Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Good Paper Rubric

by Kamilah Cummings
This week I began my Writing for Competence course as I do all of my courses. Because I like to create a sense of community in my classes, I use a five-question ice breaker to sow togetherness. Questions run the gamut from professional and personal interests to academic goals. Although I like to mix up the questions from quarter to quarter, one staple question I ask pertains to student goals for the course. Just as this question remains the same, so typically do the students’ responses. With slight variations on the theme, students overwhelmingly express the desire to “write good papers” as their premier goal. This ultimately leads to a discussion about what constitutes a “good” paper. Despite the number of times I have engaged in this discussion, I am always slightly saddened by the misconceptions about writing that have been cemented into the psyches of so many. However, though the attributes that exemplify effective academic writing can be a mystery to students, grading rubrics can help demystify the criteria. Ultimately, the use of an established rubric to assess writing offers benefits for students and faculty.

One of the most beneficial aspects of using a rubric to assess writing is that it clarifies the criteria for effective writing. Teacher and writer Vicki Spandel argues that “when thoughtfully created and used with discretion and understanding, rubrics can be among the most useful instructional tools we have” (19). In clearly identifying and defining assessment criteria, rubrics can provide a link to classroom instruction and establish concrete goals for ongoing improvement. I have seen evidence of this in my own classes since I started regularly using the Grading Rubric for Papers at the School for New Learning two years ago. To aid student learning, I find the rubric is most useful when I discuss it with students in class before using it to assess their papers. Because the rubric thoughtfully lists and explains the criteria for assessing papers with clear distinctions between the elements that comprise excellent, strong, satisfactory, weak, and poor papers, there is no mystery regarding the grades my students receive on their papers.

Given that a cornerstone of writing at SNL is the focus on writing as an iterative process, another benefit of using rubrics to assess student writing is the role that rubrics play in revision. As Spandel asserts, rubrics “serve as a guide to revision, giving student writers an insider’s view of what makes writing work” (19). In my experience, students don’t want a rubric alone. They want summary or marginal feedback comments as well. I’ve found that combining a rubric with targeted comments not only provides students with a destination but also a map of how to reach it. By aligning feedback comments with the assessment criteria defined in the rubric, students see the standards by which their work is measured as well as the areas where their writing needs improvement.

Rubrics also help students to prioritize elements of their writing, which helps to chip away at the “good grammar equals good writing” axiom that so many people harbor. The danger in this belief is the converse, which is that “bad grammar equals bad writing.” Not surprisingly, improving grammar is the second most common goal that students in my writing courses share. However, when students see a rubric such as the SNL Paper Grading Rubric, they see that while grammar is important, it is not the most important aspect of writing. Students see that the merits of an insightful response to an assignment coupled with an effective thesis, logical development, effective organization and sufficient support far outweigh a properly placed comma. When the rubric is paired with samples that model the assessment criteria like those on the SNL Writing Guide, students no longer have to guess about what makes a “good” paper. Some critics of using rubrics to assess writing argue that they inhibit subjectivity and promote conformity. However, a rubric such as the SNL Paper Grading Rubric allows space for healthy subjectivity but also promotes transparency and consistency.

Rubrics offer multiple benefits for faculty as well. A Writer’s Reference co-author Nancy Sommers points out that the clear assessment criteria that rubrics provide “can help manage the paper load and ease the burden of grading” (33). Integrating an established rubric for assessing writing can be particularly beneficial for faculty who do not teach writing but teach writing intensive courses. Instead of expecting students to know the criteria for a good essay, the rubric lays them bare, which allows non-writing faculty to spend more time on discipline-related feedback. For all faculty who assess writing, time saved on grading can be significant. Over the years, I have worked to decrease the amount of time I spend per paper providing feedback. Although I still find myself inserting comments minutes after my egg timer sounds, incorporating a rubric into my feedback has substantially reduced the time I spend grading.

More important than merely reducing my grading time, the rubric helps impart objectivity and consistency in my feedback. It also helps me to provide more useful and focused feedback. As Spandel suggests, “we do need to offer reasons for our reactions to writing and to show that those reasons are based on sound criteria” (21). She adds, “we must seek to make ourselves aware of how we respond to writing and why so that we can share our thinking with students” (21). In that sense, the rubric demystifies the criteria for “a good paper” not only for students but for faculty as well.

Works Cited

Sommers, Nancy. Responding to Student Writers. Boston: Bedford St. Martin's, 2013. Booklet.

Spandel, Vicki. "In Defense of Rubrics." English Journal (2006): 19-22. Article.

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