My youngest came home with the map of Africa he had worked on all last week in class, his disappointing grade scrawled across his assignment book.

"What happened?" I asked.

From the teacher's point of view, it was obvious. She had written a careful rubric, describing exactly what was required for the assignment, how it would be graded, and how each part of it contributed to the final grade. He was missing several key parts of the project - identifying the prime meridian, marking the equator, naming only one of two seas - as well as more problematic errors. It was a fair grade for a fair project that had been carefully explained.

But he had been clueless.

This incident really struck me because my brother also teaches middle school social studies. Just last week, we'd been talking about how his students seemed to be divided into two groups: those who understood rubrics and those who didn't.

Rubrics, for those of you who didn't grow up with them, are a terrific educational innovation. With a rubric, teachers lay out explicit components on which an assignment is to be judged and how much each will contribute to the final grade. In well developed rubrics, this includes criterion to help students judge what would constitute excellent, good, and inadequate performance on each criteria. I've included a rubric at the bottom of the blog that I use to help students working together on a group project work well together . In the middle and at the end of the project, they use this rubric to evaluate themselves and each other.

To be useful, students need to work with rubrics at the beginning of project, while they are working on it, and look at again after it has been evaluated. Teachers need to use rubrics in designing the assignment as well as judging it and can use rubrics as a way of explaining and teaching learning goals.

Rubrics Need to Be Handed Out Ahead of Time.

Importantly, rubrics should be given out BEFORE you begin working on an assignment This allows students to:

  • Understand the instructions and what work is expected of them
  • Understand teachers' expectations for what constitutes high quality work
  • Understand the relative importance of different components of a project, so they can judge where to put their time

When I hand out my rubric for group participation at the beginning of a group project, there's usually a collective OH! in my classroom. Yes, students have a gut idea of what annoys them when other people don't contribute to a group project. But most haven't clearly thought through what makes someone a great group member. Similarly, when I hand out rubrics for paper assignments, many students don't have a clear understanding of exactly what differentiates a B from an A paper. Laying out the criteria for ‘excellence' helps them to understand those differences.

The worse the student, the less likely they are to already know what excellent performance is and what you're looking for. Excellent students use rubrics to dot I's and cross T's. Less savvy students use them as guidelines to improve ‘okay' performance.

In other words, a major function of rubrics is EDUCATIONAL. They help students understand what it means to do good work. My previous post, An Exercise in Clapping, discusses that explicitly.

Rubrics as a tool for grading

A second major purpose of rubrics is, of course, to help in grading. Rubrics help keep teachers focused on their criteria and helps make them fairer as they read across a range of papers with different strengths and weaknesses.

I like rubrics for grading papers because it helps me to separate out students who write well, but don't necessarily do a good job on other aspects of the project - like fully explaining the methodology or adequately supporting their arguments with a strong literature review. Rubrics let me give credit for good scientific writing - one of the things I am trying to teach - but not let it overwhelm lack of strong content. Similarly, rubrics help me to recognize students who have excellent content but aren't strong writers.

The trick to writing a good rubric for a complex assignment like a paper or a presentation is building in enough ‘slack' to recognize that the sum is often greater than the parts and to recognize the many different ways that a project can be excellent. I almost always add a line in my rubric - with attached points - for exactly that type of judgment.

When kids miss the point

My youngest could tell me every single thing he had missed on the rubric, as well as those components he had done well on (including neatness - a chronic problem and a real triumph on this project).

Rubrics give you very explicit feedback on areas of strength and areas to work on. This is another major strength.

But when - remembering my chat with my brother - I asked him what rubrics were for, he just looked at me like I was crazy.

"That's how we get graded."

"But how do YOU use them?"

He just looked puzzled.

The idea that the rubric was a tool for HIM had obviously never crossed his mind. He thought rubrics were a tool for the teacher.

Rubrics as a tool for students

Rubrics are useful for students because they:

  • Explicitly describe assignment and criteria
  • Allow students to check their own work against the criteria the teacher will use to judge their work
  • Fill in gaps and address problems before they turn the work in.


  • They serve as a CHECKLIST to make sure you haven't forgotten anything.
  • They serve as a way to understand the perspective of the person judging you.

The latter is particularly important for middle schoolers, who haven't yet fully developed perspective taking ability. They are also extremely important for students whose background is such that their own judgment and the teachers' may diverge.

When teachers develop good rubrics for well designed assignments, it helps support learning by helping the students do the tasks expected of them. You can't learn from an assignment if you don't do it. And learning is, after all, the point.

My youngest never thought of that.

  • He thought he knew what he was supposed to do.
  • He had a good internal idea of what constituted ‘excellence'.
  • He was working hard and he knew that was important.

And it is.

  • The teacher knew what the rubric was for.
  • She knew how it could help her students.
  • She THOUGHT they would know too.

But at least some of the students didn't. They didn't know how to use the tools that were handed them.

That's a problem that we, as teachers, don't think about very much. But maybe it's something we should. Helping students understand why we do what we do in the classroom and how it can help them may help students better understand how to use the tools we offer.

And it can help us to make things more explicit for ourselves as well.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved


A Rubric For Working On a Group Project:

Rubric for Group Work

Understanding what makes you a group member can improve performance

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