Thursday, April 22, 2010

The grading rubric: a double-edged sword (part 2)

In my last post, I talked about how the grading rubric came to be pervasive in higher education. This time, I'll explain my "double-edged sword" label.

First, grading rubrics do have several advantages. They give students--especially freshmen, who have enough anxiety just adjusting to college--a feeling of security. They give an illusion of objectivity, which students equate with fairness. Consequently, grading rubrics can serve to shield faculty against charges of grading bias, and, in fact, my colleagues and I have noticed that fewer students challenge the grades that they receive when rubrics are used. It's harder for a student to say, "I think my paper deserved a B instead of a C+" when s/he can see exactly where the paper in question falls on the "grammar and style" scale, for example.

But grading rubrics also have a couple of serious flaws, at least in my estimation. First, rubrics have reduced the "art" of evaluation to number-crunching, usually with less-than-satisfactory results. Teachers know what I mean here; we grade by "instinct" as much as by formulae. Most teachers instinctively know what an "A" paper looks like, and what distinguishes it from a "B" paper, or a "C" paper, and so on. Most of us can probably also describe the qualities of "A," "B," and "C" papers in a few sentences at need (the approach that I mentioned in my last post). But coming up with a full rubric that always assigns the grade that I would instinctively give has been frustrating. I have found that assignments graded by rubrics tend to earn higher marks than I instinctively want to give them, frequently by half a letter grade. For example, several papers that I instinctively categorized as "C" papers actually turned out to be low "B"s when the numbers were tallied. I'm not sure why this is; either I'm still trying to figure out just how much weight I really want to place on grammar vs. organization vs. ideas, or I tend to grade papers as whole units, rather than as composites of four different categories that all get individual grades that are then averaged together. Second, in my experience with undergrads so far, rubrics encourage students to give less than their best effort on every assignment. Rather than reading through an instructor's general description of an "A" paper and doing his/her best work in hopes of receiving a good grade, students look at rubrics and decide that they can sacrifice a few "format" points in order to use a larger font or wider margins (i.e., write a shorter paper), or that they can sacrifice a few "grammar and style" points by not proofreading their work (i.e., procrastinating).

I really suspect that student performance would improve if I was allowed to grade without rubrics. Sure, there would be an initial, anxious period in which the students adjusted to the uncertainty, but isn't life itself uncertain? How is "teaching to the rubric" (or to the standardized tests that started this mess in the first place) helping young people adjust to the adult world? Don't we want to produce workers who are confident in exercising their own initiative, rather than being micromanaged? I think so.

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