Sunday, April 18, 2010

The grading rubric: a double-edged sword (part 1)

I'm about one-third of my way through the second set of papers this semester. We (the teaching fellows) have been strongly encouraged to provide our students with "grading rubrics" for each written or oral assignment that we expect them to complete. If you've been out of the education "loop" for a while, the term "grading rubric" is probably new to you. Basically, it's a table that has a row for each criterion that the teacher plans on factoring into the grade, and columns that describe what the student needs to do to achieve a certain number of points for each criterion. For example, to earn the maximum number of "grammar and style" points, a paper needs to be "almost entirely free" of spelling or grammatical errors. Several errors that do not detract from the reader's ability to understand the paper earn fewer points, and errors that distract the reader and hinder his or her ability to follow the flow of the paper earn fewer still.

Gone (long gone) are the days when students simply handed in their best work and hoped that the teacher would evaluate their papers objectively (my undergrad experience). Gone, too (but more recently departed) are the days when instructors simply included a few sentences in their syllabi that explained what their vision of an "A" paper or a "B" paper (and so on) was, and what they considered absolutely unacceptable (my early grad school years). Now, it's tables and formulas and calculator-punching.

Why the change? Because today's college students want--nay, demand--rubrics. Today's college students (especially the freshmen) have spent the last 12 years being "taught to the test." The increased attention given to scoring highly on the endless barrage of standardized tests that children and teenagers are subjected to has driven many elementary and secondary educators to exchange the art of training minds for the business of programming young brains to churn out the answers that the test designers want to see. Our schools no longer produce creative critical thinkers and independent learners but automatons with well-trained memories. And the result is that students who have "graduated" from this system simply cannot function in a subjective learning environment. They panic--visibly--when given free reign to choose a paper topic. They want to know exactly what they need to know for an exam (I hear you saying, "But our generation did that, too," and I grant your point, but today's students have taken it to a ridiculous level.). And they expect that their more "subjective" assignments like oral presentations and paper will be graded as if they were standardized tests.

Now, rubrics aren't without their advantages, and I'll have more to say about that in my next post, but I have yet to find or create one that ended up assinging the grades that I intuitively want to assign. I'm frustrated. I feel that the required use of grading rubrics is robbing my students of some valuable lessons. But since I'm out of time for tonight, I'll have to pick this thread up again next time. Stay tuned!

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