Using developmental rubrics to enhance student achievement

Almost immediately after receiving their assessment tasks back, one of my students asked, ‘Where did I lose my marks?' while another proclaimed, ‘Why did I only get 10/20!?' It felt as though they had completely dismissed the endless hours that went into writing individual feedback.

During my initial years of teaching, this was a common occurrence in my Year 12 Business Studies classes. Students' questions made it apparent that they were still confused about the next steps in their learning. It seemed that they were so blinded by their marks, that they ignored the written feedback. I remember reading once that the ‘only important thing about feedback is what students do with it,'(Wiliam, 2016).

Why didn't they value the feedback? This question echoed in my mind for a while. The truth is, if students are merely focused on the mark/grade, no amount or type of feedback will ever be effective.

When I began teaching at Al-Faisal College (an independent K-12 school in Sydney) in 2016, traditional marking guidelines were still being used by teachers to grade formal and informal tasks. We used ambiguous marking guidelines to grade our students' written responses after instruction was complete. The problem with this deficit approach is that assessments are used by teachers to explain why students have failed to learn, rather than as a starting point for differentiated instruction (Griffin, 2017).

I had read ‘Raising the bar' (Earp, 2015) – a Teacher article which highlighted the benefits of using rubrics to make learning visible. Soon after reading this, I picked up a copy of Professor Patrick Griffin's book Assessment for Teaching, which is where I was introduced to developmental rubrics and Guttman charts.

Discovering a developmental approach

Hungry for a quick-fix solution to address the pre-existing challenges at my school, I sought advice from my Director of Education, Dr Intaj Ali, who encouraged me to explore the Master of Education in Evidence-Based Teaching offered by The University of Melbourne. This is where I learnt about the benefits of the developmental approach to teaching, learning and assessment. Unbeknownst to me, my initial intent to find a quick-fix solution enabled me to enter a paradigm-shifting world of developmental teaching and learning.

The developmental approach is extensively explored in Assessment for Teaching. The book encourages teachers to explore, within a developmental paradigm, each student's point of readiness to learn, and to intervene appropriately at that point. One major component of the developmental assessment framework involves using developmental rubrics to make learning visible for students. Developmental rubrics are commonly underpinned by a specific learning taxonomy and should be interpreted within a criterion-referenced framework (Griffin, 2017).

Creating and using developmental rubrics – skills, not scores

As part of my postgraduate studies, I learnt about the process of composing developmental rubrics. In 2018, after sharing this approach with my colleagues, we decided as a HSIE faculty to adopt a developmental approach to teaching and learning. One major focus of this approach involved composing developmental rubrics according to the guide presented in Assessment for Teaching. Our team embarked on this approach with the aim of focusing on skills, not scores.

How we use developmental rubrics to enhance student achievement

Use verbs that describe the difference between criteria: As a faculty, we have found that it is much easier to write rubrics using the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy to make the distinction between different levels of criteria visible. Our team alternates between the SOLO and Bloom's taxonomy, depending on the capabilities being addressed. Using a specific learning taxonomy to write rubrics enhances their usability for both teachers and students. For example:

1.1 - Recognises the skills of management

1.2 - Describes links between the skills of management

1.3 - Analyses the skills of management in relation to the stimulus

Stick to the rubric writing rules: When writing the criteria for our rubrics, we apply Griffin's proposed rubric writing rules religiously. Good quality criteria should follow these rules. From personal experience, this process is best done in a team.

Explicitly teach the expectations of each criterion to students: There is no point in developing high quality rubrics if the students don't understand the task expectations. In my personal experience, spending some time in class explicitly deconstructing the rubric requirements pays off in the long term.

Use previous student samples of similar work to make the rubric expectations visible: We provide students with previous samples of similar tasks. We then encourage our students to explore the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of the samples. Lastly, we annotate the sample as a class using the developmental rubric criterion codes (for example, 1.1, 1.2…).

Shifting student conversations

Since embarking on this approach, our faculty has worked together to integrate countless rubrics within our teaching and learning programs. Initially, our primary aim involved helping students develop the necessary skills to enhance their written responses. After two years of applying the principles of developmental teaching, our students' overall skills and scores improved. Measuring success rate by the ratio of the number of Band 6 results (the highest level of performance in the New South Wales Higher School Certificate) to exams sat for that subject, our Year 12 HSC Business Studies student cohort has improved from 14 per cent in 2017 to 41 per cent in 2019.

Most importantly, our students' conversations have finally shifted from ‘Where did I lose marks?' to ‘How can I get to the next level on this rubric?'

And there is more to my personal journey. Further to my postgraduate studies and professional practice, I co-founded the education consultancy firm High Impact Teachers and recently contributed to the development of the learning analytics tool, ZoneFinder 1.0, which helps teachers to create developmental rubrics and analyse Guttman Charts.

References and related reading

Earp, J. (2015, December 14). Raising the bar. Teacher magazine.

Griffin, P. (2017). Assessment for teaching. Cambridge University Press.

Wiliam, D. (2016). The secret of effective feedback. Educational leadership, 73(7), 10-15.

Wiliam, D., & Leahy, S. (2016). Embedding formative assessment. Hawker Brownlow Education.

Think about your own students: Do they understand where they are in their own learning and what the next steps are?

Do you already use assessment rubrics? Do you discuss these rubrics with students at the outset to ensure they understand the task expectations? Have you shared and discussed samples of previous student work as a reference point?