We have criteria in our minds when we grade an assignment (whether for a course or a capstone), and we apply those criteria to determine the grade of the project. Often, however, we have not made those criteria explicit or shared them with students ahead of time. Rubrics help us do this. You are encouraged to share any rubrics you use for assessment purposes with students ahead of time. Clear expectations promote learning.

Rubrics require descriptions of the criteria for evaluating how well a student did because the point of a rubric is not to "grade" performance but to match the performance to the description. If, for example, you want to know how well your students understand change over time, it is not enough to rate them with numbers alone. Your rubric needs to describe what a student would need to do on the assignment to merit each rating. In this case, you might decide to fill in the cells as follows:





Demonstrates sophisticated
awareness of
causation, change,
and continuity. Causality is
understood with
complexity, where
elements of change
and continuity are
treated as contingent,
coexistent, and related.

Demonstrates moderate
understanding of
causality, change, and
continuity. There is
awareness that things
could have happened
differently under
circumstances, but
lacks complexity.

There are clear
chronological markers
and claims about
causation, change, and
continuity, but they are
oversimplified and/or
have a sense of
inevitability about them
(i.e., teleological).

Understanding is simple, sequential account that reveals
“what happened.”
Attempts to tie eventstogether as cause and effect or as evidence of
change or continuity
are weak, simplistic,
logically fallacious, or non-existent.

The descriptions in the cells make for the strongest rubrics when:

  • Performance is described in terms of what is observed in the assignment;
  • Both students and professors understand what the descriptions mean;
  • Performance is described from one extreme of the continuum of quality to the other for each learning outcome assessed; and
  • Performance descriptions are different enough from level to level that learning can be categorized unambiguously and each student's work can be matched to one and only one level (each cell is exclusive and each row of cells is exhaustive).

Benefits of Rubrics

  • They help students understand your expectations.
  • They can inspire better student performance. Students will be clear about what you value and how you will evaluate them.
  • They make scoring more consistent.
  • Rubrics facilitate your ability to see patterns where students are succeeding or falling short in terms of course (or program) skills and knowledge.
  • Rubrics reduce student arguments and complaints about grades by making scoring criteria explicit, allowing you to focus conversations with students on how they can improve their performance rather on defending your grading practices.