By Mary Borobia Walls
I remember years ago sitting in the cafeteria of the middle school with my fellow staff members during a scoring “party.” At this event, the entire staff stayed late one evening to evaluate student writing exams using the district rubrics connected to standardized prompts. I don’t know of one teacher who enjoyed that party. We were fed and time carded. Those were the highlights. Every time we had this event I left wondering, what did we accomplish? The students don’t care about this score. I didn’t care about this score. Seeing their writing on a daily basis and speaking to them about it was so much more meaningful in guiding my instruction. So what exactly was the point of all this agony?
Nearly every rubric encountered in the education field is a full-page matrix with tiny font, breaking down assessment criteria into overly subjective and arbitrary distinctions. What, for example, is the difference in student writing between a “tightly focused” argument and a “clear” argument? There may, in fact, be a difference. But is it one that can be applied consistently in one classroom, let alone across statewide assessments performed by millions of different educators? Honestly, rubrics overwhelm me. And I think they overwhelm students too. When they are convoluted, complicated, and contrived, most students revert to just looking at the “score” and moving on. This defeats the intended purpose of a rubric. In this post, I am sharing a process that is rubric-like, but with a view toward reclaiming rubrics for the purposes of student agency and deeper learning.
The biggest difference between traditional rubrics and what I am proposing here is that the tool is created by those who are being “assessed.” The determination of what is successful is agreed upon by the learners themselves, facilitated by their teachers, regardless of the stage of their understanding. It is a decentralized path that is truly student-driven. Going through the experience of building a rubric in collaboration with those who will use it sends a message that the process is the real goal of learning, not receiving a score assigned to the “product” at the end by an unknown and outside authority. In the rest of this post, I lay out details about how to implement this strategy, and in later posts, I will share a variety of ways it can be used and adapted. An early version of this process that did yield a “score” was developed in a cohort six California Math Science Partnership Grant as a local evaluation tool (more on this version in another post). It has since been used many times as a professional learning, peer coaching, and classroom tool by myself and other educators. This is a democratic and experimental process that not only allows for but demands the correcting of mistakes; it can be usefully applied to almost any context or industry.
This process is about building a community of learners with shared values, one that also serves as a tool for the democratization of ideas, as well as a way to build trust within the community. Once a group defines out what they value and what they would ideally like to observe in a given task/product/project/process, then they can collaboratively build a rubric tool that can be used in a variety of ways including a guide for reflection, evaluation, metacognition, and for providing targeted feedback. The tool that is jointly created becomes a model of the group’s current understanding of success that should always be left open to revision as the group’s understanding and values become more sophisticated. Having a flexible and truly living document furthers the message that the process is the goal, not a end product or archival piece. It is also a document open to dissent and opposing ideas. This introduces the values of compromise, diversity of ideas, and perspective in a respectful arena.
In the following steps, (T) is used to indicate the teacher or facilitator of the process and (Ss) to indicate the students or learners in the process. I encourage you to keep those roles fluid. As students become more autonomous in their learning they are capable of becoming the facilitator for themselves and others (including the teacher). A few examples from different groups are shared in the visuals.
Step 1: T invites Ss to think about the presentation that they are currently researching and preparing for. T asks Ss to think of all the “observable features” that make a successful presentation. Once they have come up with some, T charts all ideas students want to share.
Step 2: T invites Ss to look at all the ideas that have been charted and decide if any of what was written can be logically clustered together. When a S shares ideas that they think can be grouped together, T asks S to share their reasoning to see if other Ss agree or have a different perspective. In this step, it is helpful for the T to color code the clusters that are made.
Step 3: T invites Ss to look at the clusters (I recommend no more than two or three, especially when new to the process) that were made in Step 2 and decide what word or phrase would make sense as a label of that cluster or category.
Step 4: T organizes the category labels and observable features into a table as reference for students (see image to the right for an example).
Step 5: T can then create a tool that can be left as a chart, typed and printed, or shared digitally to help Ss give feedback to peers/self or for T to give Ss feedback. A courageous T may even have Ss give him or her feedback through this process)
Step 6: Ss use the tool to generate formative feedback through observations and questions (see image for an example of this type of tool used in a lesson study process with middle school teachers). This information can then be used by the Ss to reflect on learning, revise understanding, or revise work.
The process is not complicated and develops organically. In the end, a tool is created. It is important to remember that it is a tool that can be redefined as needed and can be adapted as conditions or needs may change. Tools are never ends, but rather serve to gain better access to our goals. Reclaiming rubrics and putting them into the hands of learners for meaningful and formative feedback is a step toward authentic student agency.
Here are couple variations on this rubric process:
Single point rubric
From this basic structure, then you can adapt it to become a Single Point Rubric (The Cult of Pedagogy has amazing resources to support building this type of rubric).
4 point rubric
Also from this basic structure you can adapt into a 4-Point Rubric (or whatever scale you need). The observable features and criteria become the "3". The reasoning behind this is that if you leave the "four" undefined, then you leave the box open to learner creativity. Where can they take their product further than what is expected? How can they innovate beyond the good enough?