Designing Rubrics

Defining Student Performance

A definition of student performance levels is what makes a rubric more than an assignment checklist.  By providing students with a range of levels of response, you can help guide them away from common errors.  Here are a few tips for defining student performance on your rubric. 

Decide how you will rate performance.  

Possible ratings can be impressionistic (Excellent, Above Average, Sufficient, Unacceptable) or they can be grade levels. In order to avoid creating a “catch-all” category, consider creating an even number of ratings columns.

Try to avoid checklists. 

It can be tempting to create checklists for student work, but this makes defining the center columns particularly difficult, forcing you into several “ands” & “ors,” as the example below (for the criteria of “Includes a counterargument”) illustrates:

While you can certainly walk students through such a model, we recommend instead clearly defining the attributes of a good counterargument in your writing guide or prompt instead, and then referencing that on your rubric:






Try to be consistent. 

Use the same language to define performance at each level.  Words like “most,” “some,” and “few” can be very helpful in rubric design.

Be clear. 

This is generally not a problem, but can cause difficulties when discussing writing style.  One tip is to try to define “clear writing” and “clear organization” in terms of reader response.  Instead of “the paper is clearly written,” (which works fine as a description of excellent work, but gets hazy in the middle levels) you might try something like “the reader is never (rarely, sometimes, frequently) confused by the meaning of individual sentences or use of terminology.”  Instead of “the paper is well-organized,” try “the reader is always (usually, sometimes, rarely) able to see how each paragraph relates to the one that precedes it and to the larger thesis.”

Leave room for comments. 

You may want to include comments for each criteria, or you may want to leave room at the end of your paper for a response to the paper as a whole.  In either case, it’s useful to leave a space for you to provide clarification about your ratings or suggestions for improvement, as well as praise. 

Work from the outside in. 

It’s usually easier to define excellent work and unacceptable work than work that falls in the mid-range.  By starting with the outside categories, you can better define for yourself your expectations before getting into the more nuanced ratings.

Consider defining performance with your class. 

As with determining criteria, it can be useful to brainstorm with your class what an “excellent” paper does well and what an “unacceptable” paper does poorly.  Defining performance with your class has the added bonus of allowing you to answer questions or provide clarification as your students are still drafting their papers.

Review your rubric with your class. 

If possible, distribute your rubric with your writing assignment so that you can review these documents together.  By discussing your rubric with your students, you can ensure that they understand your criteria and head off any questions that might arise later.

Check your rubric against your other guidelines.

After you develop your rubric, it’s helpful to return to your prompt and your genre guide to make sure that the rubric reflects the criteria you outlined there and vice-versa. 



“Creating and Using Rubrics.”  The Assessment Office. The University of Hawaii at Mānoa. 18 December 2013.  Web. 1 June 2014.

“Creating Grading Criteria.”  The Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning.  Brown University. n.d. Web. 1 June 2014.

“Rubric Development.”  Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.  University of West Florida.  24 April 2014.  Web. 1 June 2014.

Tierny, Robin and Marielle Simon.  “What’s Still Wrong with Rubrics: Focusing on the consistency of performance criteria across scale levels.”  Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 9(2).  Web. 1 June 2014.

Turley, Eric and Chris W. Gallagher.  “On the ‘Uses’ of Rubrics: Reframing the Great Rubric Debate.”  The English Journal 97.4 (2008): 87-92.