Essay Grading Rubrics
For Teachers

Rubric’s Cue: What's the Best Way to Grade Essays?

By Monica Fuglei November 12, 2014
Essay Grading Rubrics

Because teaching is filled with spirited debate about best practices, the passionate responses to the National Council of Teachers of English’s recent Facebook post asking how instructors feel about grading rubrics should be no surprise. Some teachers embrace rubrics as an incredible device for communicating instructor expectations and grading students’ written work.

Critics complain that rubrics are rigid, unworkable and do a disservice to student writing. It seems that, as a tool for teaching and grading, rubrics are a controversial means of assessing student work.

Grading rubrics can turn writing assignments from “What does the teacher want?” into “How do I fulfill the criteria?”

Rubrics are not simply a checklist for grading student writing. Many teachers use them as both a grading tool and a teaching tool. Because a rubric identifies pertinent aspects of a piece of writing, these rules communicate expectations to students.

Students no longer wonder what their instructor wants, but instead consider how to fulfill specific criteria in their writing assignment. Writing teachers can set expectations in two forms: analytical and holistic rubrics. Both identify criteria for the essay, but then their paths diverge.

Analytical rubric pros and cons

Analytical rubrics are broken down into a grid explaining different measurement levels of each criteria. The grading process involves matching student performance to certain levels under each criteria — poor, satisfactory, or exceptional, for example —  then adding the results to arrive at a final grade.

Fans of the analytical rubric find them incredibly helpful for evaluating how different criteria are fulfilled and for calculating grades, but they can prove to be unwieldy to create and time-consuming to apply. However, when assessment and data collection are a reality of writing instruction, analytical rubrics are useful in departmental assessments.

Holistic rubrics: detailed feedback for students

Sometimes the targeted requirements of analytical rubrics leave teachers at a bit of a loss because they don’t reflect the true quality of a piece of writing. Jennifer Gonzalez, teacher and education blogger for Brilliant or Insane, points out that sometimes writers “demonstrate qualities you didn’t even anticipate.”

As an alternative, Gonzalez suggests a three-column format that gives teachers the opportunity to pinpoint feedback to individual students. This unique holistic rubric allows teachers to provide detailed feedback while also judging a piece of writing with a criteria-driven framework. Holistic rubrics tend to combine the necessary criteria into one single grade assessment of the overall piece, having closely measured that piece against the requirements for the writing assignment.

Critics: Rubrics are a disservice to students

Even when they’re modified to allow for more commentary on student strengths and weaknesses, some educators are convinced that rubrics do a fundamental disservice to students’ ability to learn. Rubrics, say critics, result in standardized measurement of standardized writing, which is hardly the purpose of writing instruction.

Alfie Kohn concedes that rubrics might be helpful as one of a wide variety of sources a teacher could consult as they design instruction, but that rubrics should never drive instruction — nor should they be shared with students as a design element of their writing. He cites research supporting the idea that targeted rubrics result in student writing with less, not more, depth of thought.

These pieces of writing might measure well on a rubric, but result in students who do not have confidence in their own ability to decipher the rules of writing without using a rubric as a guideline for creation. Another critic of rubrics, Maja Wilson, suggests that writing offers its own set of criteria and that each piece should be examined individually.

Flying without rubric wings: essay grading alternatives

Without rubrics, some instructors grade student essays as a full and complete work that sets its own boundaries through its chosen audience. These graders give feedback specific to each essay; doing so reinforces to students that rules of writing are not standard, arbitrary or incomprehensible. While it can be difficult to align this sort of grading technique with department expectations and assessment, students can be encouraged to practice skills that would appear in a standardized test while not being forced to standardize their writing product.

As a composition instructor, I’ve struggled with my own rubrics of late, trying to modify an analytical rubric or redesign a holistic rubric for different assignments. I’ve even asked students to design their own rubric in order to examine what they perceive as important criteria for the assessment of their essays. Ultimately, though, I may abandon rubrics altogether for a style that emphasizes deliberate, student-focused feedback as a part of the writing process and prioritizes critical thinking and creativity.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing

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