Grading with Rubrics

What is a Rubric?

A rubric is simply an evaluative measurement system or scheme. Rubrics can be used anywhere evaluation is required, such as staff performance, interviewing job applicants, designing a survey, rating the safety of products and, in academia, assessing student work. Rubrics can enhance the consistency, transparency, and fairness for assessing all sorts of student work, including exams, papers, projects, posters, group work, oral presentations, lab reports, pop quizzes, class participation, etc. The rubric guides how the student’s work will be assessed, and indicates the weight that will be given to the various elements of the work.

All instructors have used a grading rubric whether they realize it or not. The standard marking scheme of A, B, C, D, F is a type of grading rubric, whereby those letters are assigned certain percentage values out of 100% or are given a named value such as Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor, and Failure. The letter grade is probably the most common and well known grading rubric, but there are many others that could be used in different situations.

Benefits of Using a Rubric

Sharing the rubric for a particular type of work with the students when giving an assessment can be very useful, both for the students and the instructor.

Student Benefits:

  • clarifies the instructor’s expectations
  • gives them a goal to work towards in producing their work
  • helps them understand all of the components of the work
  • gives them greater clarity on how they can improve in future
  • helps them understand why they achieved a specific grade

Instructor Benefits:

  • helps to minimize miscommunication regarding assignment expectations
  • leads to better and more focused work from the students
  • aids in more consistent grading
  • saves time in grading, both in the short and long term
  • allows the instructor to spend more time on substantive comments
  • results in fewer meetings with students to explain the grade they received

It is also a very good idea to share the rubric with any Teaching Assistants for the course, thus enabling them to see what the instructor wants the students to achieve in their work and helping to maintain consistent grading from all the TAs.

In her excellent book on rubrics in higher education, Mary J. Goggins Selke (2013) remarks that using grading rubrics usually results in higher quality and better conceptualized papers, with less time needed “to score the papers and more of that time… devoted to writing feedback pertinent to the content, providing encouragement and critical assessment of reasoning and suggesting additional sources, authors or approaches to the topic… Using the rubric helped the students get beyond mechanics to concentrate on the content of the paper. It also saved the professor from the tedium of repeatedly making many of the same corrections, writing long explanations of what had been thought to be readily apparent, or being so bogged down in addressing mechanical errors that conceptualizations were sidelined.” (p. 7)

Developing a rubric may be time consuming, especially the first time. One suggestion is to develop rubrics for just one or two assignments in your course and see how that goes. Asking colleagues if they have used rubrics in their courses may also be helpful – it may be possible to use a rubric that a colleague has already developed.

While rubrics can be extremely useful and helpful in assessing student work, Selke (2013, chapter 4) also points out that not every type of student work requires a rubric. For instance, multiple choice exams do not require a rubric, and rubrics may not be appropriate for certain types of student self-assessment.

Rubric Design

It is up to the instructor to develop the rubric for particular types of student work, in line with the course’s overall learning objectives and the learning objectives for particular assignments. For instance, the rubric for assessing a formal paper would be quite different from the rubric for a student poster or lab report. The rubric for a formal paper might award points for particular aspects of the paper. For example, depending on what the instructor wants to see the students achieving in their papers, any of the following elements (plus many others) could be detailed in the rubric, with particular numeric values:

  • appropriate goal or thesis for the paper
  • background research
  • structure and logical argumentation
  • critical thinking
  • originality and creativity
  • writing and style.

The rubric consists of three essential elements – the Category Descriptions, the Definitions within the category, and the Weighting Criteria.

Category Descriptions are general, representing the major elements you are looking for in the students’ work, such as Critical Thinking, Structure and Logical Argumentation, Background Research, Originality and Creativity, etc. For each category, you will also need to define what you are looking for within every increment of the Weighting Criteria.

As an example, using the categories noted above, you have decided that the weighting scale for the assignment is 5 points for each category, so your scale results in a matrix looking like this:

CATEGORIES 5 4 3 2 1 0
Appropriate Thesis
Background Research
Critical Thinking

Within this rubric, you will need to describe each category, along with defining the weighting within each category. For instance, you might describe your category as follows:

Background Research involves the ability to uncover, analyse and synthesize the breadth and depth of the topic through the use of contemporary text and journal literature, beyond the readings assigned for the course. 

Note that Category Descriptions should be:

  • unambiguous
  • clearly stated
  • measureable
  • precise
  • distinct from other categories.

Overlapping categories or indistinct definitions will result in ambiguity in scoring.

Once each category has been described, you can then define the Weighting Criteria. For the Background Research example, you might weight it as follows:

5 = Shows excellent grasp of the breadth and depth of the topic. Uses a wide range of very appropriate current sources, both texts and journal articles. Demonstrates creativity in finding appropriate and relevant sources.
4 = Demonstrates good understanding of the current context of the topic and generally good choice of solid sources beyond the course readings.
3 = Adequate background research with some good insights into the current issues re the topic.  However, sources beyond the assigned readings are somewhat limited and dated.
2 = Poor background research with limited understanding of the topic. Reliance on older texts and articles, and course readings.
1 = Very poor job at background research. Shows little understanding of the current thinking on the topic. Very few sources used beyond course readings. No use of the journal literature.
0 = No evidence of background research beyond readings assigned for the course.

"A minimal rubric is probably better than nothing. It helps faculty to articulate, and students to understand, the qualities faculty are looking for in [their students’ work]. However, because the individual numbers are not described, a minimal rubric provides little guidance [and] many students are still likely to ask why they got a [particular grade]." (Walvoord & Anderson, 2006, p. 39)

It’s not absolutely necessary to have your Weighting Criteria defined so extensively or precisely. You could just indicate a nominal definition for each score on the scale (such as 5 = Excellent, 4 = Very Good, etc.), but, particularly if you are working with TAs or multiple markers, this may still be too vague.

Having more complete definitions of your Weighting Criteria assures more consistent grading from TAs and also from yourself. We have all experienced the situation where grading becomes either more lenient or more restrictive as the number of papers graded increases and we lose some of our focus for the task. Having the weighting criteria well defined helps to avoid inconsistent grading and the clarity provided by the rubric helps to maintain focus and keep the grading on track.

Converting your Rubric Scores to Grades

After you have scored all the student work using the rubric, the final step is to convert your scoring to the grade system required by your university. Selke (2013, chapter 9) provides a good overview of alternative ways of doing this for either grades out of 100% or letter grades. She cautions that, for individual assignments, a simple or formulaic mathematical approach to rubric score conversions is often not effective. Rather, the instructor should determine what range of rubric scores is equivalent to an A, B, C etc. and best suits the assignment.

For instance, if the rubric has scoring criteria from 0-5, and there are 6 categories being assessed (such as Critical Thinking, Background Research,  etc.), possible scores could range from 0 (abysmal in every category) to 30 (excellent in every category), with most of the scores falling somewhere in between. Breaking the rubric scores into ranges can be equated to a desirable letter or percentage grade, even though, strictly mathematically, the grade produced would be different. This gives the instructor more control over deciding the ultimate grade value for rubric scores, given whatever is appropriate within the learning objectives for the assignment. So, in the example above, the instructor could decide that an A+ = 28-30, A = 24-27, B = 20-23, C = 16-19, D = 13-15, and anything scored below 13 is a failure.

Sample Rubrics

Further Reading and Resources


Selke, M. J. G. (2013). Rubric assessment goes to college: Objective, comprehensive evaluation of student work. New York: Rowman & Littlefield. Available online through Western University Libraries.

Walvoord, B.E. & Anderson, V.J. (2006). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment in college. New York: John Wiley. Available online through Western University Libraries.