Grading and the Rubric


Grading and the Rubric

Although rubrics are used almost exclusively in higher education as grading schemes for summative assessment (Reddy & Andrade, 2010), their use in formative assessment is explored in this chapter. How did we get here? Why use rubrics to assess performance? A brief review of grading practices in higher education may help shed light on why the need for greater objectivity in grading has gained increasing attention and how a well-structured rubric can fill the bill.


Grading is probably one of the most important tasks, the most time consuming, and the least desirable for faculty. Countless hours can be spent in grading discussion boards and written assignments—providing feedback that students often ignore—for it is the grade itself that receives the most attention. Grades have implications and consequences for a variety of stakeholders and often form the basis for gatekeeping administrative decisions, such as academic progression within a degree program, admission for an advanced degree, suitability for scholarships and academic honors, and program accreditation, not to mention the effect on student self-esteem, learning, and persistence (Sadler, 2010). Thus, the responsibility inherent in grading is heavy. Judgments on student work must be made ethically, objectively, and from a defensible position. Milligan (1996) offered some sound advice. When referring to grading student work, he feels it should be done based on clearly written and well-understood criteria.

If such clarification [of the grading criteria] is not given or the punitive weapon of unsubstantiated professional judgment is the only, or most important criteria [sic] used, then the asessor [sic] is possibly left with litle [sic] credibility and fails to meet the standard stated here of acting ethically in assessment matters. (p. 414)

200This perspective is related to what Sadler (2010) referred to as fidelity in grading or “the extent to which elements that contribute to a course grade are correctly identified as academic achievement” (p. 728). This is an important point and one that is easy to lose sight of because of personal beliefs held by faculty and specific grading practices at the school or university. Grade inflation, which is so rampant in higher education, has overshadowed the concept of fidelity in grading (Scanlan & Care, 2004). However, when developing criteria for grading, faculty must be clear on how the objectives have defined academic achievement for the course.


According to Sadler (2010), achievement was defined as “the attainment of an identifiable level of knowledge or skill as determined through evaluating performances on assessment tasks, or through observation of relevant behaviours in specified settings” (p. 730). Grades are the overt measurement of academic achievement that are made explicit to students and shared with other stakeholders. Do they reflect true academic achievement or something else?

Course Components Not Related to Academic Achievement

Sadler’s (2010) definition of fidelity encouraged faculty to be sure that grades reflect true academic achievement that is defined by the course objectives. Courses and learning should be outcome focused with the objectives driving what is assessed, and assessing the objectives should represent what students have learned. If a downside exists to broadly written objectives, it is that they do not provide sufficient detail for meaningful grading of assignments, so assessment criteria must be written for everything that you will grade. However, as is current practice, other variables are often included in students’ course grades, which Sadler refers to as transactional, bestowed, and regulative credits and debits that are not related to academic achievement.

Transactional credits refer to points awarded for attendance, participation alone, and completion of activities such as journal entries or preliminary drafts of a final paper. Transactional debits are points deducted for turning in assignments late or for plagiarism (Sadler, 2010).

Bestowed credits are those “awarded entirely at the assessor’s discretion” (Sadler, 2010, p. 732) and are sometimes done unconsciously, I would add, when giving the student the benefit of the doubt. This type of credit includes rewarding students with points for effort put into an assignment, obvious 201performance improvement over time, thinking outside the box, and to compensate for a student’s illness or other personal emergency. Bestowed credits involve adjusting points for an assignment that faculty felt was poorly explained, or to compensate for students at a perceived disadvantage (e.g., for whom English is not their primary language). This type of credit is often given to avoid failing a student or placing him or her in jeopardy of losing a scholarship. Some faculty want to avoid upsetting the student—or having to deal with an upset student may be more accurate—so points are not deducted when they should have been. This often engenders “good feelings” on the part of the student toward the faculty member that are reflected in the end-of-course student surveys that can have an impact on faculty retention and promotion.

Points are often awarded or deducted for what Sadler (2010) terms regulative issues, which really relate to compliance, in my view, and that are often spelled out in the instructions for each assignment or within the rubric. Assignment requirements, such as the specific word count, required number of references, and adherence to a specific writing and format style such as the American Psychological Association (APA), are often awarded points, but most likely are not elements included in the course objectives. Although mastery of APA format and development of a professional writing style are desired programmatic outcomes, if these competencies or outcomes are not included in the course objectives, then they cannot be included as part of a final grade or considered as part of academic achievement. Yet, time spent grading papers often focuses on writing style and APA format at the expense of comments on content and flow of ideas.

Probably the main area where faculty spend inordinate amounts of time, in my opinion, is editing student papers . . . not providing formative feedback, but actually making corrections on syntax, grammar, and writing style using track changes in Word in courses where writing is not the focus, nor are these skills included in the objectives. And, when track changes are used, all the student has to do is “accept all changes” and the document is “where faculty wants it.” This practice does not support learning from a constructivist perspective.

However, faculty have two options. One option is to provide formative feedback on writing style and format without point benefit or penalty, hoping the student will learn from the feedback and improve on the next assignment. The other option is to return the assignment to the student for revision based on true formative feedback that points out the errors by asking questions, such as “Is that the correct reference format for a journal article?” or “Did you omit some information in the in-text citation?” A grade is then withheld on the assignment until these errors are corrected. In this regard, faculty are not actually correcting the mistakes, but giving the student the opportunity to do so and learn in the process. In my view, 202the second option is a sound constructivist practice, as it is the student doing the work and not faculty. It will also result in deeper learning. However, unless there is oversight across courses and some type of program-driven, top-down accountability for achieving programmatic goals, students may continue to make the same errors and not be held accountable to learn.


Decisions as to what will be assessed should be made based on the course objectives and with the concepts of fidelity and the measurement of academic achievement in mind. Elements that do not represent mastery of course outcomes, but are commonly included in the final course grade, are:

       Posting in a discussion for the purpose of meeting the requirement for initial course attendance

       Nonsubstantive contributions to discussion boards, such as posts that do not contribute to the discourse in a meaningful way

       Completion of reflective journals in which an outcome is not specified in the objectives, or reflection on course content not required in the journal entries

       Completion of sections of a larger assignment that will be again graded when completed. If the sections and total assignment are graded, the work is graded twice, thus doubling the actual percentage the assignment contributes to the final grade

       Conforming to elements of assignments that are considered requirements, such as adhering to the maximum number of words in a discussion post or assignment, or proper APA formatting for in-text citations and references unless included in the course objectives

How faculty choose to assess the objectives for the course determines how academic achievement is defined, and a certain amount of academic freedom goes into making this decision. However, the decision should be made with a solid understanding of grading fidelity. Perhaps putting this decision in a different context will help. What can occur if faculty do not fully understand the ramifications of translating course outcomes indicated by the objectives to points could make the difference in a student who has really not met the learning outcomes passing a course.

So, what are the options? Providing formative feedback without adding a point value so that students know how to improve sections of a paper prior to the final submission is good practice. The rubric for the assignment can serve as the basis for this type of formative assessment without points 203being recorded as part of the process. However, what will most likely grab students’ attention and get them to use the feedback on all sections is seeing an actual grade. In this case, faculty could overcome this by including a potential grade, that is, giving students an idea of what the grade would be at each juncture.

Most of the writing-related issues can be dealt with at the program level by mapping the curriculum to identify courses in which writing will be an outcome and adding the appropriately worded objectives so that this skill is assessed. When writing is an outcome assigned to specific courses, I recommend that sections of the assignment be turned in at regular intervals during the semester, formative feedback be provided for each section, and that a lesser point value then be assigned to the final iteration of the paper as it represents your feedback incorporated into the student’s work. This approach will ensure that students make their best effort writing each section, that any misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the assignment criteria does not occur, and that students have the opportunity to create a polished version as a final representation of what they learned in the course. From the faculty’s perspective, if students pay attention to the feedback, the final paper should be relatively easy to grade.

The final paper, including all segments turned in (with faculty comments), should then be uploaded to each student’s e-portfolio, and that portfolio made available to all faculty in the program who will teach courses where writing is an identified outcome. This approach has several advantages. First, students will understand the value placed on writing skills and be hard-pressed to ignore feedback, as points will be deducted if the outcomes are not met. In addition, they will know that their work, including faculty feedback, will follow them throughout the program, eliminating the impact of comments such as “I didn’t know” or “I was never told” when referring to faculty feedback. This will also encourage faculty to know APA format well, so that consistent feedback is given. Second, this approach offers faculty the option and ability to refer to previously graded papers to determine if students are correcting their errors based on feedback. If not, this should be called to the student’s attention early on and an action plan developed. Providing the same comments over and over takes a great deal of faculty time and is not productive if the student is not paying attention.

Third, when writing outcomes are reflected in the objectives, meeting the objectives becomes a competency issue. In the courses where writing skills are assessed, faculty should take the time to review how the student has progressed in this regard by taking a look at the papers most recently uploaded to the e-portfolio. If assessment of the papers has been done using an iterative approach (discussed in Chapter 6) and faculty have been diligent in providing formative feedback throughout the program, students’ writing skills should be progressing. From the outset of their program, how 204writing skills will be assessed, in which courses, and the point allocation for each writing assignment with any point penalties for late or missed submissions should be clearly explained and a handout provided and included in the student handbook.

This approach will ensure that writing is a program competency that students will be supported in meeting. It will also avoid faculty spending undue amounts of time providing feedback on writing skills in courses where writing is not a specified outcome. The question of defining academic achievement will also be addressed, helping faculty to focus on assessing the actual learning outcomes.

Assessment of writing and APA formatting skills applies to discussion board posts as well. Discussions are the hallmark of online teaching and assessment, but, again, unless these skills are included in the course objectives, they are not considered elements of academic achievement.

Finally, faculty awareness of the issues surrounding the assessment of true academic achievement is paramount. Simply considering grade integrity, fidelity, and the dichotomy of what constitutes academic achievement and what does not will set the stage for identifying appropriate performance criteria for rubrics and appropriate grading. In the end, most likely other creative strategies to combat the age-old argument that if students aren’t graded on an activity, they will not do it may need to be developed, but done so keeping grade integrity and the assessment of actual academic achievement in mind.


Rubrics are grading tools that specify multiple levels of performance, ranging from beginning or novice level to that most desired or competent, and include a scoring strategy for each level. Two types of rubrics have been used in higher education, the holistic rubric and the analytic rubric, also called a grading rubric. The holistic rubric assesses work more globally and is used most often for writing assignments. In this type of rubric, multiple criteria are listed under a single scoring strategy (Mertler, 2001). For example, various levels of performance might be included for grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and so on. Exhibit 9.1 depicts the typical format for a holistic rubric in which the levels of performance for the ideal score are at the top of the rubric and the lowest score, perhaps those characteristics associated with zero points, are at the bottom. The lower levels are not shown here. This rubric is rarely used in higher education because of the inherent difficulties of students adequately meeting all criteria associated with one score. The analytic rubric, the focus of the remainder of this chapter, is used more often as its design is better suited to individualized, specific, and objective feedback.

205EXHIBIT 9.1
Holistic Rubric Format

5—Consistently does the following 

      Does not misspell any words 

      Uses proper syntax 

      No grammatical errors 

      In-text citations are in proper APA format 

      References are in proper APA format 

4—Does many of the following 

      Occasionally misspells words 

      Occasionally uses improper syntax 

      Occasionally makes a grammatical error 

      Occasionally uses incorrect in-text APA citation format 

      Occasionally uses incorrect APA reference format 

3—Rarely does any of the following 

APA, American Psychological Association.

Purpose of a Rubric

The purpose of a rubric is to increase objectivity and ideally intra- and interrater reliability in grading (Newell, Dahm, & Newell, 2002). A rubric that clearly spells out the ideal performance is beneficial for both faculty and students. For faculty, detailed feedback is innate within the rubric eliminating the need to write the same comments again and again (Isaacson & Stacy, 2009), making the grading process more efficient. The benefit for students is that assignment expectations are made explicit. When assessment rubrics are disseminated with the course syllabus as the semester begins, students have a clear understanding of expected performance and can use the rubric as a checklist for assignment components (Popham, 1997).

Rubrics can be used for both formative and summative assessments. Because awarding points is associated with summative assessment, rubrics are most often used for that purpose. Recall from Chapter 1 that formative assessment, or assessment for learning, involves providing feedback to students to indicate what they have done well and where improvement is needed, which is typically done while the assignment is in progress before a grade is assigned. Iterative grading, a type of formative assessment that allows students to revise and resubmit their work to incorporate the feedback, is an excellent approach to promote deep learning, although repeated review is time consuming for faculty (Gikandi, Morrowa, & Davis, 2011; Jonsson, 2013). Rubrics can be used for formative assessment without recording the 206grade, but an explanation to students is warranted. Explain that the purpose of demonstrating to them the points they would have earned on the assignment, should a grade be given at that juncture, will often drive the message home in a way meaningful to extrinsically motivated students.

Summative assessment, or assessment of learning, involves assigning a numerical grade or pass/fail status (Kennedy, Chan, Fok, & Yu, 2008). This typically signals the end of the conversation on the assignment, although students have been known to challenge their grades.

The point of reviewing formative and summative assessment is to underscore their relationship to fidelity and academic achievement. Becoming clear on how you are defining academic achievement for the course and what will be assessed are decisions you must make early on during the course-planning phase. Formative and summative assessment on discussions and assignments must be the same for each assignment. Obviously, you cannot have one set of criteria that is used to provide formative feedback and another for summative assessment. Students will not understand what you want—a common concern often voiced when outcomes are not clearly articulated. Nevertheless, rubrics can be used to provide formative feedback without points being allocated, so the criteria should be the same for both.


Popham’s (1997) original description of analytic or grading rubrics remains the standard today. An analytic rubric by definition has three elements that distinguish it from other types of grading tools and is displayed in a grid-like format. These three elements are listed in Box 9.1.

Defining these terms, providing examples of each, and viewing an example of this type of rubric will help to visualize the analytic rubric format. As the descriptive names of these elements can be confusing, referring to Exhibit 9.2 will help the reader understand their placement in the template.

Jul 29, 2018 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Grading and the Rubric
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