How to Simplify Your Rubric and Get Better Results

I do not think anyone who has ever graded a project, essay, or performance doubts the usefulness of a grading rubric.  We know that a rubric done well

  • allows teachers to clarify our expectations, providing concrete guidelines for students
  • removes subjectivity from classroom assignments
  • enables students to assess their own work or seek feedback from a classmate or family member prior to turning in an assignment
  • saves time giving feedback
  • helps us to identify individual and whole-class needs for further instruction

However, I do think that one of the biggest missed opportunities in teaching is that we tend to think of rubrics only as an evaluation tool—a grading method. If we change our thinking and use them as an instructional tool first, we might find we’ll spend a lot less time circling those “not yet” and “approaching expectation” descriptors.

In addition to changing our thinking, we need to make some changes in our rubrics. Most rubrics, in the interest of being comprehensive and clear, are way too cumbersome. I’ve seen rubrics that contain more words than the assignment they are meant to evaluate!


When students (and teachers!) see a whole page of text—often with little variation among descriptors—we hear the famous refrain of Charlie Brown’s teacher in our minds as our eyes glaze over, not sure where to even begin.

My school has adopted a school-wide writing rubric—a consistent expectation for quality writing across our campus. It’s tough to design a rubric that will be used across four grade levels in four core content areas, foreign languages, fine and performing arts, career and technical classes, and even PE!  The committee labored over elements, descriptors, and point values, piloted the rubric in various classrooms, revised and tested it again, and finally arrived at a comprehensive rubric of which they can be proud.  The final version identifies four levels of performance in four categories and allows a fifth category to be filled in with content- or assignment-specific criteria at the individual teacher’s discretion.

Keeping in mind that the rubric is designed to be a teaching tool—not just an evaluation—I’ve redesigned this rubric into three additional versions, each of which may be easier for teachers to implement and for students to understand.  Any rubric can be adapted to any of these forms—and they really don’t take much time to create, once the original rubric has been developed.

The Yes/No Rubric

One of my favorite ways to simplify a rubric is to turn it into yes/no questions. If the rubric is intended to guide students’ to self-assessment, why not make it easy for them to do?  Simply look at your expectations and break them down into single elements.  Write these criteria in the form of a yes/no question: Do the references include details that support the controlling idea? Are transitions used to show relationships between ideas?

These Yes/No rubrics can and should evolve over time—there is no need to address every element of the rubric in the first assignment.   Start with the most important elements, making sure the students understand the concepts (what is a controlling idea?) and then teach the students to look for these qualities in their papers.  Keep your questions simple and focused.  Once students have mastered these elements, replace these questions with new questions that will help them continue to improve their writing, perhaps from a different element of the rubric.  Or, if they haven’t mastered the element, model some good examples and consider reframing your yes/no question to guide them in the right direction.

Bonus Tip:  You can even simplify your grading process by asking them to highlight the evidence of each “yes” in their assignment (e.g., highlight the controlling idea in yellow, the references in green, and transitions in pink).   The Yes/No rubric definitely follows the keep-it-simple philosophy, and for that reason, students and teachers can both benefit from its use in the classroom.

The Single-Point Rubric

I learned about another simplified version of a rubric in a blog post by Jennifer Gonzalez from Cult of Pedagogy. Rather than overwhelm kids with four columns and five rows of text, mostly emphasizing things we don’t want them to do, she suggests we should just show them what we want. By spotlighting only the “Meets Expectations” column of a rubric, we can let students know what we want and they can decide whether they have fallen short, met the goal, or exceeded our expectations.

In the case of our schoolwide rubric, looking at it from the single-point perspective cuts the number of words on the rubric from 328 to 97, greatly increasing the chance that students will really read it (and teachers will really use it).  It also gave me the chance to separate the descriptions of quality work into bullet-point statements, making a little more white space that is easy on the eyes, too.

I followed Jarene Fluckiger’s model, published in the Digital Commons of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  By isolating the proficient criteria in one column, adding a blank column to the left (not yet) and a space for an explanation of how they met the expectation on the right, students are forced to go back to their writing and really think about what they need to do to get it right.

single point rubric

Fluckiger also points out that many high-achieving students will only work to the prescribed attributes of a top-scoring assignment on a traditional rubric. By focusing on proficient and leaving a blank space in the final column for them to tell us how they have gone above and beyond, we are encouraging creative thinking and higher-caliber work.

You can make a copy of my adapted rubric here. (You’ll be prompted to sign into your Google account if you’re not already signed in; also note which account you’re signed in to because that’s where the copy will go!)

The Upgraded Single-Point Rubric

The Yes/No and Single-Point Rubrics both make rubrics more accessible to students, but sometimes, for instructional purposes, we may want to analyze class performance across the more specific performance criteria offered in a traditional multi-point rubric. However, when the rubric takes up the entire page, we risk losing our students to the clutter and there’s not any room left for comments.

When I revisited the Cult of Pedagogy blog post about Single-Point rubrics, I discovered a new version Gonzalez had added this year, which some teachers will prefer. This upgraded version lists the expectations and includes quick check boxes to identify performance at the varied levels, allowing teachers to better get a visual of where their students are overall. It also includes a space for targeted comments, so teachers can offer more feedback.

This rubric greatly simplifies a whole rubric, but will still require a thorough understanding of the original rubric to differentiate between the performance levels.  At my school, we’ve created classroom posters of the school-wide rubric and it is posted on our webpage. If teachers use this version of the rubric, students can access the full-text version on their own to see the detailed descriptors if the teacher’s comments were not enough to guide their improvements.

You can make a copy of my version here.

You should be able to adapt the rubrics you’re already using (including those for Advanced Placement essays or standardized testing) to any of these formats.  Consider giving one of these styles a try to see if it makes your job a little easier and your students papers a little better.  I hope you’ll find it does both!

How to Simplify Your Rubric 2

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