What’s a Rubric? + Upcoming Teaching Showcase

Clarifying the Qualities of Successful Work

Those of us who assign final projects (papers, presentations, videos, reports, etc.) have probably all had the experience of feeling perplexed by a lackluster batch of student work. Sometimes we may wonder if students even really knew what they were trying to accomplish. While the issue may sometimes be that they have procrastinated, or had to juggle a mountain of projects for all their various courses, other times their work doesn’t meet our expectations because we haven’t been as transparent as we could about what we’re expecting.

Transparent assignment descriptions make three important aspects of any assignment very clear and concrete for students: the purpose (i.e., why we ask them to do it); the task itself, with all its component parts; and the criteria for success. In particular, clarifying this last aspect can help our students have a better idea of when they’re meeting the expectations of the project and when they need to keep working on it. Limited time is one reason why many students don’t complete multiple drafts of their work, but another is that they don’t know how to gauge whether or not they’re meeting the goals of the assignment, so often they give up after a first pass.

If you have a rubric or a set of specifications, it’s best to provide it to the students when you launch the project—before they try to tackle it. But having a rubric and being able to make heads or tails of it are not necessarily closely akin. Evaluation criteria that seem clear and meaningful to us may not be so for students, and they need our support to interpret and practice applying them.

Students benefit a great deal from opportunities to work with examples, so that they have some models in their minds for each criterion. For example, if having a strong, arguable thesis is a criterion, students first need to understand what a thesis is and isn’t before they can move on to evaluating the quality of one. If effectively using evidence from primary sources to support claims is a criterion, students need to be able to see examples of how this might be done at all before they move on to evaluating whether or not it’s been done well. If they don’t have any models in their minds, their work might look like a person trying to draw an elephant without ever having seen one.

Once students have developed an understanding of the criteria, they can practice using them to evaluate sample work. It’s worth spending some class time helping them to do this, but you could also make it a homework assignment. Students don’t necessarily need to see exceptional samples—in fact, they will learn more from evaluating a few examples of projects that met some of the goals but not others. Students need to learn how to assess their own learning and success, so it helps them to identify where a sample fell short of the mark, what strengths it has and how it could build on them, and what it lacks entirely. It also shows them there is more than one way to accomplish the goals.

If you’re facilitating an activity in class, it can be very useful to have students read/watch a few examples individually, and attempt to evaluate them by the standards you’ve given them, then compare notes in small groups. You can end by asking a few groups to share out about their observations, so that you can calibrate and ensure that they’re identifying and interpreting correctly. Helping students develop a better understanding of the criteria and practice applying it can also be a great way to set them up for a successful peer review activity or assignment. They will be better prepared to give one another accurate and detailed feedback that they can use to revise their work before they submit it to be graded.

Taking the time to help students understand the qualities of successful work is worth it; it helps them learn, and it saves you time on providing lots of feedback later. Plus, you get the pleasure of seeing their good work. If you’d like support to make your evaluation criteria more transparent, or to plan an activity that will help students interpret and apply it, we’d be happy to help! You can email us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu for a consultation. We look forward to working with you!


Provost’s Showcase of Scholarly Teaching

Friday, April 5th | 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. | SSB 201/203

We are delighted to invite all faculty, staff, and teaching assistants to attend the inaugural Provost’s Showcase of Scholarly Teaching hosted this spring by CAT and FSU Libraries. This FSU-based mini conference offers opportunities to attend poster sessions where you’ll learn more about your colleagues’ innovative teaching practices, and to participate in roundtable discussions on a variety topics relevant to teaching across disciplines and contexts. We hope you’ll be inspired and enjoy building community around teaching with colleagues you might not otherwise have a chance to meet. Please join us to celebrate FSU colleagues’ outstanding teaching and energize yours, too! Refreshments will be provided.