Program in Writing Across the Curriculum, UW-Madison

Students really benefit from having instructors share explicit evaluation criteria along with the assignment instructions. These evaluation criteria or rubrics sometimes take the form of a simple list, and other times appear in an evaluation form that the instructor will use for giving feedback. For students, having rubrics not only demystifies how their work will be evaluated but also teaches what makes for a successful paper in response to that assignment, in that genre, and in that discipline. And as an instructor, you can also benefit from creating rubrics—they can help you clarify your priorities for student writing and can help you be more efficient and consistent as you evaluate students’ work.

What rubrics look like varies a great deal: they can be simple or elaborate, fairly general or very specific, qualitative and quantitative. They can be in prose form or in a bulleted list or a grid. Different criteria can be weighted differently for grading purposes. The section on responding to and evaluating student writing in our WAC Faculty Sourcebook offers many possible examples of rubrics, which we would encourage you to use as models to follow or adapt as you develop your own rubrics.

Although rubrics are beneficial, on their own they do not constitute all the feedback that students need and deserve on substantial written work. Students need some individually tailored feedback. Remember too that the characteristics of successful papers articulated in a rubric seem to offer clarity and precision, but the truth is that all of the significant terms in evaluation criteria and rubrics require further explanation and interpretation. So we shouldn’t expect rubrics to answer every question or solve all of the challenges we face in communicating with our students about our expectations.

Getting Started

Creating a rubric does not need to take much time. Here is some general advice for getting started:

  1. Beyond a few basics, what makes for effective writing varies depending on the learning goals for the assignment, the genre of the paper, the subject matter, the specific tasks, the discipline, and the level of the course. So it’s crucial to develop criteria that match the specific learning goals and the genre of your assignment. And what’s valued in one discipline differs in others. For more information about the limits of broad, general evaluation rubrics, see Chris M. Anson, Deanna P. Dannels, Pamela Flash, and Amy L. Housley Gaffney, “Big Rubrics and Weird Genres: The Futility of Using Generic Assessment Tools Across Diverse Instructional Contexts,” The Journal of Writing Assessment 5.1 (2012).

  2. With each assignment, start by listing what characterizes a strong piece of student writing in response to that assignment.

  3. Once you have a list of characteristics, try organizing them into a limited number of larger categories.

  4. Order your list so that it starts with the quality of the content and ideas and analysis and arguments, then moves to organization and finally to grammar and careful editing and citation format.

  5. If you are going to weight the items, try assigning relative percentages to the categories, making sure to have ideas and content and big-picture elements of the paper count for most of the points. There is a point of diminishing returns in having to make too many discrete evaluations.

  6. Then decide whether you want to describe different levels of success on each item and whether you want to align that evaluation with points or grades (see the example below).

  7. Once you have a draft rubric, share it with your students when you assign a paper and ask students to ask you questions about it—their questions should help you improve and clarify your expectations.

  8. Creating a rubric is a recursive process. Once you start using it to help you evaluate actual student papers, you will soon discover things you forgot to include and you will inevitably change your mind about what matters most in successful papers.

One Example of a Rubric Matched to an Assignment

On the next page is a strong example of an assignment and rubric from a first-year history seminar. This rubric is closely aligned with the tasks in the assignment, emphasizes, in its organization, the key priorities in the assignment, and illustrates different levels of success.