I like rubrics, but something has always seemed a little… “off” about them. Part of it is because they lend an air of objectivity to something that is inherently subjective. Is the student’s thesis “moderately compelling” or “very compelling?” Is the paper “generally neat” or “mostly neat?” 

I can understand the halo effect: teachers are humans, and humans find it very difficult to analyze the component pieces of a work in isolation — so the scores on our rubrics tend to cluster around our overall impression of the piece. I’m also concerned that rubrics can short-circuit growth. High-achieving students might attain all of the highest marks with their first draft, while struggling students can be overwhelmed by the amount of necessary improvements.

And speaking of work, rubrics can be downright onerous. If you’re evaluating carefully and collecting evidence to support each of your marks, grading each student in every criteria takes a ridiculous amount of time and energy. In an environment where teachers are overworked and overstressed, the last thing we need is extra onerousness. 

Thus, gentle readers, I present to you a simple shift that you can use to make rubrics more powerful and less time consuming.

Ranking, Not Rubrics

Consider the situation where a rubric is being used formatively. In this situation, students will focus on an area or two to improve their work. The emphasis is on identifying those areas for improvement. So instead of giving students a score in every area, rank how well they did in each dimension, from the area where they were the best to the area where they need the most improvement. Better yet, have them rank themselves. 

This does two things: first, it focuses attention on one or two places where the student can improve, regardless of the overall quality of the work. It also forces the evaluator to make decisions; you can’t lump things together as equally good. Finally, it saves a ton of time.

Once you’ve identified two areas for improvement, share some advice for improving those specific areas. This can be standard advice, or it can be more specific. Since it’s narrowed down to just one or two dimensions, you can afford to spend a little more time on each. The student, armed with specific advice about how to improve the weakest areas of their work, has powerful, actionable advice. If you’re doing subsequent formative evaluations of the work, you can see whether those areas for improvement persist, or whether new areas for improvement develop.

Using ranking instead of full rubrics for formative assessment saves you time and helps focus student revisions.

Exemplars, not Adjectives

What is a dog? If we taught students to identify dogs the way we often use rubrics, they’d be constantly frustrated. But somehow, our students can quickly and easily recognize dogs — because they’ve seen a lot of examples.

Use that same principle by collecting exemplars. Instead of merely telling students what a 1, 2, 3, or 4 looks like with regard to a certain criterion, show them. This dramatically clarifies what it actually looks like when a piece is above or below average. This might be difficult to do immediately, but it’s an incredibly valuable long-term project. Just sock away a few examples from each category this year. Remove student names, and you’ve got an incredibly valuable teaching tool. Add more as the years go on, and collaborate with your colleagues to expand your exemplar pool.

Rubrics have their role, certainly. But with a few simple twists we can save ourselves time, provide students with more clarity, help them focus their efforts to improve, and level up learning in our classrooms!

Looking for more resources to take the burden off your classroom this year? Be sure to check out our free strategies and lessons at Blueappleteacher.com!