Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


What is a rubric?

Posted on November 2, 2015 at 6:55 AM

I’ve finished a draft of my chapter, “Rubric Development,” for the forthcoming second edition of the Handbook on Measurement, Assessment, and Evaluation in Higher Education. Of course the chapter had to explain what a rubric is as well as how to develop one. My research quickly showed that there’s no agreement on what a rubric is! There are at least five formats for guides to score or evaluate student work, but there is no consensus on which of the formats should be called a rubric.


The simplest format is a checklist: a list of elements present in student work. It is used when elements are judged to be either present or not; it does not assess the frequency or quality of those items.


Then comes a rating scale: a list of traits or criteria for student work accompanied by a rating scale marking the frequency or quality of each trait. Here we start to see disagreements on vocabulary; I’ve seen rating scales called minimal rubrics, performance lists, expanded checklists, assessment lists, or relative rubrics.


Then comes the analytic rubric, which fills in the rating scale’s boxes with clear descriptions of each level of performance for each trait or criterion. Here again there’s disagreement on vocabulary; I’ve seen analytic rubrics called analytical rubrics, full rubrics or descriptive rubrics.


Then there is the holistic rubric, which describes how to make an overall judgment about the quality of work through narrative descriptions of the characteristics of work at each performance level. These are sometimes called holistic scoring guides.


Finally, there’s what I’ve called a structured observation guide: a rubric without a rating scale that lists traits with spaces for comments on each trait.


So what is a rubric? Opinions fall into three camps.


The first camp defines rubrics broadly and flexibly as guides for evaluating student work. This camp would consider all five formats to be rubrics.


The second camp defines rubrics as providing not just traits but also standards or levels of quality along a continuum. This camp would consider rating scales, analytic rubrics, and holistic rubrics to be rubrics.


The third camp defines rubrics narrowly as only those scoring guides that include traits, a continuum of performance levels, and descriptions of each trait at each performance level. This camp would consider only analytic rubrics and holistic rubrics to be rubrics.


I suspect that in another 20 years or so we’ll have a common vocabulary for assessment but, in the meanwhile, if you and your colleagues disagree on what a rubric is, take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone!

Categories: Rubrics, How to assess