The Benefits & Limitations of Grading Rubrics

Every assessment technology has affordances and limitations, and grading rubrics are no exception. While many of us have become well aware of the limitations and increasingly outdated role of letter grades in schools, we continue to grapple with alternatives. This is where rubrics seem to be gaining continued attention.

Those of us in education are often driving by competing values. There are realities to consider like the fact that some teachers are working with large class sizes and schedules that make it hard to devote significant time to each piece of student work. From this perspective, we look for assessment strategies that decrease grading time and increase efficiency for the teacher. What assessment technologies will help me fairly but quickly work through a large amount of student work? Of course, while teacher workload is a reality, the purpose of assessment is not about teachers. It is supposed to be about student learning. From this perspective, we ask questions about which assessment technologies will best promote increased student engagement and learning? Which practices promote deep learning and help students grow in competence and confidence?

With the balance of these two values (teacher time and the desire to provide meaningful feedback to students), many have turned to rubrics. The list of proposed benefits are many.

  1. They often provide clear expectations, stating explicitly what is expected of students.
  2. In doing so, they can remove the anxiety that comes with student’s having to guess about what is or is not expected of them.
  3. The decrease ambiguity in grading practices, making it easier for a teacher to justify an assessment and a student to understand it.
  4. They make it easier to communicate student performance to students, parents, and others.
  5. They allow for detailed feedback while managing the time needed to grade student work.
  6. They make it easier to provide consistent feedback from one student to another, and one class to another.
  7. With practice, it becomes possible to have good inter-rater reliability between different teachers who may assess the same student work.
  8. They can be used for student self-feedback and peer-feedback.
  9. In doing so, rubrics help students develop a vocabulary to talk and think about their work.
  10. Expanding on this, they can also help promote self-awareness and self-reflection on work.

Grading Rubrics Painting by NumbersAnd yet, there are limitations to rubrics as well. In our age of standardization and people championing a culture of assessment, rubrics have an increasingly honored role in education. Having such a role, it can be easy to ignore the fact that when we use rubrics, like all technologies, there is something lost. There are risks and limitations.

  1. They have a bias toward that which is easy to measure and document.
  2. As a result, they can be reductionist about student work.
  3. Without care, rubrics can place more emphasis upon the technical aspect of student work, missing deeper and more difficult to articulate aspects of student ideas.
  4. They risk turning projects and papers into exercises in simply following the rules and addressing the required elements of the rubric, even when that might result in an inferior project or paper. They can create narrow, rule-following dispositions among leaners.
  5. Tied to number four, they sometimes leave less room for creative and imaginative approaches to papers and projects. What if Shakespeare or Poe wrote their poetry and prose based upon a teacher rubric? Would anything be lost? To what extent do rubrics encourage the future Picasso in our classroom to spend his days simply painting by numbers?
  6. They can be used as a substitute for rich conversation and nuanced narrative feedback to students.
  7. They risk turning the role of the teacher into that of grader, leaving less room for the teacher to be an authentic “reader” of student work. When I read an email from a colleague, I don’t evaluate it with a rubric. I read it for meaning. If I have feedback, it consists of questions, follow-up comments, requests for clarification. These are all authentic parts of communication. There are times when this can work well in a teacher-student relationship as well.
  8. They decrease the time and reflection needed for a teacher to assess student work. While this is a benefit, it also means spending less time with the student’s ideas.
  9. They can turn assessment into a deficiency-approach to education, focusing feedback on student weaknesses and errors. If we are not careful, this leads to learners who complete work just to avoid errors and/or to perform for the teacher.
  10. When tied to points, they can result in overall point values for student work that do not accurately represent student learning, progress, or competence.

Part of teaching is coaching and mentoring. Much great coaching and mentoring is about more than filling out rubrics and checklists on the other person’s performances. There is both and art and science. There is a deeply human, hands-on, messy, organic part of great coaching and mentoring. The same is true for teaching and learning. While many point to the affordances of rubrics, I find it helpful to take a step back and consider this other side. Assessment is part of teaching and learning, and I contend that one’s assessment practices say much about one’s overall philosophy of teaching and learning. However, too often, we find ourselves embracing a practice without carefully considering how it fits with our core values, vision and philosophy for learning organizations. Perhaps rubrics fit nicely. Perhaps they do not. However, this exercise in reflecting on both the affordances and limitations can help us to be more thoughtful and intentional about a cohesive and internally consistent approach to our work in education.

2 Replies to “The Benefits & Limitations of Grading Rubrics”

  1. Melissa Hudler

    I teach English at the college level–mostly freshman composition but some literature classes with writing requirements. To achieve the results I desire from the work of student assessment, I find it necessary to combine the grading strategies: rubrics with “nuanced narrative feedback.” I don’t get through my papers as quickly as those professors who solely use rubrics, but that’s not my ultimate goal.

  2. gmpotratz

    Although I appreciate the bullets on both sides of the rubric use, I struggle with a practical way to express this to students. Some students need the structure, and some may produce creative products that show more learning without completing all rubric categories. I see two options. Having very frank discussions with students about the reasons for deferring the use of the rubric for grading some products, while using it for the majority of them. Or does the success reside in the teacher creating a new type of grading mechanism that includes both options for grading? I think it is important to discuss assessment at the middle school level and above. Can it be done effectively at lower levels?

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