Rubrics 2.0: Descriptive Criteria Enable Student Success

Daniel Emery

Faculty and instructors tend to be divided over the use of rubrics and scoring sheets to assess writing. Some instructors appreciate the sense of consistency that rubrics provide and how they simplify grading. Others find scoring rubrics artificial and confining, and worry that splitting hairs between categories increases assessment challenges. In this blog post, we’ll look at the question of scoring rubrics from the perspective of student performance and recent research on how scoring rubrics can help students learn.

Descriptive criteria are crucial to student success

Many instructors are aware of the broad distinctions among rubrics. The popular education blog Cult of Pedagogy offers a practical refresher on the differences between holistic, analytic, and single-point rubrics. Regardless of the final form, the most important features of rubrics are the descriptions of salient features of successful completion. Bookhart and Chen (2015) noted that successful rubrics provided descriptive features of expected performance levels in their meta-analysis of student-facing rubrics. Grading sheets that merely provided numerical scales or offered points for meeting format and assignment requirements were not associated with student performance gains. The following examples illustrate the differences:

Scoring Sheet

Perhaps not surprisingly, rubrics that offer clear performance standards are associated with greater consistency between graders and greater validity in assessment. More importantly, Bookhart and Chen observed that when students were offered the same assignment and rated on the same scale, students provided with a descriptive rubric performed better than their counterparts who wrote without the benefit of descriptive criteria.

Descriptive criterion language aids self and peer assessment

While the benefits of descriptive criteria were evident in students' task performance in summative assessments, descriptive criteria were also positively correlated to student motivation and self-efficacy while engaged in the writing process. Providing students with descriptions of successful performance can help them internalize those standards and recognize their presence when assessing work in progress. In their analysis of pre-service teachers, Panadero and Romero (2014) found that the availability of a descriptive rubric increased students' use of effective learning strategies (planning and drafting), positive self-regulation, and reported self-efficacy.

When coupled with practices of effective peer response and using reflective memos, the descriptive language used in effective rubrics can clarify assignment aims and goals and improve the quality and specificity of students' feedback on works in progress.

Three classroom strategies to try

Silver red and black clock set to 3:00 success

Introduce students to assessment criteria common to your discipline.
The Writing Enriched Curriculum Program website includes descriptions of faculty-generated writing abilities and menus of grading criteria used by WEC units. The academic units page links to web descriptions of these criteria that can be a practical starting point for discussion of assessment.

Ask students to perform a criterion reference assessment of samples.
Using a de-identified sample or samples, ask students (individually or in teams) to use the scoring rubric to rate the quality of a written document and justify their reasoning. Using google forms or another shared platform, compare student responses and identify points of difference.

Involve students in generating descriptive language around standards.
Rather than beginning with a rubric to assess samples, ask students to read or review examples of successful writing and describe what they notice.  What features make a selection engaging, informative, or persuasive? What qualities make it less informative, less clear, or less relevant? Students' experience as readers and writers gives them a descriptive vocabulary to augment or supplement criteria common to the field.


Susan M. Bookhart & Fei Chen (2015). The quality and effectiveness of descriptive rubrics. Educational Review, 67:3, 343–368,

Jennifer Gonzales (2014). Know your terms: Holistic, Analytic, and Single-Point Rubrics. Cult of Pedagogy.

Ernesto Panadero & Margarida Romero (2014). To rubric or not to rubric? The effects of self-assessment on self-regulation, performance, and self-efficacy, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 21:2, 133-148, DOI:  10.1080/0969594X.2013.877872

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