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Cassie Carroll

English Capping
Due: 12/17/15
Towards a More Objective Grading Process
Rubrics and Grading Essays
Grading student-written essays at the college level is a daunting task. Not only do many
instructors differ in academic expectations, but they are also responsible for determining grades
that often have a large effect on the student and their records. The ultimate goal of the instructor
when it comes to grading essays is to remain objective and to assign each paper an appropriate
grade that accurately reflects the quality of the students work. In order to do so, many instructors
rely on the use of rubrics to ensure objectivity in grading. Though some may argue that rubrics
stifle creativity and place restrictions on the grading process, the flexibility of this method defies
such opinions. When it comes to grading student essays the use of a predetermined rubric,
instead of subjective commentary, yields more accurate grades that reflect the writers adherence
to the assignment, quality of presented ideas, and correct writing conventions. Although rubrics
do not eliminate the subjective nature of grading entirely, they provide clearer standards and
areas of assessment than other grading methods.
Section I: Rubrics as a Solution
A more objective way of grading writing is needed for a number of reasons. The most
evident reason is the natural bias teachers have. John Malouff, an associate professor at the
University of New England, lists a number of factors that play a role in teacher bias including
their perception of a student, past student performance, a students need for a certain grade, and
even their attractiveness, to name a few (191). Malouff admits, I try to avoid being influenced
by irrelevant factors, however, understandably, studies of evaluations other than college

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grading show that trying hard to be objective does not completely eliminate biases (191). In an
exploration of gender bias, Joanna L. King conducted a study on twenty-two undergraduate
education majors who were shown four different essays written in either stereotypical male or
female writing. The education students were then asked to grade each essay and then guess the
sex of the authors (King 18-19). The results confirm Kings hypothesis that those essays assumed
to have been written by males received higher grades, although all four [essays] were similar in
content (20). King conjectures, another possible explanation for this finding is that,
unfortunately, people are still favoring male students over female students (21). She rightly
concludes, teachers need to be aware of these subconscious tendencies to grade particular
students lower and should look for patterns with grades in terms of individual personal factors
(King 22). Though her advice is sensible, it is hard to carry out without the proper support.
On a more personal level, Sally Roever and Paul Manna describe the often awkward
situation when a student follows up with his or her potentially unprepared instructor to ask about
the grade they received: the scenario is as unpleasant for the teacher as it is for the student [. . .]
the teacher is now on the spot to rack her brain for the reasoning that justified the score she
assigned several days or even weeks before (317). Roever and Manna turn to grading sheets
(another term for rubric) in order to support both the teachers and students in such a situation
(317). Grading sheets, they explain, improve grading accuracy and consistency [and] provide
helpful feedback to students who genuinely want to improve their work (Roever and Manna
317). Collectively, the need for a more objective grading process stems from the fact that few
conscientious teachers would insist that numerical grades on paper assignments or in class exams
are infallible measurements of writing quality (Roever and Manna 317). A multitude of reasons

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call for a more reliably equitable approach to grading written work. Fortunately, rubrics may
very well be a viable solution.
The benefits of rubrics are vast and impressive in terms of positive results in the
classroom. At the core of this solution is its potential to decrease the subjectivity of grading and
to generate less biased grades. Michael Livingston, an award winning writer and professor,
insists, though the system as a whole is ultimately subjective as I think any grading system
must be the rubric provides a small measure of objectivity by insisting that the teacher have a
basis for the final assessment (111). As Bruce S. Cooper and Anne Gargan note, rubrics present
students with clear expectations of performance and make them accountable for adherence to the
task (7). Students are expected to use the rubric as a guide and, consequently, teachers are
expected to use the rubric to assess the students achievement. Livingston discloses, the rubric
gives me more confidence in my own grading, and far more importantly it gives students
more confidence in the reliability of how they are being assessed, which in turn gives them
confidence that they can improve their assessments (112). The benefit, in this case, is two-fold.
By providing specific elemental criteria, rubrics are arguably more likely to emphasize the
complexity of good writing by in illustrating that there are multiple components to a paper, not
just an overarching letter grade result (109). Livingston also talks about the advantage of
legitimizing the final grade and how, in the end, students are more likely to look at the areas in
which they can improve rather than disregarding written comments and taking the grade at face
value only (112). He deems this actionable intelligence, meaning students receive the feedback
necessary to continue building on their strengths and improving their weaknesses.
In terms of skill development and task-specificity, rubrics largely prevail over a simple
prompt given to students. Rubrics have currently been designed by creating a standard and a

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descriptive statement that illustrates how the standard is to be achieved (Cooper and Gargan 6).
Unlike an ambiguous assessment prompt, a rubric nails down the criteria to help students focus
on the intended outcomes (Cooper and Gargan 6). Rubrics, in this context, become a reference
sheet and an opportunity for students to reflect and evaluate their performance. Cooper and
Gargan go so far as to affirm using rubrics is a major step forward in education (7). Students
are obliged to take ownership of their learning by working with a task-specific way of assessing
their work. Rubrics offer a range of scores to be rewarded based on the students success, or lack
thereof, in specific criteria. This form of assessment gives teachers the ability to analyze
students more complex work, which requires a mental model of multiple levels of student
performance ranging from well below to well above the standard (Baker, Cooperman, and
Storandt 47). Instead of merely receiving a checkmark next to a paragraph in an essay, students
receive detailed descriptions on how their performance lines up with the chosen criteria. Parents
are also included in the equation as sharing the rubric with students and parents allows them to
see just what is expected of them (Cooper and Gargan 7). As a result, expectations become clear
to teachers, students, and parents alike.
Yet another advantage of using rubrics is something called norming. This is a
department-wide benefit that allows teachers to work with one another to determine their desired
student outcomes. Experts on the recent Common Core instituted in many public schools
throughout the United States clarify norming is when teachers align their scoring so that every
member of the team applies the rubric consistently with one another (Baker, Cooperman, and
Storandt 47). The process of norming, they explain, is essential for teachers to make meaningful
comparisons among students (Baker, Cooperman, and Storandt 47). Of course, norming may
not be possible in college-level departments but could potentially be used between multiple

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instructors teaching the same course. Students often complain of the same course with a different
teacher having wildly different expectations than their own. Norming using rubrics can help
solve such issues.

Part II: Microstudy

To put these ideas to the test, a micro study was conducted, measuring the effectiveness
of using a rubric for student-written essays. Two current and one former English professors
(hereafter referred to as Professor A, Professor B, and Professor C) were recruited for the study.
Each professor received the same two essays to grade according to instruction. Both essays,
analyses of Shakespearean plays, were written by the same student and reflect similar writing
caliber. The professors were instructed to grade the first paper as they would any other studentwritten essay. For the second paper, they were provided with a preconceived rubric to base their
evaluations [see Appendix for rubric]. The rubric is designed and modeled after multiple rubrics
put in practice at the collegiate level and reflects common student expectations. Twelve different
criteria are evaluated on a scale of 1-4, with 4 being the best score. [See Appendix A]. This study
undoubtedly contains limitations such as a small population and a controlled essay graded by a
current student. Nevertheless, the results reflect a fascinating trend that sheds light on the
efficiency of using a preconceived rubric.
Professor A awards Essay #1 a B- and approaches the grading task by annotating and
commenting constructively throughout the essay. Professor As main critiques revolve around
imprecise language, commenting first on the word objective in the first sentence by asking
best word? Shakespeare likely doesnt have this as an adjective (Essay 1, Professor A).
Professor A frequently asks for more information and corrects grammar frequently. The overall
impression reads, strong and interesting ideas, though you dont always give enough evidence

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and support to back them up (Essay 1, Professor A). Instead of annotating the given text,
Professor B composes a comprehensive reflection on the paper, highlighting reactions such as
the first half of the argument is much more obscure and, at times, confusing than the second.
The thesis needs to be clarified (Essay 1, Professor B). Professor B gives Essay #1 a B/B+
while commending the writer on their good use of textual and sourced evidence (Essay 1,
Professor B). Finally, Professor C grants Essay #1 a B. Professor C preferred grading online and
composed notes based on sections of the text and key elements. Comments on the introduction
paragraph include noting the absence of a hook and explaining the thesis is flawed. I had to
reread thesis sentence in intro to catch what happened (Essay 1, Professor C). All three
professors approach the grading process differently but do come out with very similar grades.
The use of a rubric yielded a mixed result. [See Appendix B]. While Professors B and C
arrived at a similar grade, Professor A remained an outlier. Professor A awarded this essay an
89% (equivalent to a B+), Professor B gave the essay a 75% (equivalent to a C) and Professor C
arrived at a 74% (equivalent to a C). Despite this discrepancy, the criteria chosen are fairly
similar and reflect common considerations between the three professors. All three professors
were unimpressed with the students adherence to MLA format; a criteria that, combined with
spelling and syntax, make up 15% of the overall grade. Scores on individual criteria align
relatively well with the three professors and oftentimes differ by no more than one point. The
two criteria that receive varied scores are structure of argument (receiving a 4 from Professor
A, a 2 from Professor B, and a 3 from Professor C) and syntax and overall eloquence, which
reflects the same scores as the previous criteria. The overall proximate alignment of scores
reflects the assertion that grading sheets also do not eliminate the need to make judgment calls

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about student work (Roever and Manna 320). The difference in scoring reflects each professors
judgment call.
The scores were then compared to the controlled essays, both graded using the
constructed rubric used by the three professors with the second essay. Essay 1 was granted a 74%
(equivalent to a C - ) whereas Essay 2 was given an 83% (equivalent to a B -). The results from
essay 1 shows more discrepancy from the controlled grade than essay 2. While the controlled
essay received a C -, the three professors gave the same essay grades ranging from B- to B+
when left to grade without a rubric. The controlled grade of the second essay, on the other hand,
is almost exactly the mean score of the two professor-rated grades. All three professors awarded
the second essay a grade closer to the controlled score than the did on the first essay. Though
this is not a polished study, results demonstrate that rubrics may be able to produce more reliable,
equitable grades.
III. Connections and Conclusions
In many educational situations, rubrics have been implemented in order to improve
former grading processes. The English Department at San Juan College in New Mexico recently
underwent an intensive reformation of their rubric practices. Recognizing that there were
multiple issues in their evaluation process, the San Juan English Department determined that
their old rubric was reflective of maybe even the cause of the narrowness that had crept
into our composition curriculum and assessment (Strouthopoulos and Peterson 43). To combat
this issue, the department created a dynamic rubric that better reflects their standards and goals
(Strouthopoulos and Peterson 44). The results are impressive. Among many benefits, the
process and the rubric itself helped [the department] to solidify shared core values for all
instructors and create a universal yet flexible evaluation system for all composition classes

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(Strouthopoulos and Peterson 44). What was once a system dolling out cookie-cutter essays and
frustrated professors turned into a refreshing environment conducive to creativity and growth
(Strouthopoulos and Peterson 46).
The criteria collected by the full staff included essay traits such as innovation and
sizzle along with standard and important conventions like elegant use of language and
clarity and voice (Strouthopoulos and Peterson 47). [See Appendix C]. With such diverse
criteria, the department dubbed their new rubric The Cold Stone Rubric after the ice cream
franchise that allows customers to choose their flavor and topping which is then mixed together
to create their personal ice cream creation (Strouthopoulos and Peterson 52). Strouthopoulos and
Peterson argue, why could we not create a rubric that did the same thing, something that began
with a solid foundation such as critical thinking and audience awareness (the ice cream) and then
had a variety of extras sprinkled on, as needed, such as emotional appeals, humor, strong hook,
or vivid examples? (Strouthopoulos and Peterson 52). This idea is how their dynamic rubric
came to be. The new rubric is described as a hybrid that combines the structural benefits of a
traditional rubric with the adaptability and refreshing simplicity of [a flexible] checklist
(Strouthopoulos and Peterson 52). Teachers are now able to tailor the rubric to their discretion
while maintaining expectations of the solid foundational skills. [See Appendix D].
San Juans experience highlights a number of ways in which rubrics can be helpful,
however, the root of their original problem was, in fact, a faulty rubric. There are many
opponents of this grading method who cite some convincing arguments against rubrics. One of
the more prominent complaints is, rubrics may restrict education (Cooper and Gargan 7). This
broad statement covers a number of issues including the potential for rubrics to stifle creativity
and the narrow perspective of a teacher grading by the prescriptive rubric (Cooper and Gargan

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7). A well known and outspoken critic of rubrics, Alfie Kohn, decides the problem is inherent to
the very idea of rubrics and the goals they serve (Kohn 14). In the same breath, Kohn contends
any form of assessment that encourages students to keep asking, How am I doing? is likely to
change how they look at themselves and at what theyre learning, usually for the worse (14).
These contentions, though reasonable, are largely overshadowed by the positive results of
rubrics. As previously mentioned, situations such as San Juan Colleges, do arise when rubrics
result in formulaic and uninspired writing; however, there are ways in which rubrics can be
adjusted to avoid such outcomes. To encourage creativity and expression, teachers may add
criteria such as those flavors added to San Juan Colleges dynamic rubric (Strouthopoulos and
Peterson 58). In regards to the potentially detrimental how am I doing? question, rubrics
given with an assignment can be used as a checklist, and the may be used by students to grade
their peers work. Student comments indicate that these practices are valuable to their learning
(Holmes and Smith 320). Overall, rubrics are not inflexible grading tools. Rubrics can be
adapted to each instructors assessment style. As Livingston puts it, my rubric is, and must be, a
reflection of my personal interests in the classroom (110).
Like any educational practice, grading methods should be left to the individual instructor
and their school. As Livingston acknowledges, no single system will fit all conditions, just as no
rubric could satisfy every teacher (110). While rubrics do not completely solve the issue of
subjective grading, they do offer a viable option for instructors looking to anchor their
evaluations in a grading sheet. Based on the overwhelming amount of benefits from using rubrics
for essay assessment, this method should be highly considered. The adaptability, clarity, and
practicality of rubrics allow instructors to approach grading in a more precise and objective

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Appendix A:

Appendix B:

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Essay #1

Essay #2

Control Grade

C- (74%)

B- [83%]

Professor A


B+ [89%]

Professor B


C [75%]

Professor C

C [74%]

Appendix C:
Departmental brainstorm of what we value in student writing

Source: Strouthopoulos, Chris, and Janet L. Peterson. From Rigidity to Freedom: An English
Departments Journey in Rethinking How We Teach and Assess Writing. Teaching
English in the Two Year College 39.1 (2011): Figure 2.

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Appendix D:
In-practice Rubric Customized by Instructor

Source: Strouthopoulos, Chris, and Janet L. Peterson. From Rigidity to Freedom: An English
Departments Journey in Rethinking How We Teach and Assess Writing. Teaching
English in the Two Year College 39.1 (2011): Figure 5.