Rubrics: An Essential Tool for 21st Century Learning

I’m not sure why, but I don’t remember a lot of rubrics being used when I was in high school and college. My high-school history teacher, for example, required us to write a five-paragraph essay each week for the entire school year. He was a notoriously difficult grader, and always returned our essays to us with plenty of comments scribbled in red ink. Even though he was a very dedicated teacher and his feedback was very useful, it was always a bit of a guessing game for us to try to discern what he expected from our weekly essays. Rubrics would have helped us tremendously even then, back in the 20th Century, because they would have removed much of the guesswork from our writing.

In the 21st Century, of course, rubrics are even more important because students have so much more creative freedom associated with their learning. When I was writing my weekly history essays 25 years ago, I was probably relying on just one or two sources of information–probably a textbook chapter plus maybe a photocopied article. Students in a high school history class today, of course, would be expected to do much more than write the same five-paragraph essay each week. Modern web tools allow students to create more authentic projects. As the University of Colorado Denver (2006) stated in their online rubric tutorial, rubrics can provide clear descriptions of teachers’ expectations across a broad range of assignment types, from written reports to experiments, design tasks, and other real-world demonstrations of learning. In fact, I can imagine a 21st Century history teacher giving students a free-form assignment on a topic–say, the Civil War, for example. Even if students are allowed to select the format of their Civil War project from a long list of options (oral report, role-playing skit, video clip, web site, etc.), a savvy teacher might be able to use the exact same rubric that covers all of these options.

Another benefit of rubrics to the 21st Century learner is that they force assessment to be criterion-referenced, rather than norm-referenced (University of Colorado Denver, 2006). Without clearly stated learning objectives, it can be easy for teachers to slip into a bell-curve mentality. Virtually all of my college math and science courses in the 1990s were graded on a curve. Most of the professors in these classes based our grades on norm-referenced, multiple-choice tests. For those of us who wanted to earn an “A,” it wasn’t enough to complete all of our work on-time and at a high level of quality. We also had to look over our shoulders and make sure our exam scores were always were one or two standard deviations above the mean. In these classes, I remember students would often ask professors what would happen if every student in the class was a genius who did terrific work–could everyone in the course receive an “A” grade? Rubrics help break this sad concept of sorting students by keeping the focus where it should be: on whether or not students have mastered the essential learning objectives. In a perfect world, a student should receive the same grade for the same learning, regardless of who the teacher is or who else happens to be enrolled in the same class section. In this sense, well-crafted rubrics can be an important way to ensure equity of grading.

Rubrics have even more power as learning tools when they are designed and scored by collaborative teams of teachers. The University of California Denver (2006) suggested that the reliability of a rubric can be improved by having multiple graders score an assessment against the same rubric. In recent years, I have been fortunate enough to participate in such a process. Last year, for example, the high school I taught at assigned two campus-wide writing benchmarks. We graded these essays using our common District writing rubric. During the scoring sessions for these benchmark essays, instructional coaches from the District Office were on hand to help us calibrate our scoring with sample papers, and we were able to ask one another’s help when we had to make difficult judgement calls. Again, this was a great opportunity for rubrics to enhance 21st Century learning, as our students’ papers and rubrics were shared electronically, which streamlined the process significantly. Student work was also electronically screened for plagiarism, thus further enhancing the reliability of the assessment. Activities like this are time-consuming, of course, but whenever teams of teachers use real-time common assessment data to help them improve their instruction, that is a golden opportunity to improve learning that shouldn’t be passed up.


University of Colorado Denver. (2006). Creating a rubric: An online tutorial for faculty. Retrieved from


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