Rubrics: A Clear Pathway To Success

By Jessica Mansbach

If you follow any higher education-related publication like Faculty Focus, The Chronicle of Higher Education, or Inside Higher Education you may have noticed that there has been ample discussion about rubrics. Topics like why use rubrics come up repeatedly in these publications, and in this blog post I will address some of these issues.

A rubric, usually formatted as a table, is a set of standards students need to meet to achieve success on assignments. In her article Using Rubrics to Improve Online Teaching, Learning, and Retention, Rippe (2009) explains, A well-designed rubric is an effective communication tool. It emphasizes the important skills or concepts to demonstrate. It provides criteria for evaluation.” From an instructor’s vantage point, rubrics delineate the evidence you will collect to determine if students have achieved the goals of an assignment. From a student’s perspective, rubrics show the standard to which each of the different parts of an assignment need to be completed in order to achieve success (Weimer, 2015). From both views, then, using rubrics can be a worthwhile investment of time.

Designing rubrics will help you think through the goals and instructions for your assignments.

When students are unsure of how to approach assignments, you may receive multiple emails from students with questions about how they should complete an assignment and how you will grade the assignment. To avoid these types of emails, if you carefully spell out what students need to do to complete an assignment and explain the standards that will be used to grade the assignment, you and your students both gain clarity about what is expected.  The process of writing assignment instructions and explanations of how to meet the standards associated with each part of the assignment will force you to think carefully about the purpose the assignment serves and how the assignment fits in with the rest of the course (Rippe, 2009).

Rubrics lay out a clear pathway for students to see how their work will be graded.

A good rubric clearly outlines the instructions and expectations for an assignment (Greenberg, 2015). Rubrics communicate what actions students need to take to perform an assignment (e.g., analyze, defend, and critique). When rubrics include detailed instructions on how to complete each action (e.g., make a well-reasoned argument using three sources from this week’s readings to defend your beliefs), students have guidance about the course materials, level of quality, and level of thinking the assignment should include. If students know what is expected of them from an assignment, then they can focus their energy and effort on the intellectual challenge of completing the assignment successfully, instead of wasting time deciphering what they are supposed to do in order to complete the assignment well (Weimer, 2015).  

Using rubrics makes grading easier for instructors.

Just as students refer to a rubric to see how they will be graded, you can refer to a rubric while you are grading in order to make the grading process quicker and more systematic. Because all of the standards have been created in advance on the rubric, it is easier to determine the extent to which students meet the standards when you grade. Since all of the students are being graded on the same standards, you do not have to worry about grading one student higher than another. In the same way that you want to know how you are grading students before you receive their assignments to make the grading process easier, students also want to know how they will be graded to make the assignment completion process easier. Providing students with the rubric at the same time as they receive the assignment instructions, then, is helpful for both parties (Fullbright, 2016; Rippe, 2009).

For instructors, rubrics are a defense against grade appeal.

If the standards against which students are being evaluated are unclear or subjective, instructors may open themselves up to disputes with students over grades. When there are objective criteria to use for grading, however, students are less likely to believe that they have been graded differently than their peers. Fullbright (2016) explains “If a student wants to discuss reasons for receiving certain scores, the faculty member is able to provide documentation to demonstrate when the behaviors occurred that resulted in the student’s receiving a 3 instead of a 4.” When both the instructor and student are clear about expectations, the likelihood of grade appeal decreases.

For more information on the purpose and value of using rubrics, please peruse the articles below. In a future blog post, I will discuss different types of rubrics, give examples of rubrics, and explain how to create rubrics in Canvas.


Fullbright, S. (2016). Using Rubrics As A Defense Against Grade Appeals. Retrieved from

Greenberg, K. P. (2015). Rubric use in formative assessment: A detailed behavioral rubric helps students improve their scientific writing skills. Teaching of Psychology, 42 (3), 211-217.

Rippe, C. (2009). Using Rubrics To Improve Online Teaching, Learning, And Retention. Retrieved from

Weimer, M. (2015) Exploring The Advantages Of Rubrics. Retrieved from

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