The Art and Science of Grading

I confess – I hate rubrics. I have never been good at putting things in boxes or columns. In teaching history, I have trouble organizing information into categories such as economic, political and social because I see too many things that cross lines or intersect. I have been told the virtues of rubrics by teachers for whom I have great admiration and respect. I understand the logic of rubrics. I think they are genuinely meant to clarify. So why do they always leave me confused and unsatisfied?

I think that it has something to do with the tension between art and science. I had a professor in graduate school who has inspired me as an historian to think about both the art and the science of doing history. We need to be careful with the evidence, but we must always recognize that we are to some degree constructing a story. I am wondering if the same tension exists in grading. The science part keeps track of the components of an assessment and evaluates how well those parts are fulfilled. I get that intellectually, and do that informally. The problem is that I can’t stop there. I am wired to celebrate the unexpected, the insight I did not anticipate or the outcome I never envisioned. I always want to reward that student who makes me think about something in a new way, even if other elements of a project are less successful than I had hoped. In other words, I want to celebrate the students that teach me. I just don’t know how to fit that into a rubric which contains the elements I expect.

There is an art to student work that does not always compute. Is an “aha” moment more or less valuable than a clear topic sentence? How do we encourage risk taking if we do too much to prescribe outcomes? At the same time, it is our job to provide guidelines and expectations to our students. We are crafting assignments with objectives in mind, and we need to let students know our goals for them. I believe in transparency; I just don’t want to stop someone from exceeding my expectations.

In the end, I have fallen back on providing general guidelines and then copious, narrative comments about what works and what does not. I am a big believer in drafts and rewrites. I know that fair does not always mean equal. Our best efforts at objectivity are still ridiculously subjective. We naturally teach the way we think; that automatically puts some of our students at a disadvantage. At the same time, all of our students deserve our best efforts to help them succeed.

As teachers, we are professionals who make judgment calls every day. It seems to me this is the way many professions work. It’s just that we are expected to quantify and qualify, providing quality control as in a factory model. At the same time, we are expected to inspire and motivate, even transcend, as in a research lab or an artist’s studio.

So, how to balance the art and science? Any ideas?


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