Using Rubrics to Assess Student Writing

Ah, grading papers. As writing teachers, we love our work, but grading is often seen as the bane of our existence. I remember when I first started to teach college writing – I received worried looks from friends, family, and colleagues in other disciplines. Why couldn’t I teach a subject that can be scored by a scantron machine?

As writing teachers, it’s easy to fantasize about teaching writing without the constrains of having to judge or assess student writing. Wrapped up in this fantasy are images of a lightened work load and of students happily writing “for fun.”

In reality, many students are motivated to write because the writing is tied to a grade. However, I know I’ve been tempted in the past to avoid discussions with students about grades with the hope that I can refocus students’ attention to writing. In other words, I sometimes imagine that removing the pressure of grades will allow students to experience the sheer joy of self-expression and of exchanging ideas.

However, grades are not only an educational reality, but the way that teachers assess student writing sends students important messages about what we value in their writing — and what students should value about writing, too. As Bean writes in Engaging Ideas, grading criteria should not be an afterthought withheld from students until the last minute. Instead, instructors should determine grading criteria as they create assignments. I’ve referenced Bean’s work several times on this blog, and today I want to share some of his recommendations for using rubrics to grade writing.

Why rubrics?

Bean argues that professional writing teachers should “steer a middle ground between subjective and communal standards” for effective writing (p. 268). It’s okay that professors have different standards; after all, students need to practice the reality of writing for a reader, and the reality is that different readers will react to writing in different ways.

Yet, a study by Paul Diederich (1974) suggests that, with practice, writing teachers can actually reach a high level of agreement about grades. Diederich’s study counters the popular notion that judging writing is always subjective. In fact, when Diederich (1974) asked 53 professors to grade 300 essays by first-year students, he found a great deal of variety in how professors read the essays (some professors emphasized organization and development, others emphasized creative wording or phrasing, etc.). Then, Diederich set clear descriptions for high, middle, and low achievement in five criteria areas (ideas, organization, sentence structure, wording, and flavor) and was able to train readers to reach high levels of agreement on grades. Diederich’s study suggests that “norming sessions” can help individual instructors to achieve interrater reliability in applying evaluation criteria.

In other words, the assessment of writing is subjective, until you set and describe criteria and norm professors to apply that criteria.

Rubrics can make the grading process more objective and fairer for students. Further, a good rubric can help teachers to motivate students toward the kind of high-quality writing teachers like to read. Instead of hiding our evaluation criteria, maybe we should develop that criteria, share it with students, and even share it with other instructors.

Types of Rubrics

If you’re interested in using rubrics to grade writing, consider these different kinds of rubrics:

Analytic: The analytic rubric gives a score for each criterion. For example, students can earn 10 points for ideas, 7 points for organization, etc.

Holistic: The holistic rubric gives an overall score for a paper that meets that score’s criteria. In other words, the paper earns one total score (like a 10/10) and points are not assigned for specific elements of the writing.

Generic: Generic rubrics try to be universal by describing what an A paper looks like in general without mention of the specific assignment.

Task-based: Task-based rubrics try to be specific to the assignment by describing what an A paper for that assignment looks like (i.e. a task-based rubric for a summary paper will talk about strong summaries specifically rather than strong writing generally).

Each rubric type has benefits and drawbacks. Analytic rubrics allow teachers to provide detailed feedback about elements of writing but may send the message that writing can be broken into parts. In reality, most readers read holistically – we get a sense of the piece as a whole, and weakness in one area may or may not seriously impair the effectiveness of the piece. Thus, holistic grading reflects more accurately how readers read and speeds up the grading process.

Generic rubrics are beneficial because they may decrease teachers’ work loads, but it can be challenging to create a rubric that speaks to all writing tasks, as writing is rhetorical. Thus, task-based rubrics are helpful because they allow teachers to develop criteria that reflects the particular rhetorical situation. Task-based rubrics also clarify to students that good writing is situational not universal.

My preference is to use a holistic task-based rubric when I assess writing. Holistic task-based rubrics help me to be more objective with my grading while also attending to the rhetorical and social realities of writing. Bean writes that one problem with rubrics is that they seem to claim precision: “The powerful rhetorical effect of the rubric grid and its neat categories pushes us toward pretending an objectivity that does not match the complex mixture of likes and dislikes we feel toward any particular paper” (p. 279). Bean reminds us that numbers of rubric scores need not reflect course points or percentages. Further, he recommends that teachers return grades to students as a letter, not as a rubric score, to “avoid the impression that rubrics imply precision” (p. 280).

Readers, I’m interested in your thoughts:

  1. How might writing teachers approach the issue of assessing student writing?
  2. Should writing teachers aim for objectivity when grading student writing, or should we aim for subjectivity since readers “in the real world” read subjectively?
  3. Can rubrics improve the teaching and learning of writing?
  4. What kind of rubrics do you find to be most effective?


2 thoughts on “Using Rubrics to Assess Student Writing

  1. Jing Zhang

    Hi Krista, I enjoyed reading your post! In particular, I agree that writing instructors should not avoid discussing scores with students or pretend that the avoidance of grades can turn writing into a pure fun. In reality, assessment is part of writing (both in school and at workplace) so writing instructors should make use of assessment and turn it into a way to further improve the learning of writing. That’s why I especially like Bean’s idea that we should act as both a coach and judge and gear our comments toward revision besides giving students a grade. Like you said, by designing our assessment in a certain way, we are delivering a message to our students about what we value in writing, which can help them learn writing more effectively. (-Jing)


  2. Danning Liang

    Hi Krista, I really like your post! I believe that it’s good to use rubrics to assess student writing for the reason that rubrics not only allow composition instructors have good start to grade students’ paper but also provide students good overview of what make good communicative writing. Refer to your question about if teacher should aim at objectivity or subjectivity when grading student writing, for my own opinion, we could subjectively read their writing as a reader but leave comment and grade objectively as a writing instructor.



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