Templates, Rubrics, and (Not) Learning

By giving students templates and grading students on point rubrics, we are stifling their ability to think and learn. Teachers need to shift the focus away from rigid structures and expectations for students and toward looser frameworks for assessing larger objectives, such as mastery of content and higher order thinking.

My Tendency to Over-Teach

I’m no scholar of teaching and learning, but I’ve been doing both for quite a while now. I was in school, without taking time off, straight from preschool up through my Ph.D. And I started teaching college courses on my own in 2005 (and a year before that I was a TA. And in undergrad I also did a bit of student teaching at a high school). Any good teacher who takes the time to critically reflect on his or her methods and who really does care about the quality of his or her teaching will likely change things up every few years and try something new.

A grading rubric for a geology paper assignment. Are you as inspired to think critically and creatively as I am? I can hardly wait!

Lately, I’ve come to the realization that my tendency to “over-teach” is not doing my students any good. By “over-teach,” I mean that I tend to provide far too much detailed explanation, and that as I refine an assignment or my syllabus year after year, I tend to move toward templates and how-tos and away from ambiguity. For instance, when I taught the PR Campaigns course years ago, I provided vague guidance for what the actual deliverable (the PR campaign proposal document) should look like. I didn’t provide a target page length, I didn’t stipulate required sections and subheadings – nothing. Students turned in work that was of varying quality, varying length, and some of it just frankly missed the mark. I assumed that this variance in quality was a result of my ambiguous guidelines, and I probably graded the projects too generously, giving students the benefit of the doubt. After all, they can’t be expected to read my mind.

One of the biggest complaints students have about teachers (aside from being required to buy an expensive, crappy textbook) is that their expectations are not clear, that they are unsure exactly how they will be assessed. Indeed, “assessment” is a big buzz word in higher education right now, too. There’s as much effort put into planning how you’re going to evaluate the success of something as there is in actually doing it.

As the years went by, I found myself refining my PR Campaigns syllabus, to the point a year ago when I literally posted a template for the proposal document to the class website and had students work within it. I also had clear point values attached to even the smallest portions of the assignments over the semester. These point values were not only painful to calculate, but they tended to encourage bargaining. When a student knows something is only worth a few points in the final grade, he or she begins to weigh the costs and benefits of not doing it (losing the points vs. not having to put in the hard work). Students start to see the class as a grading game rather than as an opportunity to learn.

A Rubric Assignment vs. an Ambiguous Assignment

Some students – the ones who prefer grade gaming and bargaining – hate ambiguity. They want to know exactly what each element of an assignment is worth. Five points for putting my name on it? Check. Ten points for a thesis statement? Check. At least 3 paragraphs of literature review is worth 20 points? Check. And on and on. By the end of the paper, a student will think he or she has acquired all of the available points for the assignment. They assume they are starting from 100% of possible points and that you will be “taking” points away from them based on your “opinion” of whether they “deserve” the points. And then you grade it, and you tell them they really only “earned” 80% of the points. And then, because the student was in points bargaining mode to begin with, he or she challenges the grade, wondering why you “gave them” (or why they “got”) “only” 80% of the points. The battle rages on, with the teacher on the defensive.

When you know the teacher will hand out a grading rubric or a template for the assignment, why bother listening in class?

Now, on that same assignment, what if, instead of the points rubric, you were to say:

This paper must demonstrate your ability to synthesize the literature on X topic into a coherent, original analysis. It should follow all the standards of a college academic paper. ‘Average’ work earns a ‘C,’ ‘Good’ work earns a ‘B,’ and ‘truly exceptional and rare’ work earns an ‘A.’

It’s the same set of expectations, more or less, except that you’re shifting the focus away from points bargaining and toward encouraging your students to actually think about how to approach the assignment. Rather than run down a checklist, they know they will be rewarded for thinking about the learning objectives holistically, rewarded for creativity and analytical thinking, and trusted (not rewarded) to execute the paper with proper mechanics. Basically, they’re expected to produce college work, not automated robot checklist work.

A Return to Ambiguity

When I’ve tried ambiguous assignment prompts, I’ve received a range in quality. It’s frustrating to grade a motley collection of papers, but it’s even more frustrating to feel like a student is getting the best of you, feeling obligated to award points because they technically satisfied the rubric but didn’t produce work that demonstrated higher order thinking. When I’ve tried ambiguous assignment prompts, the worst papers are usually from the students who didn’t put a lot of thought into it anyway, who probably never met with me to sort through their ideas and let me steer them in the right direction. But the best papers that roll in on ambiguous assignments are truly the very best. They synthesize really complicated ideas, they come up with new “takes” on the world, and they challenge me, engaging me in a scholarly debate rather than boring me with the task of having to grade papers.

What I’m saying is that when I use a grading rubric or when I provide students templates and worksheets, I get consistently average work. And usually there’s a student or two in the mix that is smart enough to game the grading system and earn a high grade but who wasn’t smart enough to write a conceptually good paper. I resent these students, and they make me hate myself as a teacher, frankly.

But ambiguous assignments bring in a wide range of quality, and this is a good thing. Sure, some students do really poorly, but they often do poorly because they haven’t been reading for class or thinking critically, or they didn’t allot enough time to accomplish the task. But some students exceed my expectations and produce work that is sometimes good enough to publish. Teachers need to teach to their best students, not concern themselves too much with their worst students. This is especially true in college.

Teachers feel handcuffed to these explicit rubrics, and the work templates that go with them, because administrators don’t like reading teaching evaluations where students complain that they didn’t know how they were being graded. But teachers should give ambiguity a try. Students may just impress you.