If you don’t score essays with rubrics, you probably have good reason. Maybe you don’t accept that all the qualities of an essay can be reduced to metrics, or resist the pressure to standardize students’ performances, or feel that rubrics are an overly legalistic means to cover yourself when students or parents protest a grade, or balk at the notion that evaluating essays is objective.
If you do score essays with rubrics, you probably have good reason. Maybe you want to make essay evaluation more transparent to students, or feel that itemizing an essay’s strengths and weaknesses benefits writers, or believe in making essay scoring as objective as possible.
I use rubrics on occasion and have experimented with different versions in an attempt to mitigate against some of a rubric’s drawbacks. The following section describes one type of rubric that I believe enhances students’ self-assessment skills.
A New Rubric is Born
Seventeen years ago, I created a rubric with two scoring columns. The column on the left allows students to score their own essays before I evaluate them. My new rubric solved three issues that educators have with rubrics:
First, students often don’t look at paper feedback beyond the final grade. That means that carefully scoring a paper can be a colossal waste of an instructor’s time. When assessing their own work with the dual-entry rubric, however, students are more invested in determining how their scores align with their instructor’s.
Secondly, students passively receive praise or criticism from the instructor—meaning that they are unlikely to internalize feedback. Thus, students are deprived of the opportunity to develop a critical writing skill: self-assessment. Because learners score their compositions with the dual-entry rubric without consulting the instructor, they are forced to practice metacognition—independently recognizing rhetorical success and identifying pain points.
Lastly, commenting on students’ errors succinctly takes pedagogical finesse and effort, particularly when their composing problem is a higher order concern. However, if the student has accurately given herself a low score on supporting ideas, for example, that means the instructor does not need to carefully describe how and why his or her support for ideas is lacking. Why explain a problem that the young writer has already identified?
The Dual-Entry Rubric in Practice
Step 1. Show Model Essays and Explain their Rubric Scores
After introducing an essay prompt, show an example of a low-level and high-level student essay from a previous class (with names removed) and explain why these artifacts received specific scores on their dual-entry rubrics. Warn students not to be overly modest or generous in their self-appraisal, as that defeats the point—for them to enhance their ability to evaluate their own writing.
Step 2. Teach How to Write for Impact (And Describe How Much Work is Involved)
It’s important that the conversation include some description of how one or two past students blew your hair back with the quality of their writing. As their target audience, you need to identify what excites you in order to define the rhetorical context.
Students also need a sense of how long it takes to write a successful essay. Explain that the main thing that differentiates mediocre writers from exemplary ones is the amount of time and intensity put into composing. Use these quotations for emphasis:
“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
“I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”
Novice writers often do not understand the commitment that crafting good prose takes because much of the process is accomplished when the author is not being observed. Nevertheless, writing good prose is heroic—like pushing mountains into the sea.
Step 3. Check for Understanding
Ask students to paraphrase the assignment, rubric expectations, and also describe how a successful essay affects the reader.
Step 4. Identify What Should be Submitted with the Essay
Tell students to turn in a copy of their completed essay with the following items attached: the Dual-Entry Rubric (with the left column scored by the author) and a writer’s memo. Below is the writer’s memo expectations handout that I use:
* This memo should precede a student’s essay.
After I receive a student’s completed essay—with the writer’s memo and dual-entry rubric attached, I cover up the writer’s self-assessment scores so that I am not influenced by his or her analysis. If there is significant daylight between the students’ scores and mine (which happens more rarely than you might expect), I hold a writing conference to discuss our conflicting interpretations.
Ultimately the extra effort that students put into developing their writer’s memo and dual- entry rubric provides them insight into the writing process, boosts their self-assessment skills, and shortens my grading and responding time.