Who asked this question do you think? I most often hear about rubrics at seminars on pedagogy. Or from colleagues. Truthfully, I hear the word “rubric” most often when these colleagues are reminding me that I was to give them one several days in the past.
I’ve never really gotten the hang of rubrics. Despite having been paid to teach at an elite university for coming up on 20 years, I have no formal training to be a teacher. I’d feel bad but the same is true for most of my colleagues. At some point during my time in teaching, rubrics became hugely important and many people act as if there is no way to evaluate a student’s work or design a course without one. It’s surprising humanity managed education prior to their development.
I’d always just thought this was a bureaucratic struggle behind the scenes but, apparently, students are provided rubrics for their classwork.
To wit, as readers of this space (Hi, Bill and Lisa) are aware, I’m sitting in on a political science class taught by an Argentine professor. His syllabus is delightfully vague. The students have a single assignment: Choose some specific and detailed part of life (food, exercise, taxes, etc) and compare the Argentine to the American. They are then to give a 5-7 minute presentation on their findings. Here is the entirety of the directions for that:
Students will explain what they have observed in Argentina and what their own “national equivalent” is or how and why is it unique.
That’s it. Simple, to the point. The students are freaking right the hell out. It is occupying a not insignificant part of the group WhatsApp.
Finally, one of the students asked the professor a question that simply blew my mind. He asked, “Is there a rubric?” Our professor, bless his heart, was dumbfounded. “What is that? Just put something together. But serious, with thought.” They then stared at each other for a few moments.
This exchange gets to the heart of what education is. Anyone who has taught knows that the primary goal of a student is to first pass the class and then to earn a high grade. I doubt that has changed in several millenia. Moreover, they often complain bitterly about even a good grade if it isn’t as good as they think it should be. Thus, the rubric. With a rubric a teacher has a line of defense. It isn’t the teacher assigning a bad grade, it’s the formula. You needed to do X, Y and Z to collect enough points for the grade you want. The class becomes a scavenger hunt, a game. And some students are better at playing it than learning the material. I’m sure I’m not the only one is absolutely sure that they’ve given a student a B who knows the material, has thought more deeply about the material and retains the material better than a student in the same class who got an A. But it’s the rubric, man.
Rubrics also are a great aid in organizing a class and, despite my snark above, organization in the design of a course is absolutely essential. A lot of professors have wandered down a path in the middle of a class never to be seen again. Rubrics really help here.
What is the point of a university class? Our political science professor likens it to a gas mask that lets us explore poisonous issues without danger. His courses differ from mine (see previous post). But, in essence, isn’t the idea to teach students to think broadly and creatively about solving problems or exploring issues?
How does a rubric help that?
To me, the most powerful incentive I have is the student’s concern for their grade. I have seen students go to tremendous lengths on the promise of definitively securing a point that represents 0.1% of their grade while refusing to study more than a couple of hours per week because “effort isn’t graded”. If that is true, if grades are the most powerful weapon we have to motivate our students, it follows that the grade should be set up to encourage thought, discourse, exploration. Providing a rubric makes it easy to deflect an angry, grade-seeking student but it does nothing to promote exploration. Or mine don’t anyway. Maybe I should work on that. Or maybe I should keep on blundering through, making analogies to hitting a golf ball (don’t swing hard, swing correctly! And practice!) and let things take their course.
My students are urging me to do my own presentation. I finally told them I had it ready. I’m going to compare an Argentine professor with an American professor. I’ll spend three minutes describing the rubric and four minutes arguing with one of them about points. Done!