The importance of rubrics in higher education advances

Gareth BramleyIn this post Gareth Bramley (University Teacher, University of Sheffield, g.bramley@sheffield.ac.uk) discusses some of the benefits of using properly constructed rubrics as a learning and teaching method in higher education, and also some of the challenges of implementing such rubrics. These points were highlighted and discussed at the recent Learning and Teaching Conference on Higher Education Advances at the Universitat Politecnica de Valencia in Valencia, Spain.

 

The use of rubrics in higher education learning and teaching can work as an essential aid in ensuring that students undertake deep learning and that courses are constructively aligned i.e. the learning outcomes are clearly set out and any form of assessment of teaching content matches such learning outcomes. This was one of the key messages put forward by speakers at the first Learning and Teaching Conference in Higher Education Advances (HEA'd) at the University of Valencia (24-26 June 2015), which I attended along with teachers of higher education from across the globe. This conference encouraged those engaged with learning and teaching from around the world to meet, share and discuss their research into learning and teaching.

Since becoming a University Teacher at the University of Sheffield, I have already experienced some of the benefits of using rubrics in my own learning and teaching, so it was very encouraging to hear from other university teachers, lecturers and professors, both from the UK and from other jurisdictions, how much they also value the use of rubrics in their teaching. However, it was also very useful to hear about some of the potential pitfalls and challenges with rubrics as learning and teaching aids, particularly when planning to use rubrics in any subject for the first time. This again was something that I could relate to my own teaching experience.

Benefits

For those unfamiliar with rubrics, the common understanding of the word rubric that was highlighted at the conference is essentially any set of criteria (often expressed in some form or grid or table) which assists in measuring engagement of students with the learning outcomes and aims of teaching. Speakers at the conference highlighted that, if properly constructed, the use of rubrics can have a number of benefits for learning and teaching at a higher education level. One of the main benefits highlighted, was that rubrics help to ensure that the assessment of engagement with teaching material is carried out in a clear, open and fair manner. With a well constructed rubric, any assessment represents the learning and teaching that has been undertaken, and it is clear to both staff and students how any engagement will be measured, from the outset of learning process.

Those presenting also explained how much rubrics can assist with consistent and uniform grading of engagement, whether it be by formal summative assessment or otherwise. By clearly aligning any rubric to the learning outcomes of the mode of study, any member of staff that carry out grading understand properly how to assess. It can also be made clearer to students throughout their studies that assessment will be marked against specific criteria, and how the learning and teaching undertaken fully fits into the criteria.

Potential pitfalls

However, those who spoke at the conference about their research into the use of rubrics also highlighted some potential pitfalls when using rubrics. Many speakers explained how they experienced the importance of using clearly worded rubrics that are easy to understand from both a student and staff perspective. It was clear that ambiguous or overly complicated wording can detrimentally affect the benefit of a rubric, as can wording that is not properly constructed from the learning outcomes nor actually followed in the teaching. It is essential that any rubric is drafted from the learning outcomes set, and also that the rubric properly represents the content delivered to students.

In addition, those who had implemented rubrics for the first time talked about how such implementation can be a long and detailed process. It was clear from the research presented, that rubrics cannot be created overnight. Rubrics involve careful planning, discussions between teaching teams, detailed feedback to students (and also comments from students on the process), and most importantly, continued adaptation and development. Rubrics, in order to be clear and properly aligned to learning outcomes, need to be sufficiently concise to not be overwhelming to students and staff, but also sufficiently detailed and clear in order to allow for fair and proper assessment. Therefore, those using rubrics must understand that it does not represent a quick fix, and should not be implemented without careful thought as to its form and content for the particular mode of study.

Some speakers also explained how the use of rubrics has to be consistent and carefully delivered. Without proper implementation and careful planning as to how, when and in what format rubrics should be presented, students and staff can become disengaged with the rubric and the real value of implementing a rubric into learning and teaching can be easily lost. A key message from the conference was that a rubric that is not properly signposted to students, nor is an accurate representation of the teaching content delivered, is a wasted opportunity.

From a personal perspective, I really enjoyed the conference, as it allowed me to hear some very interesting accounts of learning and teaching and engage in some very fruitful discussions as to the ever developing challenge of ensuring high quality learning and teaching. I would certainly recommend the conference as somewhere to both present ideas, and share resources.

Those attending the conference certainly all agreed that high quality learning and teaching is a challenge that requires time, effort and continued discussion and sharing of ideas. It would be great to hear from others about their own experiences of using rubrics in learning and teaching, and I hope to see you at the second Learning and Teaching conference on Higher Education advances from 21- 23 June 2016.