Daily Grind

What is in a Rubric?

It would seem that yesterday’s Chronicle post on The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher has revealed a pervasive divide among academics. On one side, you have the author and those who agree vehemently that teachers and educators have succumbed to the coddling and hand-holding that has bred a generation of entitled underachievers. On the other, we have those of us who are staunch supporters of quality, objective instructional design, and are taken aback at the thought of a tenured faculty member at a major institution admitting to not knowing a learning objective from a hole in the wall. Worse, yet, equating a learning objective to instructions from a nagging parent.

I’m the one who commented on that post with the following statement:

Please don’t conflate well-planned, objective instructional design with coddling. While not all rubrics are created equal, assuming that providing one is a form of helicopter behavior highlights more about your shortcomings as a professional than the entitlement culture you’re intending to denigrate.

At last look, the comment has 84 upvotes and 2 replies. And in re-reading it late yesterday, I realized that my knee-jerk reaction could very easily be misconstrued as a personal attack on Dr. Conn. To the contrary, “your shortcomings” was intended as a generic response with the caveat that predicates the statement. Not all rubrics are created equal, but I’ll get to that in a little bit.

Once upon a time, I worked as an instructional designer for a large state agency that provides continuing education training around the world. Somewhere in my fourth year, we began to overhaul how all divisions within the agency approached instructional design. We began following the ADDIE process for every course developed. While there was little backlash at this stage, there was plenty of confusion. Why would we spend time and money on this?! The funny thing about instructional design is that it’s a systematic approach that, when implemented effectively, can lead to some interesting discoveries. In our case, we found some courses were light on quality content and heavy on extraneous, “nice to know” details. In a few others, we found that multiple courses were spending too much time on basic, introductory concepts that were all similar. So, we pulled those out into a stand alone, one-day intro course, which allowed the other courses to begin specific, advanced concepts earlier. Rather than make those courses shorter, we worked with subject matter experts to identify and design hands-on activities that would enable learners to practice and receive immediate feedback on performance. Novel concept, eh? However, when we put into place document templates for the technical writers to use when compiling the training manuals for courses and switched authoring platforms, everyone panicked. The assumption was that these templates, which required similar layouts and specific boilerplate details at the beginning of each unit/module, would stifle creativity, lock down the ability of instructors to teach, and force all learners to follow the same path. We would be coddling our learners.

I remember the panic that rippled through the agency and the pushback that came from instructional designers and instructors alike. Yet, an interesting phenomenon occurred. After two years of following the mandate, many of our instructional designers found that the templating forced them to be more creative. That is, they wanted the course to be effective and engaging while fitting into the new system. So, they worked more with the graphic designers to devise better ways to convey the same content. As we worked closely with the instructors, it took some convincing for the more rogue among them to try it “our way.” They didn’t have to read the learning objectives to their classes. They didn’t have to mention them at all, if they didn’t want to. They did find that they no longer had to jump around in the manual, because we had worked with them during the redesign to identify sequencing issues. And they found that when working with the classes, we had provided them with activity suggestions in the sidebar of their own instructor manual. These suggestions could be ignored, used verbatim, or extrapolated into other ideas. The instructor still had full control over their classroom.

Those eight years I spent as an instructional designer and eLearning Manager taught me more about human nature and instructional design than I could have ever learned in a degree program. So, I find the dialogue emerging from an article on the use of rubrics as a coddling technique equal parts maddening and enlightening.

Should an instructor provide rubrics to students for papers and assignments? That’s up to the instructor. However, I urge instructors to at least have one drafted. Why? Not only does it assist you with setting expectations and grading, but it also provides a defensible stance when challenged by a student or helicopter parent for subjective grading. Of course, this is highly dependent on drafting a quality, objective rubric. Should a the use of a rubric be provided, in the words of my friend, Dr. Michael Barbour, “where literally any idiot could come in knowing nothing about the content and still use it to perform well – or use it to grade an assignment without any knowledge of the subject area“? Absolutely not. And thus, the title of this post. A quick google of “good vs bad rubric” yields about 4,190,000 results. That should tell you something, right there. In fact, I’m sure that an educational journal so inclined could likely propose a special issue on the creation and implementation of rubrics and net no less than 100 submissions. So, rather than attempt a post on what goes into a good rubric, my challenge is for faculty at all levels of academia to educate themselves on rubrics; how to design an activity that meets multiple learning objectives, how to draft a rubric to evaluate performance on that activity, how to identify criteria and write comments for performance levels, and how to assign points for performance. More importantly, how rubrics can help you be a better teacher, not a coddling teacher who yields to the whims of students for the sake of higher student evaluations, but a teacher who is objective, who helps students jump the achievement gap from where they are and where you want them to be, and nurtures creative output.

At a time when higher ed and academia are under constant fire from inflated administrator salaries, ballooning tuition and fees, and rising under employment of recent graduates, I have to feel that this is part of a larger problem. Without objectively assessing learning outcomes, how can we, as educators, effectively determine what learning has taken place? Without crafting learning objectives, how can we effectively determine what we’re measuring? I’ll leave off here with a comment from another friend, Dr. George Veletsianos about Dr. Conn’s helicopter teaching article:

I’ll take this as another piece of evidence supporting the idea that most faculty members need training in ID and pedagogy during their first semester on campus. Or, perhaps, what we need is a mandated faculty-designer partnership for course design/development.


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