Rubrics as magical maps of unfamiliar terrain

Imagine you find yourself in the middle of an unfamiliar forest and someone says that all you have to do is find the Master Hut and you can go home. And if you find the best route to the Master Hut, then you get some money to take home with you.

The problem: You don’t know what the Master Hut looks like or where it is. And even if you did know where the hut was, you don’t know where you are in relationship to it.

You know what would help here? A map. An illustrated map that has a drawing of the hut on it and marks the locations of the bear traps and quicksand. Even better if it’s a magic map that has a little red X marking the spot where you are.

And since you could always use a little more money, it would also be really helpful to know how “best route” is defined. Does it mean the quickest route? The most scenic? The safest?

When I was first introduced to rubrics as a graduate student at Portland State by Dannelle Stevens and Toni Levi, I immediately saw the potential in them to help me side-step in my teaching many of the issues I’d experienced as a student. An assignment description may have described the Master Hut, but it didn’t tell me how to find it. I often felt like I was stumbling around in a dark forest, bumping into trees and tripping into bear traps, sometimes accidently stumbling across the Master Hut. And once I finally developed a sense of the terrain and could usually find the Master Hut, what counted as the “best” route changed from professor to professor.

For students, an assignment or course rubric can act like that map of the forest. It tells them not only what the desired end point is, but also how “best route” is defined. And the act of scoring their work with the rubric is the act of putting that red X on the map that marks where they are in relationship to the goal. No more blind stumbling! Which isn’t to say that students won’t still trip into bear traps from time to time.

But the same information also benefits professors who see the role of a teacher as guiding students through that forest. Once a professor knows where a student is in relationship to the goal, s/he can use that information to advise the student on next steps.

Taken in aggregate across all students in a class, rubric data can help the professor-as-guide see where his or her students are having the most trouble and what they seem pretty well on top of. This information can be used to plan curriculum and decide when the class is ready to move on to the next concept or topic.

Rubrics aren’t for everyone. I’ve encountered professors who feel that the blind stumbling phase is a valuable part of the educational experience. Others believe it’s misguided to tell students what the goal should be: There’s a whole forest to explore; why so fixated on the Master Hut?! I can appreciate these perspectives. But for those trying to help their students get from Point A to Point B, rubrics can yield some useful data.

Want to know more about rubrics in higher education? Check out this page at Marylhurst University for some rubric resources.

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One thought on “Rubrics as magical maps of unfamiliar terrain

  1. Jim Newcomer

    Very nice. I just sent it to my chair at Marylhurst. I’m thinking about sharing it with my grad students, but I’m not sure how much it would help them. It does give my chair – and maybe others in higher ed a really nice sense of what they are doing when they make up a rubric and how it anchors their students and can give them direction.
    Jim Newcomer, Ph.D.
    Adjunct Professor
    Marylhurst Graduate School of Business
    Program in Sustainable Business

    Reply

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