If you ever want to freak out a classroom full of college students; assign a research project and don’t provide a rubric. The terror on their faces is worth every question and complaint. Every semester, in my Introduction to Leadership class, I choose one assignment, give as little guidance as possible, and let my students know that there is not a rubric to guide them. Then I take it one step further. I also make them evaluate their own work and explain why they deserve the grade they assign themselves. They. Hate. It.
I love using rubrics as a way to assess performance but I have begun to worry how rubrics may exacerbate the transactional nature of higher education. Students look to both the syllabus and my instruction as deposits in an account to be used in the future for an educational transaction. Recently, the Governor for the State of Wisconsin, Scott Walker proposed a change to The Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea; which has guided the University of Wisconsin system for over 100 years is seen by many educators as the gold standard for universities all over the country. The changes Governor Scott proposed essentially gutted the truth seeking mission, and replaced it with a vocational one with employability as the lone priority of higher education.
I have to admit, I did not go to college seeking truth; I wanted a job. And I guess gainful employment is the reason the vast majority of college students attend college. However, along the way I had professors who challenged me and made me search for truth and embrace education beyond potential employment. Little did I know, this approach to my education had a lasting effect on not only my intellect but also my work ethic and my employability. By reaching beyond my vocational goals I gained the skills I needed to navigate almost any situation I would face professionally.
To unpack the connection of intellect to employability a bit more, one needs to consider a moment when most employees interact with a rubric; the annual performance evaluation. All of us who work encounter a performance evaluation and its usually laid out like a rubric. Think about how much most of us loathe this process. As a supervisor myself I know just how awkward it is. Most of the time we shoehorn some reason why an employee needs to improve or is doing well, and this is distant from the reason why. That’s because most performance evaluations and on the job development happens in the moment away from this starchy process. We praise, teach, and admonish all year long. But, somehow our continued employment and salary adjustments ride on a well meaning but rather constraining form. Our grading rubrics work much the same way and can be equally confusing for students.
However, I’m not a hater when it comes to rubrics. I am certainly aware almost every reader of this post can point to a time that a rubric has really guided practice, helped train students, and set expectations. Rubrics can be the bridge between what we expect as student affairs professionals or instructors, and what ends up happening. Like a bridge in a war torn country, it provides a zone where student and practitioner can meet, negotiate, and understand each other. That seems to be when I work with them best. I use the rubric to guide what I circle, highlight, and point out in performance and paper to make sure I don’t miss something in the evaluation. A good rubric can also allow students to reply to my edits and use the rubric as an academic translator that helps evaluate on common ground, and reduce what can feel to students as an arbitrary decision.
As student affairs professionals and educators we are all aware of the need to develop programs, services, and curriculums with a primary focus on employability. We are also aware that the number one way we determine mastery is by an evaluation of some sort. Be it a test or a rubric, we assess what, how, and how much students are learning through a myriad of assessment tools. And they are all generally effective and accurate. What these tools often fail to measure is impact and affect. That is where the real teaching lies. Great faculty and student affairs professionals have the ability to get students to reach beyond the rubric to develop their own sense of accomplishment and understanding.
Careers are not jobs and I think that is often confused. I have not once woken up at 3am with a great idea to bring to my job. Nor has a job compelled me to stay until late to develop that idea. No, jobs are nice, but careers cannot be measured. That is what I hope I instill in my students with the no rubric assignment. Sometimes the education is in the work itself and the work is personal. Success is measured by the results it produces and in reasonable self-evaluation. Sure, I have a boss, and an assessment plan, and an annual performance review, but we all know that is not why we work so hard. Rubrics are nice tools, but in the end, the value is really up to our students and that is most important lesson we can teach them.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Kedrick Nicholas on Assessment of Student Programming