Linda Suskie

  A Common Sense Approach to Assessment in Higher Education


Can rubrics impede learning?

Posted on August 18, 2016 at 12:40 AM

Over the last couple of years, I’ve started to get some gentle pushback from faculty on rubrics, especially those teaching graduate students. Their concern is whether rubrics might provide too much guidance, serving as a crutch when students should be figuring out things on their own. One recent question from a faculty member expressed the issue well: “If we provide students with clear rubrics for everything, what happens when they hit the work place and can’t figure out on their own what to do and how to do it without supervisor hand-holding?”


It’s a valid point, one that ties into the lifelong learning outcome that many of us have for our students: we want to prepare them to self-evaluate and self-correct their work. I can think of two ways we can help students develop this capacity without abandoning rubrics entirely. One possibility would be to make rubrics less explicit as students progress through their program. First-year students need a clear explanation of what you consider good organization of a paper; seniors and grad students shouldn’t. The other possibility—which I like better—would be to have students develop their own rubrics, either individually or in groups, subject, of course, to the professor’s review.


In either case, it’s a good idea to encourage students to self-assess their work by completing the rubric themselves—and/or have a peer review the assignment and complete the rubric—before turning it in. This can help get students in the habit of self-appraising their work and taking responsibility for its quality before they hit the workplace.


Do you have any other thoughts or ideas about this? Let me know!

Categories: Rubrics, How to assess

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Reply Francis Rajendran
4:31 PM on October 23, 2016 
Being clear does not imply hand-holding. The anecdotal reference implies being clear in rubrics one makes students more dependent. I disagree. Giving too much guidance in the rubrics is one thing, being vague in the rubrics (not being unclear) is another thing. Giving too much guidance will surely make students more dependent.
All rubrics have to be clear, be it for students at universities or employees at workplace. By being clear in one?s rubrics, one sets the standards expected.
On the other hand, I agree with the writer that we can stop being explicit in our rubrics as students progress through their programs, enabling them to infer what is expected ? that is pedagogy. This will necessarily make them question themselves when they complete the assignment if they have met the expectation stated implicitly in the rubrics. This will surely prepare them for their workplace as some managers have no time or patience to explain in detail what he or she wants. Quite often one wonders, "What does this man/woman mean?"
Reply Paul
6:21 AM on August 26, 2016 
Very timely article, thanks for the writing.
Reply Fiona Chrystall
9:01 AM on August 18, 2016 
I concur with your second idea as the strongest option and my mind was already there before I read your statement! Having students think forward (backward?) to sound evaluation criteria for their work definitely helps them develop self-awareness of how well they keep "on task", which is certainly a skill that most employers value. I have used this technique not only in teaching at the graduate level, but while teaching Honors Freshmen in a First Year Seminar taught as a co-learning experience where I worked with the students to create both the approach to learning and the evaluation of student work. Not only does it help students to develop a sense of what is important, but it has also helped me to see where my ideas and opinions might differ and need to be adjusted.
Reply Claudia
2:48 PM on August 17, 2016 
I don't think a graduate rubric serves only to guide students on the basic organization of the work (disciplinary style manuals (APA, MLA, etc.) do that quite well. But a good graduate rubric clearly communicates expectations for graduate-level work (use of primary literature, depth and breadth of the literature reviewed, etc.). I created one for participation in seminar discussions (with some input from my students) that did wonders for improving student preparation and the resulting quality of those discussions. (Interested faculty can find it in a collection of rubric examples on the CUTLA web site.)

We can be explicit about expectations and standards without engaging in excessive hand-holding.

On a related note, faculty love to have clear rubrics for the grant proposals they write. They'd love to have a clear rubric for tenure decisions!

Most internal grant awards on my campus now have detailed analytic rubrics. Like students, faculty love them because the rubric reduces ambiguity about how decisions will be made about which proposals do and to not get funded. They don't see this as hand-holding. They see this as a strategy for creating a transparent and fair decision process.
Reply Jo-Ellen Asbury
2:42 PM on August 17, 2016 
I like the idea of having students develop or at least have some input in the development of the rubric. It seems that this would encourage them to reflect on the purpose of the assignment, what skills or other experiences are supposed to result from completing the assignment, and how potential employers or graduate school faculty might view the finished product(s). 'the amount of input the students could vary depending upon the level of the course, if necessary.
Reply Courtney
1:00 PM on August 17, 2016 
I tend to agree that too much hand-holding does not serve our students well, however speaking as a former high school teacher turned higher education professional, I would say that freshman and students in transition may benefit from the scaffolding that rubrics can provide. I've witnessed the rough transition that many students struggle with from high school to college and I think a large part of this is due to unclear expectations. I see rubrics as a valuable tool for helping the students who need more guidance. I do also agree that rubrics are not adequate preparation for the real world...unless you go in to high school teaching where you yourself are often evaluated using a rubric, haha. I think that for upper level classes your suggestions of having students develop rubrics or expectations is excellent. Great post!