Eileen Depka, PhD, has a background in assessment, common assessment design, rubric development, standards-based assessment, question design, classroom questioning practices, positive practices in grading and reporting, and the implementation of standards-based grading and reporting.

Are Rubrics Counterproductive and Limiting?

A few months ago, a young teacher, Maggie, asked me what I thought of the use of rubrics. I thought it a curious question, so I asked her why she was asking. Maggie told me that she was taking some college post-graduate courses, and although a few of her teachers used them, one professor was very opposed to them and said they were counterproductive, limiting, and should not be used.

Maggie’s question caused me to reflect on and evaluate my beliefs about the use of rubrics. After much thought, I continue to have a strong belief in the ability of rubrics to clearly highlight student expectations as well as provide students with a roadmap to success. Let me try to illustrate my beliefs.


Writing Rubric

Struggling Progressing Proficient Ready for Publishing
Ideas Main Idea
  • No main idea or story line
  • Some attempt at main idea/story line
  • Appropriate main idea/topic sentences
  • Thought provoking main idea/topic sentence
and Topic
  • Strays from topic
  • Clear but inconsistent focus
  • Entire piece focuses on topic
  • Clearly expressed ideas, go beyond the obvious
Supporting Details
  • Details are hard to identify or do not exist
  • Few details are present and/or are repetitive
  • Key ideas and/or details are appropriate
  • Key ideas and details bring topic to life
Organi-zation Introduction
  • No introduction
  • Unsuccessful attempt at capturing the reader’s attention
  • Introduction captures the reader’s attention
  • Uses originality to attract the reader’s attention
  • Lacks logical order
  • Order is not completely logical
  • Uses logical order
  • Sequencing is logical and effective
  • No conclusion present
  • Unsuccessful at stating conclusion
  • Successful attempt at stating conclusion
  • Original and thought-provoking closure
  • Lacks transitions
  • Few transitions and/or used ineffectively
  • Uses transitions effectively
  • Effective connection within and between paragraphs to create a smooth flow
Voice Personality
  • Writing lacks personality and interest in the topic
  • Writing shows some attempt to include individual personality and interest in the topic
  • Writing expresses individual personality and interest in the topic
  • Writing is lively, expressive, and engaging. Writing captivates and keeps the reader’s attention
  • Limited word choice detracts
  • from the meaning
  • Word choice is functional but lacks detail
  • Words add clarity and detail
  • Words create images, capture attention
Fluency Variety
  • The text does not invite expressive oral reading
  • Parts of the writing feel natural, others may be awkward or choppy
  • Rhythm and flow feel natural (easily read aloud)
  • The writer has thought about the sound of the words as well as the meaning.
  • Fragments and run-ons prevent understanding
  • Fragments and run-ons interfere with understanding
  • Minor errors do not interfere with understanding
  • No fragments or run-ons
Conven-tions Mechanics
  • Numerous errors interfere with understanding
  • Errors distract the reader but do not interfere with understanding
  • Errors do not interfere with understanding
  • No noticeable errors, piece is ready for publishing


The writing rubric above is based on a four-point scale. The rubric is analytical in nature, which means that a student is provided a score for each of the criteria listed on the left side of the rubric. When this rubric is used to score a piece of writing, the student is provided with 12 pieces of feedback about their performance, one for each criterion. The rubric can then be used by the students to review the next level of performance to reflect on what is needed to reach the levels. The rubric, when given to students in advance (and it should be), clearly highlights the levels of performance and provides students with an understanding of the expectations of quality.

It doesn’t seem to me that the rubric limits the students or could possibly be counterproductive in any way. Instead, it lays out the criteria crucial to a successful performance. With repeated use, students internalize the criteria and the indicators of a successful performance. Feedback is provided to the students when the rubric is scored and returned to the students. The results are visible to the students. When coupled with some reflective questions, next steps to produce a higher quality piece of writing can be analyzed. Students can be asked to identify the strengths exhibited in the piece, look for areas where improvement is possible, then outline next steps to progress to higher levels of performance.

Rubrics of Quality

Some educators are promoting what I call rubrics of quality. The difference is that the descriptors highlight the expectation of a proficient performance with no other descriptors present. See the example below.

Standards-Based Rubric of Quality
Proficiency Expectation Improvement Recommendations
Introduction of Topic Introduction clear and effective
Grouping of Information Information grouped logically by topic and supporting evidence
Illustrations Illustrations clearly support the topic and enhance the writing
Topic Development Use of Facts Facts are accurate and support the topic
Use of Details Details enhance understanding of the topic
Use of Definitions Definitions are effective and supply reader with important information
Connecting Ideas Linking Verbs Linking verbs are well-chosen and used effectively to connect ideas
Phrases Phrases are well-chosen and used effectively to connect ideas
Conclusion Conclusion effectively wraps up and gives closure to the writing


Rubrics of quality provide students with clarity regarding performance expectations. They certainly take less time to create. They don’t provide feedback to the student as does the analytical rubric yet can be used as a tool for reflection. The last column on the rubric can be used by teachers to provide feedback or by students to analyze their performance and provide next steps.

It doesn’t appear as though this form of rubric is limiting or counterproductive either. In fact, it encourages students to evaluate their performance based on identified criteria of success. Even if the student performs well, they are given the opportunity to reflect on each area and identify personal growth goals.

Although the two examples provided are in the area of writing, I can’t think of any academic area in which a rubric would not provide clarity and guidance regarding student performance expectations. The tool ensures that each student has a common identified target and a clear roadmap to success. The rubric takes the guesswork out of expectations and highlights areas of concentration. Students have an increased chance at meeting expectations if they are clear, upfront, and available as often as possible.

After a great deal of thought about Maggie’s question, I can’t help but think that rubrics are not only valuable, but add the clarity needed to give students an absolute chance at increased levels of performance. Why would we condemn them? Instead, I would suggest using them regularly with products and performances that are essential to the future success of our students at any academic level, preschool through post-grad.



  1. Ken Clark

    Great defense of rubrics! Rubrics help students know what is expected of them, but they can also help reduce teacher bias.

  2. Katherine Cumberland

    Can I also point out how much easier rubrics make life for us, as teachers? Yes, writing them can be a pain, but I have no idea how I ever graded complex assignments without them; they streamline and focus grading like nothing else. Yay for rubrics!


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