Monday, December 1, 2008

The problem with rubrics . . .


This is in progress. I would appreciate your ideas/thoughts at any stage of this blog entry's life.

To become educated is to become an independent thinker and learner, a person who knows how to analyze, search out relevant information, investigate, reason, and discover.

To me, giving a student a writing rubric is like handing over the CliffsNotes to a novel. Don't bother about grappling with the raw voice in Catcher in the Rye or weighing through the imagery-laden scenes in Moby Dick; read the CliffsNotes; let Cliff guide how you perceive and understand this book.

In all fairness to Cliff, literature classrooms advance certain ways of seeing, but they also encourage discussions, original thinking, exploration, analysis, and discovery.

Moby Dick is more than what happened (see CliffsNotes' Chapter Summaries) and who key characters are (see CliffsNotes' Character Analyses) and the "symbolism of Queequeg’s coffin" (see CliffsNotes' Critical Essays: Major Symbols).

And creative writing--the personal essay, short story, or poem--is more than development, structure, voice/tone, style, and technical elements.

The problem with rubrics is that they promote the middle-class thinker. Most everyone--at least in the batch of contest entries I just "judged"--has ________________

The problem of the transition. On the rubric I used, low scores were given for essays with "inappropriate transitions" (no papers fit into this category); mid-level scores were given for essays with "insufficient transitions" (but the paper had to have "a sense of beginning, middle, and end); and high scores were given to well-organized paragraphs, "flowing progressively with smooth transitions."

Here's the problem. If I really judged that category by the letter, then every single--and I mean even the worst essay in the stack--would have earned high scores in that category. Yes, the paper that said, "First I am going to tell you this, then I am going to tell you that, and then I'll follow it up with that" and then matching transitions in the body of the essay was absolutely clear and even smooth. They were just predictable and boring. There was no art to them.

Okay, I know there's a category for that--on the rubric--is style. So the best

To really assess an adequate transition (or series of transitions) by rubric, we'd need an algorithm:

Back to the writing rubric.


Elementary school reflections contest
Privileges mediocrity or average-thinking / ability
. . . or as Andrew Bird says, "Can't have the cream of the crop when the cream and the crop are the same."

Transitions, in writing (in PowerPoint presentations, in films, in talks, in life), are a good thing. I won't dispute it.


Betty Edit said...

Your blog seems to have some choppy transitions.

Yes, rubrics are good for middle-thinkers. It's also good sometimes for receiving feedback, in order to categorize and know what your weaknesses are. As a system of judging however, I'd rather have someone who can take a holistic look at my work.

What are you writing this for?

Oriana said...

I've been meaning to ask you what you thought of the reflections contest. Also, for the non-writers, what is a rubric in this context?

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Olive Kite said...

a rubric is a set of criteria that you evaluate writing with

so, those categories that we assigned points to in the reflections contest would constitute a rubric

the point is to create a fair system, but i think it undermines the judge's ability to choose

i loved the poem about Splash Mountain. T said you loved it too. i loved the olive story (and the drawings). i loved the octopus who played tennis. and i loved the flower story--the one with some of the pages split into quadrants (i'll admit that i liked the visual savvy-ness of this writer). and those are the only ones i can remember. well, the fairy poem was cute too.

Oriana said...

I can't remember all of the entries. I'm a reader for enjoyment and sadly, not for retention.

literaqueen said...

Lucky! I want to judge for Reflections, but I don't think they do it here in West Virginia. We have a Young Writers contest that generates some great writing, but I don't get to judge any of the entries. I did get to help with a summer creative writing camp for the top writers across the county, though; that was fun. And guess what? No rubrics to judge Young Writers; at least, I don't think so.

I loathe rubrics for exactly the reasons you state in this post. I think rubrics should be used to jump start those who are stuck and to help them see the general areas they should be including in their writing, but I don't think they work for grading/evaluation. But rubrics are fast, which is why they're popular.

I wrote a piece about evaluating writing assessments with a rubric; it was a parody of a scoring guide. Wanna see it?

whirligigdaisy said...

Hmmm. I'm thinking about this. Especially what you said about rubrics "promote[ing] the middle class thinker.” I think a lot of tools (like rubrics) help us establish a standard. After all, we want people to achieve “middle class thinker” (or writer) status. We want writers and students to achieve a base level of capability. But once they’ve mastered those basics, then we want them to truly excel: to take our breath away with their writing, their creativity, their brilliance. And for that there simply is no rubric.

Olive Kite said...

I'm all for saying that a personal essay is the artistic expression of the author's philosophies (feelings, etc.) made tangible to a reader through story (and other devices). I'm fine with coming up with definitions of the genre, just as long as the students are actively participating in creating the definitions. I'm fine with exploring what artistic is (is it good diction? is it innovative thinking? is it exquisite sounds?), etc.

What I'm not fine with is saying that effective use of punctuation = 5 points; effective style = 5 points. (I mean, come on, is style really worth the the same as punctuation?)

If you break everything down into points, you end up having to say that a mediocre piece of writing is pretty good, because it included some semicolons and used an image or two.

I think we should get students to think and understand genre. We should teach them to consider structure, think about diction and imagery, etc.

But in the end, we should grade holistically: how well does this work as a personal essay? And how powerful is it as a piece of writing? Has it produced any new awareness in me, the reader? Will I remember any aspect of it tomorrow? in a week? in a month? longer?

We should challenge students to THINK. And essays, stories, papers that demonstrate careful and original thinking should be rewarded, even if they don't use any semicolons.

I don't know. I'm just frustrated by the rubrics I have seen.

Olive Kite said...

Wow that blog entry was really fragmented--particularly at the end. The writing process in process . . . for you all to see :-)

Olive Kite said...

And as to the reflections contest. The category was WOW! and there was a line--in the lovely rubric--that said something about how well the entry adhered to the theme.

The problem with this is that WOW can be anything. Do you give more points to the kid who uses the word WOW or explains the word WOW. Do you privilege the story that makes you, the reader, go WOW? It's all so very problematic.