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Classroom Management to Make Rubrics More Effective

Jordan Catapano

While rubrics are a common classroom management scoring tool used to assess all kinds of tasks, much confusion persists regarding how to best utilize these. Susan M. Brookhart, author of “How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading,” defines a rubric as, “A coherent set of criteria for students' work that includes descriptions of levels of performance quality on the criteria.” The fact that rubrics include “Descriptions of levels of performance” means that students and teachers are more cognizant of what distinguishes low, proficient, and exceptional levels of performance. One misconception, however, is that rubrics are classroom management grading tools. Rubrics are not tools for grading; they are tools for feedback. Like any other classroom management evaluation tool, rubrics are useful for certain purposes and not for others. The main purpose of rubrics is to assess performances.

Much time and attention ought to go into a teacher’s crafting of the descriptions regarding each level of performance for the various tasks. The strength of a rubric comes through the strength of the categories the task is broken into, the descriptions of each level of performance, and distinctions each level has from the others.

While there is much to cover regarding the effective creation and use of rubrics, I want to offer a few simple ideas for how rubrics can be used.

Eight Classroom Management Ways to Use Rubrics You Might Not Have Considered

1. Show students in advance. I am guilty of collecting student work, grading it and attaching a rubric to it, and handing it back to students. Then, of course, students would gripe about the criteria: “I didn’t know we needed to do that!” or “I didn’t realize it counted for this much of the grade!” The problem was that I kept the rubric a secret from students. While I provided them with assignment details and expectations, I failed to show students exactly how they would be assessed.

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Show students the rubric in advance, when you assign the task. That way they can concretely see before engaging in the task what exactly is expected and what constitutes various levels of performance.

2. Provide exemplar works with graded rubrics. In addition to showing students in advance what’s on the rubric, provide multiple student samples alongside completed rubrics. This further exemplifies to students what the rubric actually means when it describes different levels of performance. You can then walk students through the reasons why each sample is scored at the level that it is, showing students what to strive for and what to avoid.

You can take this one step further and provide students with sample tasks and ask them to complete the rubric for each one. They have the opportunity to assess someone else’s performance first, which will reinforce for them the different levels of performance they will be striving towards.

3. Include pictures. When we think of “Descriptions” on a rubric, we imagine words that typify what’s expected. When possible, consider including pictures on your rubric. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and sometimes it makes sense just to show students what a given level of performance looks like for a particular task. This also shows students what not to do, and makes for easy comparison for students when working and teachers when assessing.

4. Have students grade themselves/one another. Prior to giving your own feedback on a student task, give students the rubric and ask them to assess themselves. This is an opportunity for self-reflection that helps students step into the teacher’s shoes and consider their own performance. This could be part of the drafting/editing/practice process prior to submitting a completed product.

5. Don’t include numbers or grades. I used to think of rubrics strictly as grading tools. I would take the number of points earned in each category and add them up to reach a total final score. In this case, the rubric was telling me what each student’s grade would be. Also, students immediately paid attention to the numbers and the grade, not the feedback the rubric was attempting to give.

So I did away with all the numbers on rubrics. Categories were redefined to be “Developing … Proficient … Excellent” or “Needs more effort … Decent job … Good job … Great job” – something that spoke to effort and performance instead of a concrete number. Descriptions weren’t focused on justifying a given score so much as giving feedback on one’s level of proficiency. This little change helped my rubrics become much more effective at helping students focus on their skills and performance rather than their raw grade outcome.

6. Keep it clear and simple. When designing your rubric, it might be tempting to break a task down into many relevant components. The problem that arises is that this makes the feedback overwhelming. While it might make sense to distinguish between different small components of a larger task, this makes it difficult for students to interpret the information and make meaningful improvements.

Keep your categories simple; doing so makes it easier to use as a feedback tool for both the teacher and the student. Instead of having to assess students across a diverse array of interrelated categories, teachers can streamline their feedback to target the biggest and most important components of performance.

7. Have components that are generally applicable. Some rubrics are task-specific, meaning that they can only be used once for a very specific assigned task. Other rubrics are general, and can be applied again and again throughout the year for related tasks. While there might be some inevitable task-specific criteria a rubric requires, consider making your rubric as generally applicable as possible.

Why? Because a generally applicable rubric extends the opportunity for practice and reflection. If students are only allowed one chance to perform and reflect on a given task, they may not improve on it as much as they could. However, if students see the same criteria reiterated on rubric after rubric, this reaffirms the standards they are striving for and helps them track their progress.

8. Remember a rubric will never be comprehensive. No matter how robust a rubric is, it will never capture everything you want to give feedback on. Keep rubrics straightforward, but leverage other forms of feedback. Make rubrics a piece of the broader feedback and reflection puzzle. Leave additional comments for students on their work, conference with them one-on-one, have students self-reflect, or consider other forms of feedback that will help produce the real goal: Student growth.

Designing and utilizing a rubric takes a great deal of effort. If a rubric is meant to be the tool that displays what different levels of performance are, then much time and consideration must be given to devise the clearest descriptions. When used haphazardly, a rubric can be a confusing document offering vague details on what’s expected and evaluated. When used prudently, a rubric is a powerful component of the feedback loop that helps continually strengthen your students’ performance.

What are your classroom management tips for creating and using rubrics effectively? Share your feedback with us by leaving a comment below!

Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website