Do Grading Rubrics Hurt or Help Students?

Many eons ago, back when I was just a young lad in school, I felt as though word of grading rubrics hadn’t reached my school district in the small state of New Hampshire; therefore, my teachers only ever told us about assignments with very few details on what to include and how to receive the grade we wanted to work towards earning.  “You will need to write a 3-page essay, due on Friday, explaining the impact of WWII on the world,” was similar to how many of my teachers informed us of graded assignments or projects.  They provided very little detail on what was expected of us as students.  Did I need to use complete sentences?  Was I required to include a bibliography?  Did I need to include support from my sources?  How was I supposed to earn an A on this essay if my teachers never told me what was expected?

I am a very concrete thinker who craves feedback and specific instructions.  Just tell me exactly what to do and how to do it, and I will get it done as soon as possible.  I don’t like gray area or instructions that are open to interpretation.  “Attach piece A to piece B” kind of instructions frustrate me because I don’t know how they want me to do what is being asked of me.  I like things clearly spelled out for me. “Using two of the 1/4″ screws, attach piece A to piece B as displayed in the image below.”  Now those are my kind of directions, as I know exactly what is being asked of me.

In school, I was the very same way.  I hated that my teachers never clearly or specifically explained assignments to me.  Even when I asked for clarification on what was being asked of me, my teachers provided me with very little explanation.  Why?  What purpose does confusion serve?  If they want me to do something in a specific manner, then they need to tell me, I often thought.  And, it was clear that my teachers had a specific set of expectations in mind when assigning tasks to us because not everyone received the same grade, which meant that they wanted us to include support from our sources, include a bibliography, and use complete paragraphs and sentences.  So, if they had in mind what they wanted us to do, why did they not tell us?  Why keep us in the dark?  Ohh how frustrating that was for me.

When I first became a teacher, I employed grading tactics that I wished my teachers had utilized.  I provided my students with specific details and rubrics regarding assignments, as I wanted them to know exactly what was being asked of them.  I detailed every last expectation in these grading rubrics including font size, number of paragraphs, and everything else in between.  I wanted my students to be informed and not confused.  I feel like this method of grading worked.  My students knew what to do, and they either chose to do it or not do it.  Those who didn’t do what was expected of them chose not to do it rather than being unaware of what was expected.  My students knew how their grades were calculated and had very few questions about grading and assignments.  Rubrics allowed my students to know exactly what they needed to do for every graded assignment, and there was no room for interpretation or confusion.  I liked that, at first.

But what about creativity and problem solving?  If I always told my students exactly what was expected of them for various assignments, how did I know if they could think critically or solve problems on their own?  In this day and age, people need to know how to think for themselves in creative and innovative ways.  If teachers are always spelling out exactly what students need to know and show, then how will they ever learn how to create and solve problems on their own?

It was then that I began to realize why my teachers did what they did when I was in school.  They wanted me to be creative, interpret directions, and solve problems.  They didn’t want me to simply regurgitate what I had learned in class.  They wanted me to think critically about facts and information learned in order to analyze and interpret them.  While I used a fixed mindset in school, I now realize what my teachers were trying to get me to do.  They wanted me to utilize a growth mindset so that I could become the best student possible, which is why they didn’t use grading rubrics or specifically detail assignments for me.  Regardless of their goals and hopes for me, I was still a very frustrated student.

So, I realized, that as a teacher, I needed to strike a balance between explaining assignments and preventing creativity from happening.  That’s when I began to do away with grading rubrics and instead explained assignments to students and answered any questions my students had about the task or what was being asked of them.  Rather than detail every part of the objective and assignment, I allowed the students to think for themselves and ask questions regarding what they wanted to know about the expectations.  This way, I hoped, to inspire more creativity and individual problem solving within my students.  While I believe that over the past few years since I’ve been using this model of introducing graded assignments, I’ve also helped my students learn how to think creatively and critically in order to solve problems on their own, I don’t have any data to support this claim.

As I crafted my Individualized Teacher Action Plan (ITIP) for this coming academic year, I began to realize what I wanted to focus on: Grading and rubrics.  Do detailed and specific rubrics hurt or help students?  If teachers provide too much information on grading rubrics, will students be unable to be creative in completing the task or assignment?  Should teachers use grading rubrics to introduce assignments to students?  What works and what doesn’t?  I want to know, unequivocally, if my current thought on grading rubrics is actually the best and most effective way to approach the introduction of assignments.

I spent several days researching this topic online to find out what was already written on the topic.  I can’t possibly be the first teacher to have this thought or question.  While I did find much information on grading and rubrics in general, I did not find an exact answer to my question.  Therefore, I’m going to spend time this year collecting and gathering data on rubrics and grading.  What is the best and most effective way to introduce assignments to students so as to inform them of the expectations, but not curtail their creativity?

I have already created two graded assignments, with two different explanations for my students.  Half of my students will receive a specific and detailed grading rubric for a task, while the other half will receive a brief explanation of the assignment.  Once the students have completed the task, I will assess, without grading, the quality of creativity and problem solving the two groups of students used when completing the task.  Did one group demonstrate more creativity than the other group?  I will then seek feedback from the students to find out how the assignment went for them.  Did they understand what was being asked of them?  Did the rubric provide too much information for them?  Did one group feel better equipped to tackle the task than the other group?  After doing this a few times over the first half of the year, I will reflect on the data gathered and determine the best way to introduce assignments to students.  I will then create task introductions based on what seems to be working best for my students, and hopefully, find the perfect balance between too much and not enough information regarding the expectations for assignments.

I also created a survey that I sent out to my students to complete prior to the start of the school year.  I want to find out how they were graded at their previous schools.  I also want to know what their experience with grading rubrics is and how they feel about them.  In collecting this data, I hope to be able to introduce and explain assignments and tasks to my students in meaningful and personalized ways so as to support and challenge my students accordingly.  I can’t wait to begin receiving the results of this survey.  What do my students think about grading and rubrics?

Once I begin to gather data and determine the best way to introduce assignments to students, I will update you all on my progress and the results of this study.  Do grading rubrics hurt or help students?

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