Teaching Writing Using Rubrics

Evaluating student writing can be difficult, and assuring consistent grading from one assignment to the next and between various faculty/TA graders can be particularly challenging. You might ask, why is this? Many factors contribute to the issues we face when evaluating student writing. For example, we all read student work differently, we all have different expectations of what good writing looks like, we often have different readers (e.g. TAs or co-assigned faculty grading assignments), and we often have limited time to read and provide feedback.. You likely have additional issues that could be added to this list.

For me and my TAs, rubrics helped solve many of these issues with grading, particularly related to time and consistency. The rubric used in my course focused on writing – attributes of quality writing – rather than course content. At first look, a writing-focused rubric may seem as if it would not be applicable to specific content course. However, good writing crosses all disciplines, and student achievement of course skills in a given discipline can be embedded in the elements of a writing rubric. This is because a writing rubric covers organization, ideas, use of appropriate words and sentences, and basic mechanics, all of which are applicable to any course.

There are many rubrics available to evaluate writing. Analytic rubrics break down the elements of writing with each of these elements evaluated one-by-one. Holistic rubrics, on the other hand, roll the elements into high, middle, low ‘bundles’ to then give an overall – one- score. Here are some sample analytic (by detail) and holistic (bundled) rubrics:

Of course, more can be found using an easy Google search of ‘rubrics’ to find others. There are also many sample rubrics in John Bean’s wonderful writing and teaching resource book, Engaging Ideas.

How I Use Rubrics

The Evidence-based Practice Nursing course (DOC) that I teach requires students to select a clinical issue and follow it through the semester as a mastery assignment. Students begin with a persuasive argument paper (DOC), making the case as to why this particular issue is a problem in their clinical area. They progress through the project by identifying background research that ultimately leads them to a best practice recommendation to implement in their practice area.

For each of these assignments, the 6+1 analytic trait rubric (Sample 7 above) is used. Students receive a score on the scale of 1-6 (novice to expert). This is then summed for a total number of points. At the start of the semester, areas most important to writing — ideas, organization, and to some extent, correct technical word choices — are emphasized.

Two assignments are also peer-reviewed, including the Storyboard and Script assignment and the Rebuttal Paper (DOC). Peer reviewers use the same rubric to evaluate their classmates’ writing. This strategy allows students to see how other writers approached the same assignment as well as actively use the analytic elements to evaluate writing from their classmates. In this way, peer review reinforces elements of good writing and subtly encourages each student writer to compare and contrast his/her own writing with the work of others.

While the rubric used in this course is composition based, it also captures the content or “lessons” of the course. With the exception of one assignment (research table), the rubric is used for all grading, which add up to a final course grade. To assure all course instructors (lead faculty and TAs) score the rubric in the same way, training and norming is done together using student samples, both well done and those that missed the mark. During training, content reflecting achievement of course objectives as well as writing expectations are covered. Because both course content and writing are tightly connected in this course, there are times when TAs ask for help to sort out points on student work. You may find this same challenge if you use rubrics to evaluate both writing and content.

Benefits of Using Rubrics

  1. Keeps a focus on writing: Using a rubric allows students to develop their evidence-based best practice recommendation (the course objectives!) but also keep the focus clearly on elements of quality writing.
  2. Makes comparing progress easier: By using the same rubric throughout, faculty were able to compare early work with later work and demonstrate changes and progression to each student. In addition, faculty are able to build on comments from earlier assignments.
  3. Makes expectations clear: Students knew what to expect from one assignment to the next and, by repetition, learn the attributes of good writing. Breaking the attributes into specific areas (ideas, organization, etc.) allows these novice students new to professional writing in our discipline to see where they excelled and areas to work on and further develop.
  4. Makes peer review meaningful: As a result of peer review, students are able to identify these elements present or absent in others’ writing and ultimately, in their own writing.
  5. Offers consistency: When there are many graders or instructors, rubrics provide more consistent, focused feedback to students. Graders are able to norm scoring more easily and consistently and apply grading standards in a more uniform way.
  6. Saves time: The holistic rubric is efficient and a time saver for faculty when grading. It can be used effectively for an early course assignment, giving students an overview (the 30,000 foot view) of good writing.
  7. Shows progress: The holistic rubric can be effective at the end of the course to summarize a mastery assignment that is completed during the semester. A holistic score on the final assignment again provides that 30,000 foot perspective on if, how, and what students are able to meet course objectives.

If you plan to incorporate rubrics into your courses to evaluate writing, there are a few points to consider. Select a rubric that captures the “lessons” you are trying to communicate to students in your course. As you plan your course, set up the rubric point system so that students can be successful and earn “improvement points” over the semester. To implement your rubric with your assignments, consider a stepwise, scaffolded approach to introduce the various attributes of the rubric over a several week period. In other words, target two or three attributes for students to focus on at the start of the semester and add attributes in later assignments. If you are also working with TAs, be certain to identify what they should be looking for in each of the rubric categories, since this may not be intuitive. Rubrics provide consistency and clarity to evaluate student writing, and in my opinion and experience, certainly offset the argument that they are too rigid and restrictive.