The Rationale for Rubrics

October 10, 2014 Aaron Dewald

Rubrics are instructional tools that are used to describe how student performance will be assessed. If you read my previous blog post, you might begin to see a connection between learning objectives and rubrics. Remember that we’ve previously said that learning outcomes need to be measurable. Rubrics allow teachers to do this by breaking down a learning objective into smaller, more easily measured pieces called criteria, levels, and descriptors.

rubric grading

The parts of a rubric.
Criteria are the rows of a rubric. Each row represents a criteria that you’ve decided is an important piece of the student product that you would like to measure. In Figure 1, this is the “Development of Ideas” box.

Each criteria is judged by a set of levels. These levels give you an ability to discriminate between varying levels of performance. Many rubrics are broken down categorically (i.e., beginner, intermediate, advanced) or numerically (1, 2, 3, 4). As you can see across the top row in Figure 1, we’ve chosen to use category-based levels.

At the intersection of a criteria and level is a descriptor. These descriptors describe what the work product should represent. They need to be descriptive enough so that a teacher can easily judge whether or not the product meets the requirements of the descriptor. These descriptors should be written in a way that allows you to discriminate between each of the levels.

Let’s take a look at a short example. Pretend we’re using a rubric to measure the writing of a blog post. Take a look the following rubric and see if you can rate this blog post according to the criteria, levels, and descriptors of the rubric.


Stevens and Levi (2005) propose that rubrics, when used effectively, have distinct advantages in the classroom. Some of these advantages are:

● Rubrics can make grading and giving feedback a more efficient process for teachers.
● Rubrics can make a teacher’s intentions and expectations on an assignment very concrete and clear.
● Rubrics can provide a form of feedback in relation to their current abilities – highlighting where they are strong and not so strong with their work. Rather than a percentage or letter grade, students can use the criteria, levels, and descriptors to tell them more information about their work.

Rubrics aren’t just for instructors.
Not only are rubrics used by professors to rate and grade student performance, but they can also be used to allow students to judge the quality of their own work. These valuable judgment skills are also known as metacognitive skills. Metacognition, in essence, is “thoughts about one’s own thoughts and cognitions” (Flavell, 1979). Why is this important? Students who develop metacognitive skills, such as self-regulation, self-assessment, and self-monitoring, have been shown to have better learning outcomes than those who do not (Andrade, 1999; Andrade, 2000; Bielaczyc, Pirolli, & Brown, 1995; Sparrow, 2004). Students can use the rubric to self-assess and self-monitor their own progress in the criteria set forth by the instructor. When students are given the rubric ahead of time, they have an opportunity to self-assess their work, comparing their current work product to the rubric and developing an understanding of how their work applies to your criteria. Over time, this iterative process can help scaffold metacognitive skills and create better, more effective learners.

About the Author

Aaron Dewald

Aaron is currently a Ph.D. candidate in learning science, which gives him a unique perspective on technology use in pedagogical situations. Aaron received his B.S. in Information Systems from North Dakota State University in 2001, and his M.Ed. in Instructional Design and Educational Technology from the University of Utah in 2010.

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