and read this text with gusto--and I certainly couldn’t blame students for that. If I--someone who obsesses about teaching writing--didn’t like reading this, how could I expect students to read it and find it meaningful? And I imagined that if I were to find a student who really wanted to focus on reading it, my response would be--Don’t spend your time on that. Start writing!
Still seeing myself as a rubric skeptic, I decided to go to the students themselves to find out what they thought. Why did they value rubrics? What did rubrics help them to understand about writing? What did they see in rubrics?
I got IRB approval to survey students enrolled in first-year and advanced writing courses at my institution, and the initial data echoed what I had heard: Students want rubrics. Out of 88 students, 69% agreed or strongly agreed that rubrics should always be given with writing assignments; only 12% disagreed or strongly disagreed. (A few didn’t answer the question.)
Students also emphasized that they discussed rubrics in their classes (a sign of best practices) and that they referred to them when working on assignments. When responding to a checklist, they noted rubrics included specific grading criteria (77%) and showed what aspects of writing to prioritize based on point allocations (55%).
Their responses also helped me to see what they found useful. 86% noted rubrics helped them to understand what the professor wants. That was the most popular response. 83% noted rubrics helped them “to understand assignment criteria,” and 74% noted that rubrics helped them “to know what they can do to get a better grade” or “what to check off for the assignment.”
In contrast, only 21% stated rubrics helped them to improve their writing in general while a mere 7% said rubrics helped them to know what successful writers do when they approach a writing task.
It’s those low percentages that give me pause. If the purpose of teaching writing is to help students see how they can grapple with many writing tasks, it seems we shouldn’t be providing students with texts they tend to read as windows into a professor’s idiosyncratic wants.
Narrative responses from surveyed students added to my skepticism. I asked students to explain whether they would ever use a rubric from one class in another, and the majority voiced a strong “no.” Their reasons were reasonable:
- “I feel like each class and professor has its own guidelines specific to each class.”
- “I believe that certain teachers have certain expectations depending on the class and subject.”
- “Different professors have varying expectations.”
- “Rubrics I have been given are usually assignment specific. If I had a rubric for good writing in general, I would use that.”
And that’s the conundrum. Ideally, rubrics are assignment specific, highlight what will be assessed, and provided when students first receive the prompt. These characteristics are what encourage a short-term view of writing. In relying on rubrics, we too often encourage students to see writing tasks in isolation. We give students a pretty clear map about what we expect in a moment (which is pretty fair), but the map doesn’t let them do as much of the problem solving that would help them to think of themselves as writers--as individuals who grapple with and struggle through writing tasks. And that’s not fair.
Though these data come from a survey where students self-selected in, and even though I nudged them into participating by offering gift cards, I find the information telling, something we as a field should consider. Students may find comfort in rubrics, but feeling comfortable isn’t challenging. And since learning complex material is challenging, it’s not always comfortable. Being just in our teaching means that we need to focus more on helping students to navigate the often uncomfortable role of a genuine writer.
Denise Krane is a lecturer in English and director of The HUB Writing Center at Santa Clara University. A few of her current research interests include transfer in the teaching of writing, writing in the disciplines, and writing center theory and practice.