Rubric Design – the great balancing act

I’ve written before about rubrics in higher education, and the need for pragmatism in weighing up their costs vs their benefits. Critics of rubrics cite several reasons to not use them, but in this post I want to address one of the loudest of them: that criteria descriptions lead to reductive student responses.

It is true that when using a rubric that applying a grade to a student response for each criteria is at the mercy of what is written in the descriptors. It is a fine line between achieving a successful balance between being too prescriptive and being too vague. When too prescriptive, students use the information almost literally, and reduce responses to narrow and superficial levels. Such descriptions then diminish the ability for the assessment to assess a broad domain of the course content. When too vague, students are given superficial guidance as to what the marker is looking for in answering to the criteria.

Getting the balance right

Like any craftsperson, it is the skill in the field that determines success, and separates the pack. Education is certainly no different, and the writing of an effective rubric does take thought and time to master. Below I offer some ideas on how to word descriptors so as to achieve the required balance discussed above. I am grateful to a very open minded academic I was working with on this who allowed me to use it as an example. Of note, it is often just a simple tweak of a couple of words that makes all the difference.

One of the key aspects of this approach is using the adverbial phrase ‘such as’. By suggesting elements that could be included in a response to criteria you provide sufficient guidance but also open the possibility that other elements could be included too. This gives you flexibility to still award in a certain range if a student responds in a manner that is not covered in the ‘such as’ list. Feedback as a comment would explain the choice. Of course this concomitantly opens a degree of subjectivity in the marking, but as stated earlier, the opportunity outweighs the cost here, especially when several markers are used.

This approach also makes writing feedback easier too, as for any grade less than HD, the marker can point to what students may have missed and/or what prevented them from achieving the next level up. This is a key feature of feedback – providing directive advice that is achievable. Directing students to how they can move one level is actionable and realistic.

Some notes on the images

  • In the images (click to enlarge) I refer to CLOs. These are course learning outcomes, and I believe it is a good idea to indicate to students what CLO is connected to the relevant criteria. This provides students with a reference point to use as a preparation and then revision tool, and helps them make connections to the overarching intentions (outcomes) of the course. I’ve written before about aligning CLOs to assessments.
  • I also discuss the need to indicate the number of marks awarded to each criterion, helping students understand the amount of energy they should dedicate to each criterion.

I’m Paul Moss. I am a learning designer at The University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger


  1. Thank you, Paul, for this interesting piece. I like the way you use the synonyms in the range and later in the descriptions of the range. Also, I like your suggestions about not being too prescriptive and adding a qualifier ‘such as’ to keep the doors open for flexibility. I slightly disagree with your argument in your annotation that not meeting certain criteria results in failure. But, wouldn’t that put students at a disadvantage because they may address the rest of the requirements well?


    1. Hi. Thank you for your kind comments. I’m not sure what you mean by the annotation referring to not meeting certain criteria. Are you talking about the no.6 annotation?


  2. I realise that how i have set this up may be confusing. Annotation 6 is pointing out the issue with the existing description – as it is not in red, it indicates the existing rubric. Does that make sense and affect your point?


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