The Un-Rubric: An Experiment in Feedback

Before I even begin, I have to recommend two books and acknowledge the debt I owe to Maja Wilson, their author. Her books, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment and Reimagining Writing Assessment, made me rethink – in a major way – a lot of what I thought I knew about teaching the craft of writing.

The first book was recommended by the late, great Gloria Pipkin, and editor we both shared. At the time I read it, I was using rubrics faithfully in my classes but having doubts in the back of my mind (as I so often do about common education practices) that something about traditional rubrics didn’t quite jive with my ideas about writing.

I won’t elaborate on Maja’s takedown of rubrics (please – read her books!), but I will tell you some conclusions I arrived at about them after reading her ideas and doing some thinking of my own.

  • Rubrics tend to be about compliance, not thinking.
  • Rubrics tend to be about getting a grade, not about having something to say and saying it well.
  • Rubrics, like all grades, tend to make students risk averse: what’s the easiest way to get the highest score with the least effort?
  • Rubrics tend to promote agreement on a single numeric score rather than discussion of what the writing is actually doing to the reader.
  • Professional writers do not use rubrics. I have seen writers say “What’s a rubric?” when asked about them.

When I have told colleagues about Maja’s books, and about my own doubts about rubrics, many have asked me: what do you replace it with? How do you give grades? How do you justify those grades? How do you give students feedback?

These are all practical questions in our world of electronic gradebooks, though I would make the case that the final question is the only really good question. I would add to that question, though, some others. How do we give feedback to our students that will not only give them a sense of how they did on this piece of writing, but also a sense of how to improve not only this piece, but on future pieces? How do we get them thinking more about the writing itself and less about the grade?

In seeking to replace rubrics with something different, I began by thinking about what I wanted to accomplish with my student writers. I thought about how I think about my own writing. Whether I am writing this blog post, a comic strip, a play, or a piece of fiction, I always ask myself what I am trying to express, who I want to express it to, and whether what I’m doing works. Pondering the types of thinking I do when writing helped me clarify what I wanted for my students.

I wanted my students to think of writing as a series of choices they made, not a series of steps they followed. I wanted my students to think about what their goals were for this particular piece of writing – instead of thinking about my goals. I wanted them to think about what they had to say and what was the best way to say it. I wanted them to have a big picture, global perspective on their writing, and a closeup, granular view that looked at the internal workings of each paragraph and sentence and detail.

Most of all, I wanted my students to think about whether the writing worked.

I also wanted my students to realize the importance of self-evaluation. Too often, students simply write things to get them over with, to get a grade, with little consideration for what they are saying and how well they are saying it. They write things, turn them in, and wait for our evaluation. They do not do the real work of self-evaluation – or if they do, they simply check their writing against the rubric to see if its demands have been met. Real self-evaluation means having an idea of what you are trying to accomplish as a writer and comparing the actual writing to your own inner vision. I will rewrite the same comic strip script 20 times, not because it doesn’t check of the boxes on a rubric, but because something inside me says that this version isn’t what I’m going for – at least not yet.

Peer conferencing a piece of writing become a lot more useful if you already have your own idea of what works and what doesn’t going in to the conference.

With all of that in mind, I began playing around with different formats for un-rubrics. I tend to rate myself big picture (the topic, focus, organization, and flow of ideas) and closeup (the details I choose, the flow of my sentences into each other, the way the words draw the reader forward). I wanted to find a way to rate these elements that wasn’t numeric or overly descriptive. I decided to “borrow” an idea from cartoonist Linda Berry’s book Syllabus: she simply rates things in her students’ art and writing notebooks as ?+, ?, or ?-. These work, I think, because they are purposefully vague. But we all have a sense of Really Good, Okay, and Needs Work when we see them.

I also wanted a way to give students a way to think about letter grades differently, so I decided to base the letter grades on how close the writing was to being “publish-able.” So when they self-rate, they are really getting two different, but complementary, types of feedback.

I have been through many versions of the un-rubric, constantly refining it and altering it for specific assignments, but the chart below represents the essential, stripped down un-rubric.

Aspect of writing: Author self-rating
and comments:
Peer or teacher rating
and comments:
BIG PICTURE
ELEMENTS –
Topic, Focus,
Organization,
Flow of ideas
√+ 
√ 
√- 
√+ 
√ 
√- 
Closeup Elements –
Details/elaboration  
Style/Tone/Voice/ 
Proofreading 
√+ 
√ 
√- 
√+ 
√ 
√- 
Overall impression/ 
Add? Cut? Change?  
√+ 
√ 
√- 
√+ 
√ 
√- 

I usually print almost identical un-rubrics on the front and back of a paper. The front is for a peer conference; the back is for the student’s final self-rating and my final rating. Students self-rate, then peer conference and get their peer’s rating. Based on that feedback, they revise. Their final self-rating is the rating they think their final product deserves. It should be higher than the self-rating they gave themselves on the draft – revision should have improved the writing. I get their final copy, and try not to look at their final self-rating until I have my own ratings firmly in mind.

The interesting thing is that about 90% of the time, their self-rating of their final copy matches mine. When my rating doesn’t match a student’s rating, it is usually because I rate the paper higher than they did. Very seldom does a student rate themselves significantly higher than I do, either the individual or overall ? rating, but on the publishing rating as well.

When our ratings don’t agree, it becomes a dialogue. Why had they given their ratings? Why had I given mine? What worked? What still needed work? Some students are reluctant to make comments, but many do, and their comments tell me as much about their development as writers as the writing itself does. But even their ratings alone tell me something.

Here are some examples of final un-rubrics with students’ self ratings as well as my final ratings.

I don’t think the un-rubric is perfect, and I’ll continue to tweak it. I may replace it with something else entirely. I do think it represents a more genuine way to think about writing, one that I apply to my own writing projects. And I think it is definitely a move away from writing as compliance.

I currently give the un-rubric a √+. But I may revise that opinion if I find something better.

3 Comments

  1. Hey Mr. Fitz – sorry it took me so long to reply. I’m with you 100% and Maja’s work inspires me too. I love the points you made = somehow Rubrics and the 5PE seem to be linked in my mind – both in a very negative way.

    For assessment – one thing I’ve found VERY helpful in my work with students and the teachers I mentor is how I adapted Linda Rief’s idea of “Process Papers” and what is often required when you go for your Masters/Doctorate: an ORAL defense. I’ve found that not only are they faster to go through than written self-assessments, but you are then able to IMMEDIATELY ask for clarification. Do we want to find out what our kids really know … or just what they are able to think of on their own? We’ve discovered GOLD in our Elaboration questions with simple ‘Why’ and ‘How’ follow-ups.

  2. I’m always telling people to read Maya’s books. I’m so glad to see them mentioned here. And I had to sadly smile at the reference to Gloria Pipkin. What a great editor and person. I so enjoyed visiting with her whenever I attended the NCTE conventions. We were part of an NCTE list-serve (the Talkies), and she helped me numerous times when I had questions about my classroom. Thanks for the great un-rubric article! Here’s to authentic response and dialogue when talking to students about their writing!

    1. Sorry it took me so long to reply! I too am continually telling people to read Maja! And I miss Gloria. The last book I wrote for teachers was the last book Gloria edited… sadly it’s out of print now. She was an amazing person and editor!

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