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What is a rubric?

A rubric is a teaching and learning tool that explicitly describes the specific criteria an instructor uses to evaluate a project or other aspect of a student’s performance (e.g., completed artwork, online discussion, oral presentation, sketches, group work). Rubrics help students understand the expectations for an assignment, and they help to guide and focus instructors’ feedback and grading.

Rubrics can take a number of forms. An internet search for rubrics will yield thousands of results of varying quality.

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Rubrics at the Academy of Art University

  • Formal rubrics are used across multiple sections of the same course. They are official documents, developed according to a set of format and content guidelines, test-driven by faculty, approved by your department and by Faculty Development, and published in the learning management system (LMS) for use in your course, Online and Onsite. Formal rubrics should not be altered by individual faculty without the department’s approval. They are attached to major projects. Not all courses have formal rubrics. Check with your department about the existence of formal rubrics in your courses. (Formal rubrics are also sometimes called “FYRI” rubrics, for the First Year Rubric Initiative that was launched in 2011.)

In a typical formal AAU rubric (click to view an example), the criteria are listed in the left column, and descriptions of what work looks like at each level fill the remaining three columns.

When used as a feedback sheet for a student, criteria are highlighted and notes are added (click to view an example)

  • Informal rubrics are created by you, individual instructors, for use in your own courses. They are extensions of your teaching, and do not need to go through any specific vetting process, so they take a variety of forms. Instructors often develop informal rubrics, or feedback sheets, to help them grade smaller assignments, or projects in courses that do not have formal rubrics.
  • Some rubrics include sample critiques— sample student work accompanied by all applicable comments directly from the rubric. Sample critiques are also available in the LMS. 

Why use rubrics?

Rubrics enhance good teaching and learning. When instructors incorporate rubrics into strong classroom practices (including critiques, student self-assessment, and grading), they help to focus and strengthen teaching and learning. They do not do the teaching for us. They do not replace good teaching. But they do define the core goals of main assignments, taking away the uncertainty about what an instructor is expected to be teaching, and what a student’s work is expected to look like. Below are a few examples of specific benefits of rubrics that faculty developers at the AAU have found in the years that we have been talking about and conducting formal research on rubrics. 

  • Rubrics improve communication with students about assignments and grades. They define what makes a project “good” or “average” through descriptive details. Over 70% of AAU students whose instructors use rubrics say that they understand the assignments better and do a more complete job when there is a rubric.

I get much less questioning and confusion about ‘What am I supposed to do?’ and ‘Why and how are you judging this?’ and ‘How come I am getting a C?’ I am just not getting those questions any more.
—P. Schifrin (FASCU) 

…they not only provide clarity at times when an assignment may have multiple components or requirements and just might not make sense or seem confusing. …It also can clarify some of the confusion that arises with grading (depending upon the design of the rubric, however) and why we may have earned the grade we had so we know how to improve our work for the future and what things to avoid doing and learn from the experience.
—AAU student (SPORE 2014)

  • Rubrics save time on grading. While there is an initial investment of time in developing rubrics, they ultimately save teachers’ time. Eighty-one percent of AAU instructors who use rubrics say that rubrics save them time while grading. 
  • Formal rubrics align grading standards among faculty who teach the same course and contribute to more objective assessment. A normed, formal rubric helps instructors in multiple sections of a course make sure they are grading according to the same standards.

Standardized rubrics shared in all sections of a course made me feel comfortable about my grading because I knew teachers in other sections of the course were also using the rubrics.
—Academy Instructor

Rubrics give teachers an external comparison for student’s work which allows them to be more objective during critiques. In classes without a rubric, it is more common to be critiqued versus the quality of other students in the class, which creates a microhierachy, rather than an objective analysis. I strongly suggest all classes have thorough rubrics.”
AAU student (SPORE 2014)

 Student complaints about grading have been practically eliminated.
—A. Addison (FND)

  • Rubrics push students to achieve more.

I am getting more work in the ‘A’ range since I started using the rubric. Now students can actually see what an ‘A’ is.
— P. Schifrin (FASCU)

There have been many times where I look at the rubric wondering what the expectation is for work and content. I’m always amazed by the quality of the A level work, but it always pushes me to work harder and I always end up with a better grade because of it.”
AAU student (SPORE 2014)

How to create a rubric

Rubrics have two components:
  1. A list of criteria for an assignment or task
  2. Descriptions of each criterion for different levels of achievement.
Creating the list of criteria

To create a rubric, first think about the major criteria for the assignment. For example, if you want students to create a composition in an introductory painting class, you might decide that the criteria are as follows: composition, value, and paint quality. Your rubric might start out looking something like this:




Paint Quality

If this assignment were given in a perspective class, there would likely be a criterion for accurate perspective; in a computer-based class, use of specific tools might replace paint quality. For an advertising course you might look for evidence of market research.

Writing descriptions of work at each level of achievement

Decide how many columns your rubric will have. The example below has 3 columns. Next, define each criterion. Concisely answer the questions: What does an excellent composition look like? Acceptable composition? Unacceptable composition? The sample descriptions below are one interpretation of the standards for composition. Your own would differ according to your expectations and the context of the assignment. Your standards should also reflect those of the industry, your department, and the specific course you are teaching. Note that a composition assignment could be given in an introductory foundations class or in a graduate level painting course. The rubric helps to define and focus the specific criteria and levels of achievement your course seeks to develop in students.

CriteriaExceeds ExpectationsMeets ExpectationsDoes Not Meet Expectations
CompositionMeets expectations, plus: Uses design principles (line, space, contrast, rules of thirds, golden spiral) in a unique way to strengthen or highlight the focal point.
  • Focal point is clearly  represented
  • Composition is balanced
  • Repetition of elements creates a unity of composition
  • Does not include a focal point.
  • No evidence of strategic use of design principles.
  • Design does not achieve unity.
ValueMeets expectations, plus:
  • Value contrast is higher when closer to light source and softer when farther away
  • Value patterns create movement throughout the piece
  • All 5 values are displayed, from light, medium to dark
  • Values are accurately depicted in relation to the light source
  • Includes less than 5 values, or 
  • Design has either excessive or insufficient contrast
Paint QualityMeets expectations, plus:
  • Paint is flat, opaque and even in texture.
  • Hard and soft edges are clear and finely applied
  • Paint is generally smooth
  • Paints are evenly mixed    and colors are consistent
  • Edges consistently applied and don't bleed
  • Excessive streaks
  • Overly thick or bumpy paint
  • Bleeding between shapes
Tips for creating rubrics
  • Always check to see what rubrics already exist in your department first.
  • Try to keep your list of criteria to five or fewer.
  • Avoid words like "good" and "bad" in your descriptions. Instead, describe exactly what good and bad look like. Looking at specific examples of A, B, C, D and F level work can help you make your language specific.
  • Showing samples of work that exemplify various levels of the rubric ("sample critique") is often very helpful to students.
  • Rubrics for major assignments should always be approved by the department director
Common pitfalls for rubrics (click to view)

Sample rubrics and templates

Garden Design Rubric + Markup

3-Column Rubric

Presentation Rubric + Markup

Presentation Rubric

Print Ad Campaign Rubric + Markup

Print Ad Campaign Rubric

Sculptural 3D Project Rubric + Markup

Sculptural 3D Project Rubric

Sketch Rubric + Markup

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