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Project-Based Learning Professional Development (part 2), Student-Created Rubrics

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In a previous post I described the first of three project-based learning (PBL) professional development sessions I facilitated for our Innovate Salisbury team, a team of 15 teachers engaging with building leaders, district leaders, and other experts/thought leaders to help shape the vision for teaching and learning in our classrooms.

While the first session was more of a general overview of PBL, this past Wednesday we focused on student-created rubrics.

Here is a look at what took place:

  1. Poor rubric: In groups, teachers analyzed a poor “rubric” (albeit one that resembles what we might see in a lot of classrooms). After, everyone shared out as a “class.” During the analysis, teachers were asked to consider the following questions:
    1. Is the rubric grade-focused or learning focused?
    2. To what extent does the rubric promote compliance?
    3. Does the rubric assist in providing evidence of a deeper understanding of student content?
    4. Could the rubric best serve students if it were to be converted into a checklist?
  2. Introduction: Teachers were informed they were going to role-play as students designing their own rubrics for a PBL unit on opinions/arguments with an overarching “I can” statement of “I can form an argument to support a claim.” They were told that this statement connects to a sixth grade standard, and they were provided with six more “I can” statements, one for each of the remaining six grade standards for opinions/arguments.  (Sixth grade was chosen because it falls in the middle of K-12, the grade levels to which the learning could be applied.)…Starting with the standards helps to (1) counteract the misconception that all PBL is “fluff,” and (2) demonstrate that learning takes place through PBL, as opposed to a “fun” project being tacked on to the end of direct instruction.
  3. Extracting strengths from exemplars: In groups, teachers reviewed opinion/argument writing samples (from the Units of Study) and TED Talks (which are based on communicating opinions/arguments). They were asked to analyze at least 2 writing samples and parts of 1-2 TED Talks.
    1. Using this table, they brainstormed their responses to the work in terms of strengths (column A) and weaknesses (column B). Not all rows had to be filled in. As they were working, they were asked to keep the “I can” statements in mind.
    2. Teachers were asked to be as specific as possible with their responses. Also, strengths should have been worded in ways that were medium agnostic, as the ultimate goal was to demonstrate that the same strengths (or standards) could be met through several mediums…One strength recorded by a teacher indicated, “Reasons/evidence to support claim with stories from life experience.” This strength can exist in an essay, in a TED Talk, on a radio show, etc.
  4. Categorizing the strengths: Using this table, teachers categorized the strengths and weaknesses. Each column represented a category (e.g. evidence, voice, clarity, etc.), but not all columns had to be filled in. In the top cell of each column teachers recorded the category it represented. Ideally, each category should have connected to an “I can” statement in one way or another.
    1. The categories should not have been “[categories] of the task (for example, cover, body, introduction, references) but rather [categories] of the learning that is supposed to occur (for example, understanding of the content, communication of the content, clarity and completeness of explanation, and so on)” (Brookhart, 2013).
    2. For help teachers were able to refer to the Desired Characteristics of Criteria for Classroom Rubrics and two sample rubrics.
  5. Wordsmithing: Teachers were asked to “further discuss and wordsmith the [categories] until there was agreement on criteria for the rubric…[Categories] that were not important for the learning to be assessed could have been removed from the list of criteria. For example, handwriting may be a [category] that was noted but, upon discussion, found to be unrelated to the content and skills on which the rubrics were concentrating” (Brookhart, 2013).
  6. Descriptions of levels: For each category, teachers discussed what elements should be described and how they might change from performance level to performance level. Using this table, teachers recorded the categories in the far-left column, and then filled in each category’s appropriate performance levels.
    1. Teachers were informed that one effective way of drafting performance-level descriptions is to start with the description of ideal work and “back down” the quality for each level below it.
    2. For help teachers were able to refer to the Desired Characteristics of Descriptions of Levels of Performance for Classroom Rubrics and two sample rubrics.
  7. Presentations/Analysis: As a “class,” teachers presented and analyzed each other’s rubrics. During the analysis, teachers were asked revisit the questions from Step #1 and to also consider how this rubric creation activity could be adapted to work with their students.

Three more points:

  • The driving force behind student-created rubrics is students grappling with exemplars and uncovering their strengths, which they can then use to drive their own work. By the time students are done analyzing these exemplars they are so entrenched in what quality work looks like, making it their own is that much easier…These are points I should have hammered home prior to the start of the above activity, as communicating the why provides motivation for both teacher and student learning. Also, having the teachers first read a blog post such as this one could have supported this cause.
  • If you are going to use this activity with teachers, make sure to emphasize that fact that it represents only one way for students to create rubrics (although, the same general process/idea should always be applicable). Perhaps provide teachers with time to adapt the process to best fit their students.
  • How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Gradingby Susan Brookhart provided me with the framework for our activity. (I can highly recommend this book as well as her book on feedback.) I adapted the activity in collaboration with my Assistant Superintendent, Lynn Fuini-Hetten (@lfuinihetten) and my colleague, Erin Murphy (@MurphysMusings5).


The following rubric related resources have been added to our PBL website, which features some of the best resources I could find on the topic. The idea was to create a one stop shop for teachers that (1) supports them in implementing PBL in their classrooms, while (2) not making it entirely necessary for them to find materials on their own. Also, all resources used throughout the three professional development sessions will be posted to the site.

What are your thoughts on student-created rubrics or rubrics in general? What roles do rubrics play in your classroom, school, and/or district?

Connect with Ross on his blog and on Twitter.

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I am the coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning, and the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. My passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. I blog about these topics at rosscoops31.com. I regularly speak, present, and conduct workshops related to my writings and professional experiences.

When I am not working, I enjoy eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, playing on my computer, and provoking my three beautiful nephews. Please feel free to connect via email, RossCoops31@gmail.com, and Twitter, @RossCoops31.

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Guest Monday, 18 February 2019