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Is it too early to think about grading?

image by flickr user davidsilver / cc licensed

image by flickr user davidsilver / cc licensed

Especially if your semester hasn’t started yet, it probably seems a bit early to think about grading.  But spending a little time now setting up the broad parameters of your papers or projects can pay off dramatically during the semester, when you’re too busy and tired to think straight.

I like to use rubrics when grading.  A rubric is a checklist or a template that you can use to quickly indicate strengths and weaknesses of a paper.  Here’s one that I use to grade a very focused close reading assignment that I call an “explication paper” (rubric; description of the assignment).

Rubrics can make grading faster: tick off boxes on the table or checklist, write out a quick terminal comment, and you’re done.  They also can help safeguard you against overcommenting.  Many rubrics come with points associated with various levels of achievement, so that assigning a grade is simply a matter of adding up the totals.  (You’ll note that mine doesn’t do that: I ended up spending too much time fiddling with the points to make ‘em agree with my internal sense of what the paper had achieved. I’ll also admit that I provide preposterous amounts of feedback.  Too much for many students, but, funnily enough, the exact amount I got from the three or four professors who influenced me the most.)

But the real advantages of rubrics are twofold:

  • They can make grading seem less subjective.  A rubric articulates standards of performance, and then it’s just a matter of comparing the rubric against the paper.  I can train a class to grade with my rubric with just a few sample papers.  If you do that before returning papers–and preferably before collecting them!–you get buy-in to your grading scheme.
  • They also make explicit the relationship between the assignment and the learning outcomes for the course.  If you’ve articulated what you want students to learn for the course, then you can explain more precisely what the assignment is measuring.  At that point, writing a rubric is simply a matter of turning those outcomes into different performance standards (usually on a 3- or 5-point scale).  All students know that professors want different things in writing assignments; this method helps make that seem less arbitrary.

For these points to achieve best pedagogical effect, it’s best to publicize the rubric before the assignment is due.  Put it online, or even photocopy it on the back of your assignment writeup.  If you can start thinking now about what you want each assignment to do, you can start roughing out a draft of a rubric that will be genuinely useful.

All of which is just to say that the economizing effect of rubrics is real, but by being upfront about your grading methods, you can also reinforce the pedagogical design of your course, and legitimize the (very hard, and surprisingly thankless) work of grading.

Do you use a rubric?  What works (or, alternatively, why not)?

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