Your students don’t know what a RUBRIC is – and maybe you don’t either?

by Sam Hemsley, Academic Developer, University of Sussex

One of the first pieces of work I took on when joining the Educational Enhancement team as an Academic Developer in September 2021, was to contribute to the content of a guidance page on the ‘Principles of rubrics and grading forms’. At the time I was grappling with a severe case of imposter syndrome and felt that if I didn’t immediately know or fully understand something then the problem was with me, not the ‘thing’.

A photo of a young man, head in his hands in front of a laptop, representing a student feeling frustrated with an assignment.
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

So, at the time, although I was uncomfortable with using the rather obscure term ‘rubric’ to describe what is basically a ‘grading form’ (see also ‘marking grid’), I didn’t challenge it. Not least because it was used by everyone around me, both at Sussex and at my previous institution and in the sector more widely. Also, it is the term used by Turnitin and Canvas for their in-built grading forms. Certainly there is plenty of interesting debate about the value and limitations of rubrics, but what does the term actually describe, and should we be using it at all?

What does the term “rubric” actually describe
and should we be using it at all?

Since that time, I have (mostly) overcome my imposter syndrome. However, I have noticed three problems with the term “rubric” which can make its use a barrier to understanding and, therefore, to inclusion, accessibility and basic good practice:

Inconsistent use

I noticed that in some schools, courses and modules at Sussex, the term rubric is used to describe:

  1. Grading forms – both those set up within Turnitin or Canvas and those provided separately;
  2. Assignment instructions – both assignment briefs (task descriptions) and completion and submission instructions (e.g. for exams); and
  3. A combination of the two.

When I asked the Educational Enhancement team, many had also noticed such inconsistent use. Other, equally obfuscatory, terms were also identified by the team; such as the use, in some schools, of ‘instrument’ to describe assignment briefs.

Of course, I’m not the first to recognise this inconsistency.  Cooper and Gargan in 2011, note that “the term, apparently, can refer to almost anything: rule, guide, criterion, or description that is used to assess the progress of students in their academic subjects, as well as the grading system for assessing each criterion.” In 2015, Phillip Dawson from the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning, noted that “since the beginning of its use in education, ‘rubric’ has not been a particularly clear term”.

Inconsistent definitions

The problem also goes beyond how ‘we’ use the term to the fact it is defined differently by ‘others’. For example, if you Google something like ‘Rubric meaning’ the top result will be the definition provided by Google’s own Dictionary informing you a rubric is “A heading on a document. A set of instructions or rules”. You’ll probably also see a link to Collins Dictionary, stating “A rubric is a set of rules or instructions, for example the rules at the beginning of an examination paper”.  This is because the term was originally used to refer to red text, specifically instructions in a liturgical book on how a church service should be conducted.

The Oxford English Dictionary also provides this usage, along with other uses of the term to refer both to chapter headings and instructions or explanatory notes such those introducing an exam paper.  However, also in common with a number of other dictionaries, the OED doesn’t mention grading forms, or marking grids or any such definition. 

However, if you ask ChatGPT the same question you will likely receive, like me, a response describing a rubric as “…a scoring guide or a set of criteria used to assess and evaluate the quality or performance of a task, project, or assignment”.

Now, consider the implications of this lack of consistency for students who, faced with the novel term ‘rubric’, ask Google or ChatGPT and are given a definition which doesn’t match their experience of its use. Or worse, the term has been used inconsistently (as above) and they are trying to tease out its ‘correct’ meaning. Less confident students, particularly those dealing with their own case of imposter syndrome, will likely think it is their fault they can’t reconcile the ‘thing’ with the definition(s) they are presented with.  Although the ChatGPT definition aligns to the Canvas and Turnitin use of the term, wherein students are directed to ‘view rubrics’ to access a breakdown of their marks and/or feedback, they don’t come across this in every module and, if they do, it won’t be until they are receiving grades on an assignment.

Unnecessary use

Ultimately, I think that the use of the term ‘rubric’ is a manifestation of academic gatekeeping, or the ‘hidden curriculum’, i.e.: the unspoken or assumed rules and norms that exist in educational settings. Indeed, writing in 1997, Popham observed that 20 years previously,

“…rubric began to take on a new meaning among educators. Measurement specialists who scored students’ written compositions began to use the term to describe the rules that guided their scoring. They could have easily employed a more readily comprehensible descriptor, such as scoring guide, but scoring guide lacked adequate opacity. Rubric was a decisively more opaque, hence technically attractive, descriptor.”

As such, its use is a barrier to learning and increases the cognitive load and stress for students who are simply trying to understand what is being asked of them as they attempt to navigate the world of higher education.

Its use is a barrier to learning and
increases the cognitive load and stress
for students.

What should we call these things instead?

We have, at our disposal, a wide range of easily understandable terms and phrases to describe grading forms, marking grids or assignment briefs. Even if we are inconsistent in the exact use of these terms, they still clearly describe the ‘thing’ we are referring to.  So why not use them? Yes, ‘rubric’ is a term students see, and need to understand, when accessing their grades and feedback in Canvas and Turnitin.  Yes, it’s used with wild abandon across Higher Education. Therefore, we’ve agreed in Educational Enhancement that we will:

  1. Always clarify the definition when using it with staff (and maybe link to this blog?);
  2. Question and challenge its use for assignment briefs or exam instructions;
  3. Question and challenge its use without further definition in student facing communication; and
  4. Suggest to schools that they agree to do the same.

This is a first step in our ongoing discussion in Educational Enhancement on enabling clarity and transparency in the communication of assessment requirements and marking criteria.

So, the question remains, will you join us?

If you would like to contact the Educational Enhancement team about best practice in developing assignment briefs, or would like to know more about using rubrics (grading forms), please find us at

Posted in Academic Development, Accessibility, Canvas, Educational Enhancement, Inclusive teaching, Marking and assessment, Technology Enhanced Learning
2 comments on “Your students don’t know what a RUBRIC is – and maybe you don’t either?
  1. Wendy Ashall says:

    Dear Sam,

    I agree! What we call a grading rubric in Global is actually – in my opinion – a set of grade descriptors! No wonder our students might be confused.

    I’m working with Charlie Crouch to run focus groups with UG and PGT students this term, to better understand their perspectives on LOs, ACs and Rubrics and how they use them.

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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