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Monday, April 22, 2013

(One of) The Thing(s) I Hate about Rubrics

            Rubrics are becoming an increased presence when it comes to college grading. There are rubric engines, software integrated into learning management systems, and instructors swapping rubrics like candy and Powerpoints.
            But they’re not for me. There are lots of reasons why, but I discovered another one. The various gradations in a category, say argument, for example, are too similar. They read like bad paraphrases of one another where one or two adjectives are swapped out. If one of my students gave me a paraphrase with only two adjectives changed for slight synonyms plucked from a thesaurus, the student would technically be guilty of plagiarism.
            More to the point, such changes ultimately convey nothing to the students. There’s no perceptible difference between a “well-developed claim” and a “fairly developed claim.” The descriptive phrases ultimately convey less than the raw point value associated with it, so why bother with the description.
            I think these descriptions make instructors feel better by giving them something to point to as justification for what ultimately is a gut instinct. Instead of simply saying that a given argument is 8/10, the rubric’s description gives cover or what is a teacher’s learned reaction and evaluation. Half of essay grading is instinctive, something that comes with practice, and ends up more art than science.
A skilled chef can take a slight taste of a dish, and know to add a whole range of ingredients in measurements that seem arbitrary until the finished dish is tasted. The chef had no way to articulate knowing how or why it needed X amount of an ingredient, just that it did. So many recipes actually have the insruction “season to taste,” based on experience and instinct.
I feel my time is much more wisely spent giving personal feedback to my students that apply directly to their work, hopefully giving them the experience and instinct needed to understand the grade I assign to them, rather than the generic comments associated with rubrics.
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