Reading & Literacy Opinion

I Am an English Teacher. Rubrics Are No Way to Teach Writing

By Peter Machera — December 04, 2019 5 min read
Image of a student writing in a notebook.
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Rubrics aren’t going away anytime soon, but let’s not pretend they always help students or tackle the biggest problem in student writing. Rubrics give students criteria for how their grade will be determined using a detailed chart which indicates different levels of proficiency. Granted, a rubric may be perfectly appropriate, particularly in complex projects in which students may be confused about what exactly the teacher wants. But in terms of writing essays and high school English classes, such as the ones I’ve taught for a decade, rubrics can be stultifying just as often as they are clarifying.

As a graduate student in education, I have found myself examining rubrics in an effort to determine what was expected for a particularly important and multifaceted project. Conversely, in a moment of hubris, I have neglected to look at a rubric at all and consequently missed key elements of a research paper assignment, ruing the result.

Whether at the high school or college level, both teachers and students have become accustomed to this relatively new grading mechanism. For those of us with a bias towards simplicity, however, we must wonder how we got to this juncture of nearly ubiquitous rubrics.

Could you grade Beethoven's Ninth according to a rubric? It is laughable to even think of it.

Part of what may motivate the rubric movement is a kind of abnegation of students’ responsibility for their own learning, which is sadly common in education. We presume that any student failure is caused not by their own lack of effort, but instead by a failure of the teacher to communicate the expectations. This may be the case in some instances. But perhaps we are overcompensating for this perceived problem by overwhelming students with our expectations.

There is also an even deeper problem with the rubric movement. Writing is an art. In the context of current pedagogical practices, English teachers are discouraged from approaching their subject in this spirit. Rather, the new mantra in English seems to have become, “We teach skills, not literature.” Or: “We don’t teach novels, we teach the standards.” Throughout my career, I have heard some variation of this theme from English department heads and principals, who are themselves merely reflecting the zeitgeist of the field.

This attitude is likely derived from the standards-based movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s, combined with well-intentioned efforts to hold schools accountable in the 2000s. We’re trying to implement a technocratic solution to literacy, with underwhelming results. There is a strangely anti-intellectual bias against the aesthetic experience of reading and writing. And the bias suggests we should be able to break down essay writing into discrete skills, which could then be graded in isolation.

But the question remains: Why don’t we teach literature as art rather than as mere examples of coherent writing? Is it wrong to appreciate art for art’s sake? Indeed, writing is a sublime art, and it must be communicated to students in that light. We should give writing the same reverence which we would apply to other mediums of human expression, such as painting or even music, for example. Could you grade Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony according to a rubric? It is laughable to even think of it. A rubric is an attempt to make an assessment of art into an exact science, which it obviously is not.

Furthermore, a teacher using a rubric may be less inclined to give substantive written feedback to student essays. A rubric by its very nature is quantitative, and given that framework, the teacher may feel relieved of the responsibility of writing much of anything to a student. According to David Martins, the writing program director at the Rochester Institute of Technology, rubrics were designed with the explicit aim of “cutting down on the amount of time given to each student’s writing” in the grading process. But are we going for efficiency alone?

When students look at their grade breakdown in a rubric, this quantitative approach can often provide too much information. The visual layout of a rubric has a pseudo-scientific aura off-putting to literate adults. We can assume teenage students are likewise alienated by this layout.

But when a teacher simply grades an essay and then tells students areas of celebration and areas for refinement in the form of a brief comment—now one has the student’s attention. We should give feedback which is, as Paul Bambrick-Santoyo of the Uncommon Schools network advises, “bite-sized.” This advice is good for teachers receiving feedback from their evaluators, but it could also apply to teachers giving feedback for student essays: Give the students one area to improve upon, not a laundry list.

While we may think that rubrics are providing students with specificity and clarity, many cowed or apathetic students will fail to review a rubric and appreciate this level of intricate detail. They may, however, be inclined to at least read a few sentences of feedback from their teacher on one aspect of their essay.

In effect, narrative feedback is a personalized message giving individualized feedback for the student regarding his or her writing. That is a human interaction, not a bureaucratized one, as with a rubric.

This is not to say that we should not teach essays in a systematic fashion, focusing on all elements of thesis, organization, etc. Of course, English teachers should frontload assignments with such instruction, and outlines are vital in these times of deteriorating writing skills. What I’m suggesting, however, is that our feedback after the essay is produced has become Byzantine.

Simply stated, I refuse to have my intuition about the quality of students’ writing limited by an arbitrary set of subcategories with an equally arbitrarily assigned weighted value. One cannot communicate what encompasses good writing with a chart. And even if that were possible, or if we could all agree on what aspects of writing should be weighted to what degree, we’d still have a much bigger job ahead of us. Students who do not read much have no organic sense of what constitutes quality writing. They have no feel for literary endeavors in general.

To really help them, we must promote literacy and reestablish a culture of reading. We cannot fool ourselves that poor writing is the result of insufficiently communicated expectations. Rather, poor writing is a symptom of our very own anti-intellectual culture.

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