Understanding rubrics: what is being measured?

Jennifer Moreau

By Dr. Pressley Rankin

In all of your classes here at the School of Applied Leadership, you will have rubrics.  Many of you look at those rubrics before you complete your assignments.  However, I have heard more than once that students often don’t understand what is being evaluated.  This blog is designed to help clear that up.

Why have rubrics?

There is a great deal of research on the effects of rubrics on students’ performance and all of them point to the fact that rubrics improve students’ grades and their quality of learning (Brookhart & Chen, 2015).  That is why we create them: they are a tool to help you improve your grades.  Therefore, it is important to professors that you actually read and use the rubrics in your assignments.  We want you to succeed.

What makes a good rubric?

There are many opinions on what makes a good rubric but there are some criteria that most faculty agree on.  First, the rubric criterion are definable and have a clear meaning to both the student and the faculty member (Brookhart, 2013).  For example, when a rubric asks the student for quality writing, what does that mean?  Do students think of quality writing in the same way a professor might?

Next, the rubric criterion should be observable.  That means it can be perceived by someone other than the student (Brookhart, 2013).  Another way to think of this is that the criterion is something that is measurable.  An example of something that is not measurable (again) is: the student’s writing will be of high quality.  What exactly is high quality?  How is that measured?  Instead it would be better to say: the student’s writing will be concise; free of grammar and spelling errors; and will use research.

While definable and observable are important criteria in a good rubric, there is one more worth mentioning: distinctness (Brookhart, 2013).  That means that not only are each criterion different from one another but the levels of the criterion are different and you can clearly see what makes At Standard better than Approaching Standard.

What does that mean for you?

Now we get to the bottom line: how do you use your rubric?  Many students look at the Exceeds Standards column in order to find out what they need to do.  However, this is only part of the picture.  You really need to read the entire criterion from below to exceed standards.  This shows you the entire range that you will be judged.  It is just as important to understand what not to do as it is to understand what to do.

Once you know the range, then look for the measurable words.  What things will be measured in this assignment?  If the rubric says at standard is 3 posts, then you know you will need 4 posts to exceed that standard.  Keep in mind that in most rubrics At Standard is not an A.  It is typically a B or a B+ depending on the level of the program.  That means you will need to do something more to get an A.  Therefore, compare the At Standard level to the Exceeds Standard level.  What is different?  What are the measures of that difference?

Finally, what happens when you don’t see something measurable?  That is an important part of this process because you need to know how you will be graded.  My advice, in this situation, is to contact your professor immediately because that grade criterion is subjective and different professors might judge it in different ways.  You need to know before you complete the assignment what your professor thinks high quality writing is (to use the previous example).

Good grades will always require work.  Sometimes that work is getting clarity from your professor.  The rubric is what you will use to have that conversation because the rubric is where your grade will come from.

Interested in learning more about how to create rubrics for training, professional development, or other areas to assess?  Consider taking a course in the Master of Adult Education program here at CityU.


Brookhart, S. M. (2013). How to create and use rubrics for formative assessment and grading. Alexandria, US: ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

Brookhart, S. M., & Chen, F. (2015). The quality and effectiveness of descriptive rubrics. Educational Review67(3), 343-368. doi:10.1080/00131911.2014.929565

Published February 22, 2017



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