Negotiated Rubrics: Building Student Agency
Rubrics can be powerful instruments for understanding and improving student learning. Evidence suggests that sharing rubrics with students prior to beginning an assignment clarifies the expectations for A+ work and provides students guidance as they work through an assignment from start to finish. Students expect this type of guidance to come from their instructor. Are there benefits to having students play a role in determining the academic expectations? Professor Andrew Perry from the University Writing Program believes there are.
Perry follows a student centered approach to learning in his First Year Writing Seminar course, where students take a collaborative role in developing the evaluation criteria for the writing assignments they complete. Intrigued by this approach, I asked to sit in on what Perry refers to as a “rubric negotiation session.” During the session, the students work together (with guidance from their instructor) to determine the necessary components of a good essay for each specific writing assignment. They begin by breaking down the genre conventions (in this case, the genre was a rhetorical analysis essay) into the most basic criteria: what rhetorical moves must be present for the work to be classified in this genre? What characteristics would make a rhetorical analysis essay effectively stand out?
Perry warned me ahead of time to “expect some awkward silence and general discomfort.” Asking students to participate in what is considered solely the instructor’s job can be uncomfortable for all involved. Although the task was unfamiliar to students, it was not unwelcome. Perry reminded students that “you have a voice in this process,” an approach that fostered a high level of engagement. In fact, almost all of the students in class actively participated in the negotiation discussion. Students used the finished product, a basic rubric, to collectively score an anonymous paper from the prior semester. The paper was well written, but was missing a fundamental requirement of the assignment - the writer addressed only one type of rhetorical move instead of multiple moves - which the class was able to identify quickly. Intermingled in the development and testing of the rubric was an ongoing discussion about what types of feedback would be most useful to the anonymous author, and eventually to the students themselves, as they seek to improve their own writing. By the end of the session, the class had successfully negotiated the expectations for the first draft of their papers.
Instructors in search of strategies to improve student learning might consider the use of student designed rubrics. The process of negotiating and testing the rubric takes time, but according to Perry, the payoff in student and instructor gains is significant. By asking students to participate in the design of rubrics, the instructor:
- Intrinsically motivates students to identify and set their own goals. Participating in the grading process creates a sense of “buy-in” from the students.
- Saves time. The instructor tends to spend less time answering questions about the assignment, grading, and discussing confusion over assigned grades.
- Fosters a greater understanding of the purpose for completing the assignment, the expectations for success, and for more complex assignments, gets students thinking about process- how will they will approach an assignment from beginning to end?
Perry offers the following advice to instructors planning to incorporate the use of student designed rubrics:
- Begin by determining what students should take away from the assignment; what are the essential learning objectives? What are other desirable outcomes for the assignment?
- Be prepared to serve as a facilitator throughout the process – the students are the key players and you are the referee. Prepare guiding questions in advance to keep students on track.
- Include a calibration session in which the rubric is applied, preferably to a no-stakes sample draft of the assignment.