5 Ways to Blow the Top Off of Rubrics

This is a guest post from Shawn McCusker of EdTechTeacher.org which is an advertiser on this blog. 

Do you have a rubric for that?

Rubrics, designed to help teachers grade fairly and convey their learning objectives and performance standards to students, can serve a critical role especially with technology-rich projects. Teachers also like them for standardizing grading among teachers teaching the same course. At their best, rubrics firmly establish a minimum standard for learning and product construction. At their worst, rubrics become a recipe that can lead to all students producing the same product. In these cases, creativity and the development of unique products become a casualty to tightly constructed standards.

“If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that’s not a project, that’s a recipe.” – Chris Lehmann

Especially with 1:1 or BYOD classrooms, where individualized learning should be the norm, this is a huge potential problem. In these classrooms, it is still important to effectively convey the learning objective. However, it is the rare rubric that both provides guidance as well as addresses the task of grading the widely varying assignments generated when students have real freedom to choose what they create.

“Individualized instruction is a method of instruction in which content, instructional technology (such as materials) and pace of learning are based upon the abilities and interests of each individual learner” via Wikipedia

Rubrics can become barriers to creativity and fall short when they provide a stopping point – where, once each component is checked, the assignment is done and learning and creation stop. There is incredible power in letting students pursue their interests and express their creativity. The products that result from this pursuit of passion and interest will always stand out when placed next to those created through a sense of duty and obligation.

Placing a list of “have to’s” at the top of a rubric is like building a wall at the bottom of a slide.

It completely destroys the ride and subverts the joy of the creative process, providing an off-switch. The way teachers assess individualized learning needs to be adapted in consideration of this.

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in the creative art of expression and knowledge.” Albert Einstein

Blow the top off of your rubrics to encourage students to keep pursuing their learning. Leave the basic level standards in place to help students meet the assignment’s objective and support students who need more structure, but then create a rubric with a blatant challenge and ample encouragement for students to push themselves beyond the basic requirements.


5 Ways to Blow the Top Off of Rubrics:

  1. One of my favorites is to modify the definition of an “A” to include this language: “A project that in some way redefines the teachers definition of excellence.” The video below is an example of a student who did just that: she could have submitted a Venn diagram for this project but chose instead to do this RSA style video.
  2. Where possible, eliminate simple checklists from your definition of “Exemplary”. Students who are given a checklist will do just that, check off the list. When everything is checked, their minds will tell them that they are done. That is not how excellence is created.
  3. Avoid having too many rules and extraneous limits in your rubric. Making too many restrictions stifles creativity, and makes students nervous and cautious. Stick to standards that make the learning objectives clear without being overwhelming. Rubrics don’t need to reaffirm every standard of work established over the course of the year.
  4. Use language that supports taking creative risks. Encourage “Daring” and “Unique” work. Charge students with something more than simply meeting or exceeding a standard. Often rubrics can sound too clinical, use rubrics to issue a challenge.
  5. Allow room for mistakes and errors in excellent work, especially where new tools and technologies are concerned. Creativity takes time to polish, and overly punitive standards can make students feel that creative risks aren’t worth their effort.

Rubrics have been a valid and effective tool for teachers to evaluate both a student’s process, as well as their products, and can remain so if they are adapted to fit within the models of freedom and creativity. Like a fence, rubrics can keep students confined to a learning objective, but where excellence is concerned, make sure that the gate is left open. Ultimately, the goal is to allow for creative projects that you can’t imagine, but that your students can.

Shawn will be one of the lead instructors at our Summer Workshops in Chicago and Boston.


Thank You Readers for 14 Amazing Years!