Rubrics Part 5: Setting up the Levels

In this post, I’ll talk about a couple of ways that you can make your rubrics more student friendly and a little more consistent.

First, let’s discuss the order in which the levels appear.  Some districts and organizations lay out their rubrics with lower levels on the left and higher levels on the right.  The Ministry of Education in Ontario, for example, lays out its rubrics and achievement charts in this fashion.

Alternatively, rubrics can be set out with higher levels on the left and lower levels on the right.  I prefer this method, and in fact, this is the method that and both use.

English-speaking learners read from left to right and, as such, encounter the higher levels of success first when they are examining  a rubric.  In regards to student motivation, I think that this is better for both teachers and students.  This arrangement demonstrates an expectation of success and also clearly shows students what is required for success.   Levels two, one, and zero become a psychological afterthought and are used only when needed.  Arranging a rubric any other way implies that students will initially struggle.


Naming Levels

There is also great confusion about the best way to label a level.  Some institutions use qualitative labels such as exceptional good, satisfactory, and limited while others use quantitative labels.

I prefer the quantitative labeling schemes used by both and levels 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and zero.  Quantitative schemes are unambiguous and carry less positive or negative psychological baggage.

Qualitative labeling schemes, however, suffer from both of these problems.  Terms such as exceptional and proficient, or limited and poor can mean entirely different things to different people.  Schools staffed by educated professionals struggle to reach a consensus on such meanings.  This ambiguity will be a barrier to students trying to use the rubric.

Similarly, qualitative labels have unnecessary motivational and psychological baggage.  Teachers cannot reach a consensus on properly sugar-coating the names for levels two, one, and zero.  Does improving sound worse than approaching?  Does limited sound better than remedial?  There are no rights answers to these questions, and every student is going to interpret the labels differently.  Avoid the whole issue and use a quantitative system.  Everyone knows that 5 is better than 1 and by how much.  This transparent system embodies the whole point of rubrics.

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