Part 7: Not a writing teacher? No problem.

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts for faculty who might not identify as writing teachers but are still responsible for student writing.  You can view earlier posts here.

We’ve discussed in several posts the time and effort required of both students and faculty to develop effective writing.  One tool for making efficient use of that time, and to help communicate expectations to students, is a rubric.  A clear, well-designed rubric can be hugely beneficial to your students’ writing process and your evaluation process.

The first thing to keep in mind is that a rubric is primarily a communication tool, not a grading tool.  It is a means by which you can more explicitly set your expectations of student work.  As such, it is only valuable insofar as it clearly translates your expectations into measurable goals that your students understand.  Constructing a rubric requires you to define what effective writing looks like at a level even more detailed than in an assignment prompt, as you’ll need to set benchmarks for the distribution of points.  The terms used should be as specific and objective as possible so that students have concrete marks at which to aim.  Set your expectations across all categories – argument, development, evidence, and mechanics – in terms of demonstrable skills.  Consider using the rubric on a sample paper to illustrate its application to your students.

In the more right-or-wrong areas of writing, like citations and mechanics, it can be tempting to use numerical counts of errors as guides for point distribution.  The drawback to such a decision is in treating all such issues as equal rather than considering the effect they have on the writing as a whole.  Three misplaced commas will likely have different repercussions on the readability of a piece of student work than three incomplete sentences.  Are the issues you see representative of a student’s lack of understanding, lack of attention to detail, or a more substantive communication problem?  Design your rubric in such a way as to capture the effect of these issues rather than the number of issues present.  Help your students to understand why these expectations are important aside from being rules to be followed.

Present the rubric to your students early and make sure that they understand the factors on which their work will be evaluated.  If there are persistent gaps between your intentions and your students’ understanding, consider revising or providing supplemental information about your expectations.   The rubric can serve as a valuable tool to ensure that you and your students have the same starting point when approaching writing assignments.

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