Getting rubrics right

We’re pleased to present our second article, written by Claire Hart, which looks at rubrics. The MaWSIG blog features guests posts by seasoned authors and novice MaWSIG members, who contribute monthly articles based on their experience, research and the latest trends in materials development. We hope you’ll add your opinions and questions, and contribute to the debate.

claire_profile_jingGetting rubrics right

by Claire Hart

 

 

Think about some rubrics you have read in ELT materials. Which were good and which were bad? Then read the text below and think about your answers.

Put yourself in the shoes of a novice English learner: would the rubric above tell you what you needed to do to complete the task successfully? If you were a new teacher, would this rubric help you give learners instructions for completing the activity and tell you what the expected outcome is? I think the answer to all three is ‘no’, and this leads me to the first of my five tips for rubric writers …

1. Remember what the purpose of a rubric is

Here’s an improved version of the rubric above. In this case, not only was the rubric ineffective, but the task needed to be changed too:

Make notes on what you think makes a good rubric. Then discuss your ideas with a partner, giving reasons for your choices.  

As a learner, you can easily recognise what the tasks are and you have something to do rather than just think about. As a teacher, you can easily use the verb+noun collocations provided – make notes, discuss your ideas, give reasons – to instruct the learners. The improved rubric is, therefore, fulfilling its purpose.

Here’s an example of a rubric from an engineering coursebook: Which technique should I use? It doesn’t communicate to the learner what the task is and wouldn’t help the teacher in facilitating the activity either. We’re also left wondering who ‘I’ is. The improved version in the second draft was: Write the techniques that each person needs to use in the gaps.

We no longer have a question, but an instruction for a task. Beware of the tendency to assume that learners and even teachers will be able to look at an activity and immediately know what to do with it.

2. Don’t pack too much in

Let’s go back to the second draft of our original rubric:

Make notes on what you think makes a good rubric. Then discuss your ideas with a partner, giving reasons for your choices. 

We’re trying to pack too much in here. An important part of successful rubric writing is being able to use rubrics to stage the activities, and parts of activities, within a lesson. Otherwise, we create confusion for both learners and teachers. Let’s look at another example from the engineering coursebook:

Think of some more things that engineers can do or make using these techniques. Describe them to your partner and ask them what technique you should use to do or make it. 

That’s 32 words of potential confusion. We’re asking learners to do three separate, but connected, tasks and it’s too much for one rubric. Let’s look at an improved version where the instructions are broken down into three parts:

a. Make a list of five things that engineers can do or make using the techniques above.

b. Describe the things on your list to your partner.

c. Ask your partner which technique you should use to do or make these things. 

Similarly, I believe the second draft of our original rubric would be clearer if it was broken down like this:

a. Make notes on what you think makes a good rubric.

b. Discuss your ideas with a partner, giving reasons for your choices.

3. Be specific

If we look again at the second draft of the engineering rubric, we will see another change.

a. Make a list of five things that engineers can do or make using the techniques above.

b. Describe the things on your list to your partner.

c. Ask your partner which technique you should use to do or make these things. 

Part (a) is now more specific. Instead of thinking of ‘some’ techniques, learners are given a target for a specific number of things. They’re also not just ‘thinking’; they’re making a list to refer back to during the communicative phase of the activity. Although we don’t want to micro-manage learners and teachers with our rubrics, specificity can help to ensure clarity, which is key.

4. Don’t make too many assumptions

There’s still some potential for improvement in our original rubric though, because it makes an assumption.

b. Discuss your ideas with a partner, giving reasons for your choices.

This assumes that the learners are using the material in a face-to-face group situation and that they’re happy to work with a partner, neither of which may be true. Materials writers would debate this issue, but it may be best to leave the classroom management aspects of the tasks to the teacher (or at least the teacher’s book) and avoid prescribing how activities should be executed. To focus on the term partner specifically, it may also be inappropriate in certain cultures. An alternative could be:

b. Discuss your ideas, giving reasons for your choices.

5. Match the rubric to learner levels

While I think we’ve considerably improved the original rubric, it could yet prove ineffective if the language it contains is above level for the learners. We’ve said that the purpose of a rubric is to clearly communicate what the activity involves and it can’t do this if the learners can’t understand it. Let’s take another example: What would you say if you bumped into a colleague you hadn’t seen for a long time at a trade fair?

The expected outcome of the task is quite simple. Possible answers could be: Hello, how are you? Good to see you again. These are relatively low level – but look at the level of the lexis and grammar used in the rubric. We’ve got a high-level phrasal verb and the second conditional, which are likely to be unfamiliar at lower levels. An alternative could be: What do you say when you see someone again after a long time?

In conclusion, I’d suggest that the best way to improve as a rubric writer is to look at as many examples as you can. As we’ve seen, you can learn from examples of both good practice and bad.

 

Claire Hart combines Business English and General English teaching in the tertiary and corporate sectors with a variety of materials development projects. As a materials writer, Claire specialises in creating content for online courses and digital ELT products, as well as being a coursebook, workbook and teacher’s book author. Claire is based in southern Germany and is a former IATEFL BESIG Web and BOT Coordinator. You can contact Claire at clairehart@gmail.com.

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2 responses to Getting rubrics right

  1. John Hughes 15 February 2015 at 5:28 pm #

    Great points, Claire. Rubric writing is really something hard to get right sometimes. It’s still surprising how often you can come across a rubric where the level of language used is above the level of the book (your point 5). One of the toughest areas is when you have write the set up for a complex production activity such as a business case study. In this situation it’s easy to have rubrics that require more than one or two sentences. My general guideline is that if the rubric needs more than three sentences then the activity is probably too complex to explain and needs breaking up into shorter bite-size stages (or just cut it and come up with a different activity!)

  2. Claire Hart 16 February 2015 at 3:37 pm #

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your comment. The post on rubrics on your blog was a source of inspiration for me here.

    I definitely agree with your point about the activity probably being too complex if the rubric needs to be more than three sentences and I know what you mean about how difficult it can be to set up complex activities with clear rubrics. The issue of how to divide material up into activities is an interesting one, I think, and one I often grapple with. Sometimes we’re too keen to link or bundle things together into one activity because we think it makes more sense that way, but I think that from a learner perspective it often doesn’t at all. This could be another topic for a blog post.

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