NWeLearn Reflection & Rubric Addiction

NWeLearn 2015 Conference Reflection

One of the most important components of attending NWeLearn was being able to talk to people outside of my context—outside of my program, division, college, and university about my classes, teaching approach, pedagogy, expectations, politics, etc. This ability to speak clearly and openly, without fear of being judged or evaluated, or having people know of or get lost in the details of my work, is important to my ability to develop as a professional, teacher, and member of the community.

Jesse Stommel's presentation on the LMS Grade Book was vital as well. My only real use of LMS grade books is like an online Excel sheet that shows students how they are doing in class. I rarely move beyond that. However, Jesse's critique of simply and automatically integrating the LMS grade book and rubrics without questioning them got me thinking and reflecting. It was also a bit uncomfortable--which is good. While I have integrated rubrics throughout my assignments and classes, I had largely forgotten what drove that use of rubrics, what caused the initial use of those rubrics. The presentation and talking about rubrics afterward helped spark thinking. Those initial causes were sourced from several sites.

First, there were the initial grading rubrics provided by the first institutions where I taught. Some of the assignments were standardized across all the writing courses and the rubrics were provided to help guide new faculty in their grading and evaluation as well as to make sure that students knew how they would be graded and evaluated.

The second source of rubric reliance or dependence was my desire to avoid or reduce the number of difficult conversations and discussions with students. These conversations were often about the grades the students earned and their dissatisfaction with them. When I did not have a rubric to explain the evaluation, and I did not clearly lay out how many points there were for specific portions, students would often argue about the grading distribution or that some areas were not fair or balanced. That grading was purely subjective--as if faculty were not trained to properly evaluate student work (and in some cases, sadly, some are not). As a new instructor, in some cases students were accurate; in many other cases, students were not. By developing and deploying different rubrics, the rubrics acted as rules of engagement, frames for us to interact with, and it reduced the number of hard conversations because I could point to the rubric. Rather than owning the grading process, it could be externalized to the rubric.

A third source of rubric reliance was that students felt angst or disconnect when they did not have a rubric. At the time, when I taught in composition, many students were worried—rightly so in many cases—about being graded at the whim of the instructor without have a clear sense of exactly what they were being graded on or how they were going to be evaluated. The entire system was black box. Whether I teach undergraduate or graduate students, when a rubric is not presented for grading, many students have angst or worry. This makes me wonder about the overall level of rubric addiction or dependence in education.

More recently, working in a College of Education means faculty are subjected to Accreditation and State teaching licensure rules. This means that we have to produce demonstrable instruments that quantitatively measure whatever it is the accreditors or state council seek. The list is epic long, so I'm avoiding the details. Net result: I must have a grading rubric for the assignment that breaks down along the lines of accreditation expectations so as to perform and give them what they want and need.

Talking to Patrick, Audrey, and Rolin about this after Jesse's presentation--more talking through it--helped me realize just how naturalized rubrics have become in my teaching. They weren't really a decision that I thought too much about: I just included them because, of course!, every assignment in every course needs a rubric. So, yes, there's that. 

The discussion also helped me re-see that while I felt that creating rubrics for most, if not all, of my assignments and grading was making the process transparent to my students, what is also happening, in part at least, is that I was also deflecting responsibility for the grading process on the rubric instead of owning that part of the process in my own work.

What Other Options are There?

More recently, I have sought to empower more student self-evaluations of their own work, but they still those use rubrics that I have developed for the assignments. The student grading and responses are overall pretty solid, and they grade themselves, largely, as well as I do. And this is good. In most cases, if there are issues, it is with students marking themselves lower than the grade that they have earned. As Jesse indicated during his keynote, this is usually a specific gender where this happens--and it's rarely men. That's been my experience as well. I’m happy to give them a higher grade if earned.

Audrey raised the example of Dave Cormier and the negotiated grading contract with students. I'm reluctant for several reasons: I teach completely online, I teach in quarters not semesters, and I've never tried it out face-to-face. So, while an interesting idea, I'm shying away from it for now. Perhaps, though, working this out on different projects, or larger projects in the class, where we create a contract around it and the grading.

When asked, Patrick described how for some of his classes he describes an important component, professionalism, and then indicates how much it is worth. He also describes what professionalism is, and then issues a grade for it at the end. End of story. This sounds interesting, but I'm not sure how well it would work with MS students--and I'd want to tease this out a bit more. Good idea, though.

Still Addicted to Rubrics

I don't plan to drop rubrics, and I'm not sure that I could do so completely, either. I also don't know that I fully want to quit--especially since they are so integral in education for admins, faculty, and students. What I do see as valuable, my real take away from this presentation, is that I need to diversify my approach to grading and evaluation for my classes. Hopefully this can provide me, and more importantly my students, with multiple ways to think about and practice evaluation. This means that they will have more options on how to grade and evaluate their students, and hopefully how to offer them productive and useful feedback, in the future.