Rubrics versus letting kids “give it a go”

I must admit that I don’t love rubrics.  They take a long time to write and sometimes it is hard to know what they actually say, even when I wrote them!  In fact, when I have marked using arubric I often find that it is not helpful to me at all:  either I put down things on the rubric that arent’ true once I mark it or I have used such vague language on the rubric (e.g. “uses effective communication strategies”) that I don’t really know what I am looking for.  So, if I am having difficulties using the rubric then maybe the kids are too????

Rubrics and checkbrics became popular because traditionally the assessment of student work was done in a vacuum.  Teachers couldn’t articulate what they were looking for and students had no idea what to produce.  Research showed that when teachers knew how they would be assessing a product ahead of time, and shared that information with students, student achievement increased.  Except what the research didn’t say was that it was really, really hard to come up with a good rubric or good set of success criteria for a checkbric.  What the research didn’t say was that even if we shared it with kids it might take them a long time to get it.  What the research didn’t say was that sometimes our rubrics and checkbrics led students to produce formulaic work that was devoid of creativity and simply a case of task-completion.

Assessment is the hardest part of teaching, and it doesn’t really get easier because the more you refine your teaching practice, the more you have to change your assessment. And it is important that teachers have a clear idea of what they are looking for when they assess and that we let students in on the secret.  But….I do think that there are some instances where we need to give ourselves permission to not be too clear, at first.

When students are first learning how to do something (such as write a response to reading, write in writer’s workshop, develop a scientific report, solve a math problem, play a new piece of music, give an oral report or any other task that you know that students will have multiple opportunities to try over the course of the year) let them muck about with it first before handing out the rubric.  This accomplishes a few things.

One, it gives students a chance to try something without thinking you are going to MARK IT.  Even if you say it is ‘just formative’ you will get some worried and uptight kids who think more about “getting it right” than about thinking it through. This doesn’t mean you don’t have mini lessons, offer suggestions or teach.  But, see what happens with your students risk-taking if they aren’t comparing their work to a rubric or exemplar  right away.

Second, it gives you a chance to breathe and think and look at student work and then decide what exactly do you want the success criteria to be.  Are you getting what you want or not?  Is this particular task going to provide you with rich information about your students?  Is it at the right level of challenge?  If you were marking these what would you be looking for?  If you work in collaborative teams you could do some teacher moderation and determine what you really think students at your grade level will be able to do after some more instruction.  And, what are the next steps?  If you decide the task isn’t really getting at what you want, you still have an opportunity to change it, revise it, rethink your approach.

Third, it gives you an opportunity to co-create rubrics, anchor charts and checkbrics with your students.  Often, when we jump to the co-creation stage before students have had a chance to try the task and even think about the criterion.  If they have had a chance to give it a go, and perhaps work with the peers or have a look at their peers’ work, they will be in a much better place to help determine the success criteria.

Fourth, it will help you to avoid students producing products that are carbon copies of each other.  After all, in a critical thinking environment, there should be some room for creativity and individuality.  I want my tasks to be open-ended enough that these things are possible.  If you do want cookie-cutter products, then give an example and a rubric and some instructions and most students will comply.  But if your task is more complex than that, it may be worthwhile to let students try things out a bit first.  After a few attempts you can share some exemplars of work to help students link the teaching in the mini-lessons to the student work.  From there your class can gradually arrive at a collective understanding of the success criteria.  The advantage is that students will now have an opportunity to see that the success criteria can be met in a variety of ways.  I might write about the Rebellion of 1837 in narrative form and you might write about it in an editorial but we could both meet the success criteria of having identified the key historical points and presented the information from a specific historical perspective.  You might present your math solution using an algoriethm and I might show my solution in diagram form but we both have shown complete solutions that someone else would understand and identified the answer.

Fifth, if you adopt this stance you are more likely to create tasks that provide students with multiple entry points and many opportunities to practice.  If you always create the rubric immediately and mark every attempt against it, there is a chance that your rubric or checkbric is no more than the instructions for how to complete a task.  Completing a task is much different than learning through doing (see this post for more).

The only rule is that there are no secrets; students shouldn’t be surprised when they get back a graded piece of work.  In fact, their self-predicted grade should be close to the actual grade.  Beyond that, take a deep breathe (particularly if you are trying something new), give kids and yourself a chance to try things out, use their attempts to plan out your next steps, and guide them through teaching, small group instruction and the co-creation of success criteria.  And then continue to give them many opportunities to try it out before you “grade” their work against that rubric or checkbric.

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Filed under assessment, Authentic Tasks, Uncategorized

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