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Grading Rubrics

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November 2011

Reproduce with permission only.

Rubrics are valuable pedagogical tools because they make us more aware of our individual teaching styles and methods, allow us to impart more clearly our intentions and expectations, and provide timely, informative feedback to our students

Stevens & Levi, 2003

Grading is often a source of anxiety and frustration for both students and instructors, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Common student complaints include:

  • You gave me a low grade without explaining why my work was unsatisfactory or how I can improve.
  • You deducted points because my work didn’t include things that you never said were supposed to be included.
  • You deducted lots of points for minor errors.
  • You took too long to return my graded paper.
  • You gave higher grades to other students in the class whose work is not as good as mine.

By contrast, common faculty complaints include:

  • I have too many papers to grade.
  • I don’t have time to provide detailed comments for each student, and in any case the students don’t seem to pay attention to my comments because they keep making the same errors.
  • I write the same comments over and over.
  • It’s difficult to distill my holistic, multidimensional evaluation of a student’s work into a single number or letter grade.
  • It’s difficult to maintain consistency because my TAs each have their own ideas of what constitutes a good paper.
  • Students argue with me over the grades I assign and even accuse me of being unfair (or too slow or too unhelpful) in my grading.

These common concerns suggest that both students and instructors would benefit from the implementation of a grading system that:

  • provides students with prompt, detailed, and equitable assessments of their work.
  • explains clearly how the student’s work fell short of what you consider worthy of full credit, and therefore what the student needs to do to earn a higher grade on subsequent assignments.
  • enables you to assess a large number of students relatively quickly without sacrificing the pedagogical value of the comments you provide.
  • does justice to the complex multidimensional nature of the evaluation process.
  • obviates the need for repetitive commenting.
  • educes conflict about the fairness of grades by enhancing both within-grader and between- grader consistency.

It may seem unrealistic to expect any grading system to satisfy all these goals, especially when some requirements, such as providing detailed individualized feedback to students and reducing the amount of time needed to grade an assignment, seem to be directly at odds. However, the grading system commonly referred to as a rubric, when used skillfully, offers the possibility of both increasing the educational value of the feedback you provide to your students and decreasing the amount of time you spend grading. Rubrics also address many of the other concerns listed above. In this essay we describe the basic elements of a grading rubric and the different ways of creating and using this tool. To illustrate the variety of approaches you might adopt, we also provide two examples of grading rubrics on pages 3 and 4.

Elements of a grading rubric

A grading rubric is simply "a scoring tool that lays out the specific expectations for an assignment" (Stevens & Levi, 2003, p. 3). In essence, a rubric is an attempt to make explicit the criteria that you bring to bear when evaluating student work. When assessing an expository paper written by a student, for example, your criteria are likely to include the following:

  • Is the paper well written? Are the words spelled properly, the sentences grammatically correct, and the paragraphs organized well?
  • Does the paper demonstrate mastery of the topic? Are the statements of fact accurate, adequate, and relevant?
  • Does the paper observe the conventions of academic writing? Does it include a clear thesis and evidence to support the thesis? In the case of an empirical research report, does it observe your discipline’s format guidelines? Are sources cited properly?

As you read the paper, you note its strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas, perhaps correcting errors and writing comments in the margins, and you assign a grade based on how successfully the paper meets your standard of excellence or mastery for each of the criteria1. A grading rubric, thus, comprises three elements: a) A set of dimensions or criteria that specify the component skills students must combine to successfully complete the assignment with weights assigned to each component in the overall evaluation; b) an evaluative range (i.e., an ordinal scale) representing the different possible levels of mastery for each dimension; and c) detailed descriptions or operational definitions of each of level of mastery for each dimension. These descriptions should include a clear characterization of the highest or expected level of mastery and, for lower levels of the evaluative range, examples of the ways student performance may deviate from the highest or expected level of mastery.

These three elements easily lend themselves to representation in a simple table or matrix, where each row is a dimension, each column a level of the evaluative range, and each cell contains a description of performance at one level of mastery for a particular dimension. Table 1 presents a simple example rubric using three levels of mastery and the three dimensions described above. Note that in this example each dimension comprises two or more subcriteria.

Creating a rubric

To use a grading a rubric to assess student papers, presentations, or other course work, you can either adapt an existing rubric or create your own. If you wish to adapt an existing scoring guide, there are numerous examples of grading rubrics from many different disciplines available on the web. The web sites and are good places to start, as is the book by Stevens and Levi (2003). You might also ask your colleagues whether they have devised rubrics for classes similar to yours that you can adapt to your own needs. If you choose to create your own rubric, you first will need to specify in as much detail as possible the performance criteria you will use for assessing the students’ work, i.e., the dimensions of evaluation. In deciding how many dimensions to use, try to strike a balance between having so few that the rubric is uninformative to the having so many that the tool becomes unwieldy. Three to five dimensions is typically a good range. You will also need to decide how much weight to assign to each of the dimensions.

Having specified the dimensions and their respective weights the next step is to choose an evaluative range. Conceptually, you want the number of levels of mastery to reflect what you consider to be the number of meaningfully different levels of possible student performance. Two is the minimum number of levels necessary to discriminate adequate from inadequate performance; introducing a third level allows you to distinguish excellent work from the merely acceptable. As you increase the number of levels beyond three, you gain increased precision (or at least the appearance of precision) but the differences between the levels become increasingly minor and the rubric becomes more difficult to apply. It is rather easy to distinguish exemplary from acceptable performance, and acceptable from unacceptable, but most of us would find it difficult to decide with confidence whether a student’s performance on some evaluative dimension merited a six rather than a seven on a ten-point scale. Mueller (2011) recommended starting with a small number of levels (e.g., three) and increasing the number only if, after using the rubric for several evaluations, you find that your students exhibit levels of mastery that do not fit well into any of your existing categories.

After choosing the number of levels, you then need to decide how many points to assign to performance at each level. If you have four levels, you can decide to assign three points to the highest level of performance, two points to performance that is good but not exemplary, one point to performance that is just barely acceptable, and zero points to performance that is unacceptably poor.

Table 1. A hypothetical rubric for grading an expository paper.





Quality of writing

Punctuation is accurate and guides the reader effectively through the text.

Grammar and usage contribute to the clarity.

Paragraphs are focused and coherent; transitions between paragraphs are effective.

End punctuation is correct, but internal punctuation is sometimes missing or wrong.

There are problems with grammar or usage, but they are not serious enough to distort meaning.

Paragraphs occasionally lack focus or coherence.

Punctuation is often missing or incorrect, including terminal punctuation.

Errors in grammar or usage are frequent enough to become distracting and interfere with meaning.

Paragraphs generally lack focus or coherence.

Mastery of topic

The paper is complete and addresses every important aspect of the topic.

The author has a good grasp of what is known, what is generally accepted, and what is yet to be discovered.

The paper is substantially complete, but more than one important aspect of the topic is not addressed.

The author has a good grasp of the relevant information but fails to distinguish between what is known, what is generally accepted, and what is yet to be discovered.

The paper is clearly incomplete with many important aspects of the topic left out.

The author has a poor grasp of the relevant information.

Adherence to academic conventions

Uses the proper format (APA, MLA, etc.).

Voice and style are appropriate for the type of paper assigned.

Uses the proper format but there are occasional errors.

Voice and style don’t quite fit with the type of paper assigned

Frequent errors in format or incorrect format used.

Voice and style are not appropriate for the type of paper assigned.

Finally, for each dimension, you need to write the descriptions (i.e., operational definitions) of performance at each level of the evaluative range. Stevens and Levi (2003) recommend that you begin by describing what you consider to be exemplary or the highest level of performance for a given performance criterion; this clearly communicates to the students what they should aspire to and what will earn them full marks on that dimension. Then, for each lower level of the evaluative range, describe the types and degree of deviation from exemplary performance (i.e., what the student’s work is missing) that define that level. For example, exemplary adherence to academic writing conventions may entail perfect or near-perfect use of proper format, satisfactory adherence may be defined as exhibiting occasional errors, and unsatisfactory adherence may be defined as exhibiting frequent errors.

Constructing a grading rubric from scratch is time-consuming, but you need not do it all on your own. The CFE has experienced staff available to assist you in developing a rubric tailored to your course, assignment, and instructional goals. Additionally, Stevens & Levi (2003) recommend involving your students in the process of rubric construction. The advantages of having students help construct the rubric you will use to assess their performance include helping to ensure that they understand the grading criteria and giving the students a sense of ownership over the assessment process, both of which have been reported to improve the quality of student work (Lewis et al., 1998; Kierle & Byers, 2011).

Stevens and Levi (2003) describe several different approaches to involving students in rubric construction. The methods vary in the degree of student involvement each entails. At one end of the spectrum, you create a draft rubric on your own after which you present it to the students and solicit their comments and suggestions for ways to improve it. At the other end of the spectrum, you ask the students themselves, perhaps working in groups, to generate the set of criteria that will be used to assess their performance on an upcoming assignment. Then, either on your own or together with the students, you organize the list of criteria into a manageable number of coherent dimensions and assign a weight to each.

Using the rubric

One you have created the final version of your rubric it is helpful to share it with your students before they begin working on the assignment. This clearly communicates to them your expectations for the assignment and, by specifying the characteristics a student’s finished work must exhibit to be considered exemplary, increases the likelihood that the students will produce exemplary work. When you sit down, rubric in hand, to begin grading, you are likely to find that you can grade more quickly, because instead of writing comments de novo on each student paper or other submitted work, you can simply circle the text (or check a box next to the text) that describes each error or area where improvement is needed.

Stevens and Levi (2003) suggested that there is a direct relationship between the amount of time spent constructing the rubric and the amount of time saved during grading, because if you take the time to construct a rubric that contains all or most of the comments you are likely to write on your students’ papers, you will have little need to write comments while grading. In addition, grading with a rubric will enable you and your TAs to maintain greater consistency and focus because it serves as an external reminder of the criteria to use when assessing student work and of the relative weight to assign to each criterion when translating the multidimensional evaluation into a grade.

If rubrics are such a wonderful tool, why doesn’t everybody use them? One reason is that, as mentioned above, constructing a well designed, sufficiently detailed rubric, or even adapting an existing one, requires an investment of time and effort that many instructors feel they simply do not have. While there is no getting around the fact that there is an upfront cost associated with both creating the rubric and learning how to use it efficiently, many UNC faculty members have found the payoff to be well worth the time invested.

For example, Margarita Mooney, a faculty member in the Department of Sociology, assigns students in her Religion and Society course to attend a religious service or event and write a detailed report both describing what they observed and analyzing the service or event according to the various conceptual frameworks studied in the course. She and her TAs initially graded students’ papers without using a rubric. Dr. Mooney explained that this method as unsatisfactory for several reasons: a) much of her grading time was spent writing the same comments repeatedly on different students’ papers; b) she observed wide variation in the quality of student papers, suggesting that perhaps some students did not adequately understand what they were expected to produce; and c) some of her TAs lacked expertise in the course subject matter or had little experience grading papers and therefore needed more guidance in how to evaluate students’ work.

In consultation with staff from the CFE and the UNC Writing Center, Dr. Mooney developed a grading rubric that evaluates students’ observation papers with respect to four dimensions and five levels of mastery (see Table 2) She has found that the use of the rubric makes the process of grading faster, more consistent, and more transparent. Moreover, she has found that the use of the rubric, together with providing students detailed assignment instructions and the opportunity to receive feedback on drafts of their papers, has improved the quality of the reports her students produce. This is an additional time saver as high quality papers are much faster to grade than lower quality papers.

Table 2. A rubric developed by Dr. Margarita Mooney (UNC Dept. of Sociology) for grading an observation paper.







Points Received

Points Possible

Description of your experience

Comments are limited to 1-3 superficial statements about the experience


Comments outline a thoughtful perspective that demonstrates an awareness of self in the context of the setting and the expectations for the experience


Comments reflect a broad perspective described by statements of personal understanding and assumptions about others in the setting. Can identify own prejudices and projections within the context of your level of understanding

x4 = ___ 20

Scenario description

Description is limited to superficial account with fragmentary account of facts, limited descriptive detail, or generalizations


Description is an adequate account of who was involved in the scenario, what happen, two or three interactions, and provides basic description to answer the questions who, what, when, where, and how


Description is a succinct, focused narrative with plenty of descriptive detail. Key characters are identified and described as well as more than three interactions with descriptive detail vivid enough to paint a complete picture of the observation

x10 = ___ 50

Conceptual Development

Paper fails to identify a sociologically relevant theory or concept relating to the observation


Paper links observation to a sociologically relevant theory or concept Theoretical/conceptual development is adequate but some connections to sociological theory or concepts are overlooked


Paper identifies a sociologically relevant theory or concept and uses that theory or concept to analyze the observation and develop unique sociological insights and arguments

x4 = ___ 20


Paper is fewer than four pages

Paper lacks organization

Grammar and spelling errors make it difficult to read

Paper lacks field notes attachment

Paper lacks references for works cited


Paper is 3-4 pages

Paper has some organization

Between 6-10 grammar and spelling errors

Paper includes field notes attachment stapled to it

Paper includes references for works cited


Paper is five pages

Paper has a clear pattern of organization that is logical and consistent

Fewer than six grammar and spelling errors

Paper includes field notes attachment stapled to it

Paper includes references for works cited

x2 = ___ 10

Dr. Mooney noted two specific challenges she has encountered in her adoption of a grading rubric. First, some students and TAs initially found the scoring guide bewildering, so be prepared to explain, perhaps more than once, how to interpret or apply the rubric. Second, her rubric includes most, but not all, of the criteria she considers relevant to determining a student’s grade on the paper. In particular, the rubric doesn’t include any information about class norms. She therefore uses the rubric to quickly determine an initial grade, and then, after she and her TAs have reviewed all the papers, she assigns a final grade that may be slightly higher or lower than the grade based only on the rubric. While the process of grading papers still requires a fair amount of time and effort, Dr. Mooney said that after developing and implementing the rubric, "grading is a lot less painful than it used to be."


1. ^ A rubric is thus an example of criteria-referenced grading. An alternative approach, norm-referenced grading, assigns grades based on how a student’s performance compares to that of other students. With criteria-referenced grading, it is possible for all students in the class to receive an A on an assignment, if they all produce work that the instructor considers exemplary.


Keirle, P., & Byers, S. (2011, February 1-2). In search of the middle-ground: Maintaining high teaching standards in large-class teaching environments. In Developing student skills for the next decade: Proceedings of the 20th Teaching and Learning Forum. Perth: Edith Cowan University. Retreived from

Lewis, R., Berghoff, P., & Pheeny, P. (1998). Focusing students: Three approaches for learning through evaluation. Innovative Higher Education, 23(3), 181-196.

Mueller, J. (2011). Authentic Assessment toolbox.

Stevens, D. D. and Levi, A. J. (2003). Introduction to Rubrics. Sterling, VA: Stylus.