Talking Teaching

June 26, 2012

writing rubrics shouldn’t be an imposition

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , , , — alison @ 10:00 am

I had an interesting conversation with a couple of colleagues yesterday, concerning the value of rubrics. I write them routinely (must be my background as an examiner at the national level), but my friends really didn’t seem to see the point. ‘You just get a feel for what’s a good essay & a bad one,’ they said, ‘and anyway we don’t have time to write a whole bunch of model answers; it’s quicker just to get in there & start marking. Besides, you can never include every possible answer. ‘ ‘And,’ they said – we were talking about rubrics for someone else to use in marking – ‘it’s far more consistent just to do it all yourself.’

I do agree that some essays spring out as being absolutely wonderful (the very first exam script I marked yesterday was a case in point: a beautifully-constructed answer to a ‘design-a-plant’ question) while occasionally you’ll also come across one that makes you feel like banging your head on the desk. But how can you be sure that you’re treating them consistently? After all, with a big class you’ll likely be marking exam scripts for several days, & your concentration & energy levels are going to vary over that time! Constructing a marking rubric before beginning the marking task will help with that.

It doesn’t have to take a heap of time either, because a rubric is most definitely not a detailed model answer. (I’ve copy-pasted one of my own from last year’s ‘cellular & molecular biology’ final exam – itself adapted from an earlier Schol Bio exam – at the bottom of this post **.) The ones I use identify the key concepts/ideas that I’m looking for, plus usually a non-exclusive list of possible examples, & the mark weighting. I’ll often change them when I’m actually doing the marking, if students are writing good answers that include options I hadn’t considered (yes, it happens!). If my team’s marking term essays, then such changes are made in consultation – something that helps ensure consistency across markers. Moderation helps there, too – check-marking a couple of papers from each of the top, middle, & bottom cohorts will quickly show if another team member’s marking is consistent with mine.

And that ability to ensure consistency is important – not only so that students can be sure that their work has been marked fairly and well, but also so that if an individual’s marking is ever questioned (let’s say, for example, that a student’s not happy with their final grade & opts for a re-mark of their year’s work), then the rubrics can be made available to a new marker to use.

I should add that, when I set the term essay questions (which I really must do Very Soon Indeed), I write the rubrics at the same time & both are available to students from the beginning of the semester.You might ask, why? And I’d say, why not? Having a good rubric to hand helps the students in so many ways, in terms of learning how to structure an essay & an argument, & also in learning some of those key critical thinking skills: they need to assess the information they’re gathering & decide what’s relevant & what’s not, & how to pull it all together. The last thing I want to be reading is a series of brain dumps, where a student’s simply written everything they know in a rather incoherent manner. Nor do I have time to help each individual student who does that sort of thing – & we used to see quite a few, before I started using rubrics in this way. Providing a marking scheme in advance saves both parties time & helps the students acquire some desirable skills. (The old adage about leading horses to water still applies, alas!)

I hasten to add that the essay rubrics don’t include information on content in the way that an exam marking rubric does! I’ve added an essay example below as well ***, so you can compare the two :-)


**Final exam question & rubric

Mammoths are closely related genetically to African elephants and similar to them in body mass. Although mammoths became extinct around 20,000 years ago, a number of individuals have been found frozen in the Arctic permafrost. Some scientists believe that it is technically possible to clone mammoths from cells in these frozen bodies, thus ‘bringing mammoths back to life’ and producing a self-sustaining wild population.

Describe how this cloning could be done – including identifying a likely species to provide surrogate mothers – and discuss the genetic and evolutionary issues associated with such work. You could consider the impact of genetic drift, inbreeding and inbreeding depression on such a population of mammoths, and their long-term prospects for survival.

Describe how cloning could be done:

  • Basic description of method (3 mks)
  • Identifies African elephant as likely surrogate (1 mk)
  • Explains reason for this choice (2 mks)
Genetic drift

  • Gives definition (2)
  • Describes impact on population gene pool (2)

  • Gives definition (2)
  • Describes impact on population gene pool (2)
Inbreeding depression

  • Gives definition
For all three of the above,

  • Discusses impact on population’s prospects for long-term survival from a genetic perspective. Could include eg effects of decline in heterozygosity, decreased ability to respond to evolution of pathogens/parasites, decreased fecundity

***Term essay question & rubric

On the basis of fossil remains, Neanderthals are viewed as a sister species to Homo sapiens. Now new data from molecular biology are changing our understanding of human evolution.

Discuss the validity of the biological species concept in the light of recent molecular data from sapiens, neandertalensis, and the Denisova hominins.


Introduction – should include a definition of the biological species concept, and the nature of ‘sister species’.


Briefly explain why Neandertals and modern humans have previously been viewed as sister species.

How does this relate to the ‘out-of-Africa’ hypothesis for modern human origins?





Outline the results of comparing neandertalensis and sapiens genomes, and the implications of these results.


What is the significance of the Denisova remains? (This should refer to the DNA analyses and their results.)




How well does the biological species concept apply to Neandertals and modern humans, in the light of these findings? What are the implications for the ‘out-of-Africa’ hypothesis?


Mark for content of essay



  1. My wife brought to my attention some intersting literature on this topic recently. According to what she had read, the way in whch an experienced teacher grades does not affect the final grades the teacher records. Whether or not the teacher uses a detailed rubric or simply flips through a report and writes down a score made little difference as to the score the assignment got. The detailed rubrics took in general much longer, but did not affect the grades.

    At first glance, this might sound like an argument against the use of rubrics and detailed examinations of assignments, as they take up time for no observable gain. However, the difference in the education of the student is markedly different. The detailed examinations and rubrics provide the students a lot of feedback, which granted, most students ignore. But those students who do pay attention get far more out of their grade than simply a number. They get an extended learning experience that pays off the next time they do an assignment. That is what I think a lot of teachers miss when they decry the time spent on rubrics and detailed grades.

    I just wish I could get the administrators to understand that quality teaching takes time. It is not something that can be rushed through assembly line style. We’re trying to build people, not cars. Then perhaps, more teachers would be willing to devote the time needed. But you’ve heard me make that complaint before:)

    Comment by jdmimic — August 24, 2012 @ 7:01 am

    • I’ve found that using rubrics for student essays has made such a positive change to the quality of the final product. Which is what it’s all about – one of the reasons we have them write an essay is to get them used to the various rules & conventions of scientific writing. It also means we spend a bit less time on the marking, because we’re not correcting a lot of the basic stuff & can focus on how the students are thinking. As you say, they don’t all use the rubrics, but it makes such a difference for those who do. (You can lead a horse to water…)

      We have the time pressure thing too. I’ve just done my application for a salary advancement, & had to fill in this page on my % contribution to a paper. But it was simply on the basis of time in class – no room there to add marking, prep, and all the other duties of a paper coordinator. Sigh. And we were recently told by uni admin that ‘research is the lifeblood of the university’ – talk about devaluing teaching :-(

      Comment by alison — August 24, 2012 @ 9:35 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: