Using Rubrics to Measure Affective Learning

October 9, 2014 Sarah Zahl

We all know that rubrics are useful when grading static learning artifacts such as papers and projects. Are you thinking about how to expand your use of rubrics to assess student learning and development in a dynamic way? Rubrics provide authentic assessment results when used in conjunction with realistic life situations that students will encounter in practice.
Importantly, rubrics are an effective tool to assess learning in the affective domain in addition to the cognitive and psychomotor domains. In undergraduate medical education, we assess student outcomes in three learning domains: cognitive (knowing), psychomotor (doing), and affective (feeling). Essentially, we are seeking answers to three questions when we assess student learning:

1. Do students know it?
2. Do they know how to do it?
3. How do they feel about doing it?

We need to assess a student’s ability to deal with emotions, values, and feelings in order to ensure that he/she will be able to develop personally and professionally when dealing with patients. For example, if you want to measure a student’s ability to show empathy to patients, rubrics allow you to develop performance expectations in this area. Without clear performance criteria, assessment in the affective learning domain may seem a bit obscure or subjective. However, rubrics provide explicit guidelines and detailed expectations that will help alleviate this confusion and standardize the assessment as much as possible. Students receive scores and written feedback on each rubric criterion, giving them detailed guidelines to improve their patient care skills for future exams and, most importantly, for practice.

We use ExamSoft rubrics to measure affective learning in several areas in our curriculum:

• Small group interactions
• Professionalism
• Practical Exams (specifically the elements related to empathy, ethics, and group communication)
• Self-evaluations

Our rubrics are structured to measure a student’s level of achievement on competencies that are required to pass board examinations. We can track student performance on each competency by tagging each dimension of the rubric to a specific competency domain. This data will provide a longitudinal and holistic view of a student’s achievement of the competencies and help students identify opportunities for improvement. For example, if this report indicates that a student consistently scores lower in the interpersonal communication competency domain, faculty can work with that student to develop his/her skills in that area.

Assessing affective learning via rubrics helps us ensure we are preparing competent graduates who will be successful practitioners. When combined with measures of cognitive and psychomotor learning, assessments that measure affective learning will ensure our graduates display the attitudes and dispositions that will allow them to continue to develop personally and professionally when they enter practice.


About the Author

Sarah Zahl

Sarah B. Zahl, Ph.D., is the Director of Educational Assessment at the Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. Zahl earned her Ph.D. and M.S. in Higher Education from Indiana University and a B.S. degree in Journalism from Butler University. She has nine years of experience in academic and student affairs in higher education. In addition to her administrative roles, she has taught courses in Education, Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methods, and College Teaching and Learning. Dr. Zahl’s academic interests include competency based assessment, mapping the curriculum, and tracking student success factors during graduate study.

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