Assignment Rubrics for Supportive Feedback and Consistent Grading
|Working adults who are
part-time students taking
a work-related programme
at NFQ levels 7, 8 or 9.
|David O’Dwyer and Anna Noble
On the Certificate in Safety and Health programme, assignments are designed as far as possible to be of practical benefit to students in their study and work contexts. Adult part-time students actively seek, and appreciate, feedback on assessment. To this end, rubrics have been used for individual assessment components in modules with large student numbers for some time.
When re-designing a short 20-credit part-time level 7 programme with over 100 students, from distance education to blended online learning, rubrics were systematically introduced across all four modules for practical and pedagogical reasons. Students’ highest previous educational level varies widely across the cohort and a system was needed that would provide advice and support to students who needed it, e.g., students who may not have studied previously in higher education and/or who had not done so for decades. Three taught modules are offered in a linear fashion, with one in semester one, and one each in the first and second halves of semester two. Students simultaneously and incrementally complete parts of a year-long capstone project module. Students are allocated to tutorials in five groups of 20-25 students, and a consistent grading approach is necessary across groups.
To use rubrics to facilitate students to:
- Understand the key deliverables for high quality assignments
- Recognise that both content knowledge and writing skills are important in written work
- Review and progress their academic and writing skills as they advance through the programme
To use rubrics to facilitate tutors to:
- Understand and communicate the key deliverables for high quality assessment
- Have a scaffold to communicate assignment requirements consistently across tutorial groups
- Grade consistently across tutorial groups using pre-defined skill and content-driven standards.
The Innovative Approach
Assessment rubrics are used and provided to students in the assignment in each module. Rubric content is designed to be consistent with module learning outcomes at NFQ level 7, taking account of Bloom’s taxonomy and UCD level descriptors in the UCD Governance Document Library. The first page of a rubric guides students on how to use the rubric in a progressive way as they advance through the consecutive modules: Student Guide to Using Rubrics
The rubric is arranged in a matrix: Sample Level 7 Rubric Header columns define the grading hierarchy from ‘Fail or <D range’ through to ‘Excellent; A range’. Row headers define grading criteria focusing on knowledge / understanding and on professional writing and academic skills. Cells within the matrix show the range of outcomes for each criterion within each grade range.
Tutors use rubrics as a scaffold to provide advice on content and academic standards, a) during face-to-face tutorials, and b) during online tutorials held just before assignment deadlines. When grading, tutors make an initial holistic qualitative assessment, providing feedback comments in the virtual learning environment as they read. They then use the rubric on a criterion by criterion basis and calculate an overall mark / grade using a bespoke excel-based calculator. Using UCD grading guidance they review the final rubric-generated grade vis a vis their qualitative grade assessment and adjust accordingly. SPSS is used by the module/programme coordinator to ensure no significant grading differences between tutorial groups and individual samples across groups and grade ranges are reviewed
Tutors find rubrics useful for communicating assignment requirements to students and for grading.
Rubrics are provided to students on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and there is no pressure to use them, so full participation is not expected. In the UCD Student Feedback on Modules (SFM) system 78% of students agreed that grading criteria were made clear to them in advance (response rate: 31%); supplementary in-class programme evaluation with higher response rates shows that less than 5% do not use rubrics at all, but a clear majority not only use the rubric and feedback system through to programme end but also find it helpful or very helpful to their learning. While this confirms rubrics as a valuable tool, we also find that the feedback comments from tutors within the assignment document in the virtual learning environment is appreciated by 90% of students, suggesting that rubrics should not replace other forms of individual bespoke feedback.
Including and weighting the writing skills criteria within the rubric brings to students’ attention, in a practical way, the importance of spelling, grammar, formatting and avoiding plagiarism; and perhaps because the rubric highlights the impact of getting it wrong on their grade, students tend to try to get it right. Finally, knowing that tutors are grading to a consistent transparent standard is reassuring for students, for the programme coordinator and the external examiners.