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Rubrics: The Scaffolding of Quality eLearning

Rubrics are a necessary part of any effective training, but many instructors and designers struggle with creating them. Rubrics serve as a guide for determining whether or not the learning process was successful, and once written, they can guide design decisions, such as the appropriate types of assessments to use.

The bottom line: Good rubrics form a solid foundation for a successful, easily managed course; poor rubrics—or no rubrics at all—can lead to confused learners and wasted effort.

Why are rubrics so hard to develop?

Rubrics are not an overnight project. They take time, patience, and feedback from multiple perspectives. Their components are often dependent upon external factors, such as state or organizational guidelines, that must be consulted before beginning. In short, they’re not always fun, and there’s not always a clear way to see if you’ve got it “right” (for that, you’d probably need a rubric for designing your rubric).

Many course designers face the additional problem of not having enough resources to properly develop a rubric before building the course—and this sense of “rush” to meet the deadlines of the project has its consequences. “I had a project manager who reviewed my timeline and erased 40 hours from the rubric-planning phase,” says one course designer. “He said we needed to be more efficient with our time, but I really felt that the course suffered as a result.”

What are the essential components of a good rubric?

The two main components of a good rubric (other than patience) are success criteria and a scoring scale—but each of these comprises smaller components that are important to clarify from the beginning.

The success criteria are the measurable outcomes the course is intended to create, or the skills that learners should be able to demonstrate after completion. Success criteria aren’t simply the concepts to be learned (e.g., “The preamble of the Constitution”), but the active ways learners will show they have mastered these concepts (e.g., “Discuss three factors that influenced the development of the preamble of the Constitution”). Your criteria should contain action verbs that learners can demonstrate, such as discussexplaindescribe, or identify.

The scoring scale will identify not only whether your learners are able to demonstrate the criteria for success, but how well they do it. A simple, holistic scoring sheet might include basic items like doesn’t meet expectationsmeets expectations, and exceeds expectations; a more complicated one may take an analytical approach and include quantitative scores. The more you clearly define what the criteria for success are, the easier it will be to define the performance characteristics that are required for each item.

Can you give an example of how a rubric is developed?

Imagine an online training program that aims to cultivate leadership skills in new personnel. It’s a complex topic with few right-or-wrong answers—so developing a solid rubric should be a priority.

The first step is to establish the competencies for leadership. Perhaps they are based on organizational guidelines, or certification requirements, or another framework. For example, one leadership competency might be “managing change.” This needs to be translated into a concrete success criteria that you want your learners to master, such as “Demonstrate an ability to effectively coach employees through transition.”

The scoring scale should do two things: establish specific criteria for the various levels of success in managing change, and assign value to these criteria. So here you want to decide what specific actions indicate that performance has been adequate (e.g., fewer than five coaching sessions were needed, employee expressed satisfaction) or not (e.g., more than five coaching sessions were needed, employee expressed dissatisfaction), and establish a quantitative score for each.

This is a good example to show how developing a rubric is beneficial especially with course content that feels murkier to evaluate—interpersonal skills, performance quality, and other subjective experiences. Both the instructor and the learner will benefit enormously from having the scaffolding of a clear rubric in place before the course begins.

For more infomation on online learning, check out these blog posts:

Letting Learners Choose Their Own Path

Digital Badges: Do They Help or Hurt Your Online Reputation?

MOOCs: Effective Instruction or Pedagogical Disaster?