Designing a Grading Rubric: Points or No Points?

With the start of a new academic year, we often consider changing the way we do things in our bcomm classes. This time around, I’m wondering if I can improve the way I give feedback on students’ papers—specifically, whether I should use the type of grading rubric that awards points for the different facets of the paper.

My colleague Lora Arduser uses points-based rubrics, and I recently asked her to share an example with me. Her rubrics are based on John Keenan’s PAFEO (purpose, audience, format, evidence, and organization) planning method, from his book Strategies for Business and Technical Writing. To make it work as a grading scheme, Lora has added a sixth component: style.

The specific criteria for each component vary somewhat depending on the type of assignment the rubric goes with. But the points allotted to each component stay the same: 20 for purpose, 20 for audience, 10 for format, 15 for evidence, 20 for organization, and 15 for style (for a total of 100 points).

Though she and many of my other bcomm colleagues have been using points-based rubrics for some time, I’ve been wary of trying them for fear that, dividing up the points the way they do, they’ll corner me into giving a grade that I don’t think accurately represents the effectiveness of the paper. The type of rubric I’m currently using gives students numerical ratings on specific aspects of the paper, but I don’t add up the numbers to arrive at the grade. Instead, I take all the features of the paper into account to award a letter grade that, in my view, reflects the overall quality of the work in terms of its likely effect. My co-blogger Paula Lentz has used a different version of this approach. (I should add that all of us write specific comments on the paper itself in addition to filling out the assessment sheet.)

But I’m impressed with Lora’s rubric. I like its topics and its emphasis on purpose, audience, and organization. Plus, I get the distinct impression that my students would prefer to see a one-to-one correspondence between the numbers and their grades, which my system lacks. So to see if a points-based rubric would work for me, I tried an experiment: I graded a set of student papers using my more holistic method, and then I graded three of those papers again using Lora’s rubric, which I’d adapted to my assignment.

I’d worried that the points allotment would force me to give grades than were too high—in other words, that a student could get a good grade on a paper containing a terrible writing problem because that problem would fall into just one compartment. Surprisingly, I found that the opposite happened! Two of the papers, both of which had gotten Cs with my method, barely passed with the points-based rubric; the third one, to which I’d given a B, got a lower grade, too—barely in the B range.

The reason was that I couldn’t neatly separate the different categories, so a given problem in a paper brought down the points in several areas. For example, if key information had been omitted, that seemed to me to compromise the paper’s achievement of its purpose(s), focus on the audience’s needs, and thoroughness. Try as I might, I couldn’t see how to make each problem fall into only one category, since the elements work together to create the reader’s overall experience (i.e., I felt that a real reader wouldn’t be likely to respond, “Good effort to achieve your purpose, and nice effort to think of me, but you left out some information I really needed”).

So for now, I’m sticking to my method. But I wonder . . . am I just inept at using a points-based rubric? Does the points-based rubric I used just need to be tweaked? Or are such rubrics at odds with an approach to bcomm that focuses on the reader’s response? Is there a whole different method that can give students precise feedback while also doing justice to the interrelatedness of a message’s components? If you’ve got some thoughts along these lines, please share them.

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