Should we burn our rubrics?



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Steven Conn’s post on “The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher” at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Conversation blog raises important points about students looking for a precise series of steps to follow and instructors who, due to various institutional pressures, give them such templates. Students who never have to risk failure will likely continue to play it safe later in their lives. If they never have to struggle to determine the best way to structure their ideas, they will never learn to organize their thoughts independently. A checkbox education produces neither creative nor critical thinkers—let alone lifelong independent learners.

Time for a bonfire of the objectives?

Unfortunately, Conn unfairly blames rubrics and learning objectives for creating checkbox learning. The problem is not rubrics, or even the much-maligned learning objective: the problem is the misuse of both.

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Rubrics are another tool for specifying existing expectations. For essays, they can help instructors unpack disciplinary standards of what constitutes good writing, which is particularly important when teaching general education or introductory courses.

An instructor can also use this kind of rubric to show exactly where expectations are open-ended: No, it doesn’t matter how many paragraphs you have in the body as long as they are logically organized. Look at the organization column in the rubric. That is how you are being graded. A good rubric is not helicopter teaching but, rather, provides a solid launching pad for students’ own helicopters of learning.

On the other hand, if your rubric goes paragraph-by-paragraph and tells students what to include in each, then you have stepped over to the checkbox side.

It’s the same with learning objectives. A well-written objective gives an idea of the basic expectations of the discipline and provides a starting point rather than a limit. A poorly written one my be either empty and bureaucratic or overreaching and limiting.

None of this is to say that rubrics are necessary or ideal in all situations. If students in upper-division or graduate courses need disciplinary expectations explained to them in detail, then something has gone wrong. (And sometimes what has gone wrong is an issue of confidence.) The key point here is that using different tools to clarify existing expectations instead of making students guess what those expectations are is not in any way the same as checkbox teaching. Rather, such clarification helps show students where basic standards end and independent thinking begins.

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