That’s Not a Rubric, and You’re Using It Wrong: 5 Ways to Clean Up The Mess

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Nearly every time someone criticizes rubrics or speaks to the damage they inflict on learners, I can’t help but agree with their criticisms. The problem is, the tool they’re criticizing often isn’t a rubric and the way they’re using it is all wrong.

If you take to Google, you’ll be hard pressed to find one common definition of what a rubric is. As Jennifer Borgioli suggests, rubrics have a long history, and the criteria seem to shift quite a bit.

If quality is hard to define, how can I tell that a rubric is a mess?

Because it isn’t performing in a way that promotes learning.

Sometimes, the problem is solved by simply redesigning the rubric. Most of the time though, teachers need to change how they’re using the rubric as well.

Here are five ways to clean up a messy rubric:

1. First, know and honor the attributes of quality rubrics. They aren’t about grades, evaluation, or standardization. They’re about making expectations as transparent as possible, providing learners a clear pathway to follow as they strive to get better at something that really matters, and giving everyone criteria to speak to as they provide one another formative feedback.

2. Craft rubrics with your students. Begin by determining what learners will create, and show them how to commit creative theft. Challenge them to locate and study a bunch of examples. Coach them to name the criteria that define what quality looks like. Let them use what they’re learning to begin crafting a rubric. This helps them create a plan of attack for themselves. It helps them distinguish degrees of quality as well. Predicting stages of proficiency is clarifying. It helps learners create a pathway to success as well.

3. Quit speaking to what’s missing, lacking, weak, or broken. Craft rubrics in ways that speak to what is present and what learners might be ready to try next. Great rubrics prompt learners to wonder, “What if?” and “How might I?” They inspire conversations and plans, not judgments.

4. Use the rubric to promote learning…bit by bit. Rather than asking students to attend to all dimensions all at once, help them identify a single dimension of their work that they’d like to improve upon. Then, encourage them to isolate that dimension and the content of the levels aligned to it. Learners can use the rubric to set goals and create a pathway toward improvement. They can also use the rubrics to provide one another feedback. When they make new discoveries about what quality looks like, they should be encouraged to add these criteria. Rubrics aren’t sets of rules to follow, after all. They’re dynamic tools.

5. Ditch the numbers and leave grades out of the conversation. When rubrics are created with learners, and when they use them to self-assess, reflect, and provide feedback throughout the learning process, students gain confidence and achieve incredible things. When rubrics are attached to assignment directions and revisited only by the teacher when grades are applied, messes are made.

Are you a teacher who knows what it takes to clean up the mess created by lousy rubrics and misguided practices? I hope you’ll share your ideas below.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at

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