Getting Real with Rubrics: Providing More Authentic Opportunities with the College Essay

Think about how much thought goes into the creation of a rubric.  There is so much to consider: How many criteria should it have?  What are the appropriate criteria?  How should each criteria be weighted?  How should this rubric be set up? Should it have boxes, a checklist, or something else?  These are big decisions to make, and the stakes are even higher when the rubric is being used to determine which author gets admittance into a program or a monetary award.

Even if you’ve only taught one writing unit, you know how difficult it is to make these decisions.  Admittedly, it’s one of my least favorite things to do as a writing teacher because it is so hard to “get it right.”  I usually find myself getting frustrated at some point as I am grading because I’ll come across a student essay that does something exceptionally well, but it isn’t covered in the rubric.  And because of this, I don’t know that I’ve ever used the same rubric twice for a major piece of writing.

Over the last couple of years, I have started making my students more of an active part in the creation of my rubrics.  After studying a set of mentor texts, I have them brainstorm a list of criteria they feel is important in this style of essay, and that criteria ultimately ends up on my teacher-created rubric.  I love doing this; there are no surprises, and it allows students to be an active part of the evaluation process. But this time around, I decided to take it one step further.

My seniors recently wrote an essay they could submit for college admittance or a scholarship.  I’ve written about the process I’ve used in the past here.  As my original post illustrates, I have always challenged my students to think like a panel of judges when reading mentor texts in this unit.  Creating a product that will be evaluated among others offers a unique opportunity for students to step into the role of the audience and consider what helps a piece of writing stand out when evaluating mentor texts and other students’ work.  This year, it dawned on me that part of the process of being a judge, however, is deciding how the essays will be evaluated.  It requires coming up with some sort of tool to “rank” the essays and determine which one(s) are most worthy of the prize.  

So, I decided to hand the rubric reigns over to the students this year.  Because not only does it make their experience more authentic by allowing them to channel the audience and do what actual judges do, but it is also such a good experience in thinking deeply about writing.  As I mentioned in my opening, there is so much analysis going on when determining how to evaluate a piece of writing, and I wanted my students to be challenged by engaging in this process.

Here’s how this looked in my classroom:

Step One: No Boundaries

After we spent a few days examining mentor texts in the genre (which took the form of past college essays that had been successful), I told my students they would be the ones creating the rubric this time around.  The directions I gave them were simple:

Today in class, your group is going to design an evaluation tool that can be used to score scholarship essays.


-What type of criteria should be covered on the tool?  What is most important when deciding who is awarded scholarship funds?

-How will essays be ranked?  Points? Letter grades?

-What type of format should be used?

*No internet for this activity!  I want this all to come from your brains!

I’m not going to lie— I was nervous about the risk I was taking by giving my students this amount of power with not many guidelines.  I was worried each group would come up with the same style of rubric without much variety or thought about the criteria.

But, once again, I was surprised by what students are capable of when given a lot of freedom and very few rules.  I saw so much as I walked around conferring with the different groups. There were rubrics with as few as 12 points, and even one with 700.  There were checklists, boxes, circling the number, space for comments, and even emoji on the various rubrics I encountered. And when I asked for explanations, I loved the kind of thinking they were doing about the genre.  Here are some of the observations I heard:

“We wanted a lot of points, because what if a lot of essays are scored?  It’s easier for them to be set apart and receive different scores if the point value is larger.”

“We kept the format really simple and the criteria low for speed.  We know the evaluators won’t have much time to spend on each essay, so we wanted to make it so the grading process would go quickly for each one.”

“We wanted to make sure ‘Personal Growth’ was a criteria on the rubric because it’s important to show that the author has learned from his/her experiences.”

And my personal favorite…

“We felt it was important for the evaluators to assess their emotions before and after reading the essay by circling an emoji.  This is a big decision, and we want them to reflect on how they feel before the essay to make sure they don’t allow a bad mood affect their scoring.  We also want them to evaluate their mood after they read the essay because we feel that can determine who they ultimately choose as the winner.”

Step Two: Vote on a Winner

After each group submitted a rubric, I busted out my wireless document camera, which has recently become an essential tool in my classroom (more on this here).  Each group took a turn displaying their rubric and informally presenting their rubric to the class— explaining their vision and how the tool they created allowed them to accomplish that vision.

Rather than simply having students cast a vote on which rubric was their favorite, I had them write a paragraph defending their choice.  I asked them to explain why they chose the one they did as the winner and to reference specific details from the rubric in their responses.  The wheels kept turning as they continued to analyze the college essay. Many students wrote that examining different rubrics helped them notice an aspect of the genre they hadn’t considered yet, such as the importance of sharing a specific life experience to help the audience see the applicant in a more personal way.

Once I had a winner from each of my three classes that did this exercise, students examined the top choices and selected an overall winner.  I had been intrigued by the reflection the evaluator was required to do on the emoji rubric, and my students were, too. This rubric became the tool students used to guide their writing and what I eventually used to assess what they submitted for grading.

Step Three: Evaluate

After students had a few days to get a draft of the college essay, we used the emoji rubric to help us revise.  Students started with a self-evaluation; they read through their own essay and evaluated it using the rubric. I also had them write three constructive comments focusing on what they would like to do to improve before the next draft and had them re-write a section of their paper.  

The next activity, however, was what student after student cited in their author’s notes as being the most influential activity in helping them to improve their essays between drafts.  Disclaimer: This required a lot of planning and thinking ahead of time on my part, but it was so worth it in the end. When students finished their drafts, I had them turn in a printed copy with no name.  I then gave each student in the class a “code name,” which was a letter for their class period (A, B, or C) and a number. I used the “Team Shake” app on my iPad to shuffle students into a random order so they wouldn’t get a number assigned to them alphabetically; I didn’t want anyone figuring out whose essay they were reading.

Once this was done, I gave each group of students in my classroom a set of essays to evaluate anonymously, along with a stack of emoji rubrics.  They took turns reading through each essay; each evaluator completed a new rubric with each essay they read and left at least one constructive comment.  As soon as each student in the evaluation group had read every essay in their group, they had a discussion about which of the essays they would select as a winner for college admission or a scholarship and why.  I loved hearing these conversations, especially when one group was faced with the task of choosing between an essay that lacked the “wow” factor but answered the prompt and another that was rich in detail and description but veered away from the prompt. 

I wanted to make sure this process was completely anonymous, so the evaluators wrote their own code names on the rubrics they evaluated.  While this created an extra step for me to look up code names when I assessed students’ comments, I would do it all over again. Ensuring essays were read and evaluated anonymously lead to some of the most constructive and helpful comments I have ever had in my class.  Students were a lot less hesitant to offer criticism when they didn’t know the author of the essay, and they were much more receptive of it this way, too. It also helped that each student who evaluated an essay completed a new rubric; this eventually allowed students to see patterns in how different evaluators would score their essay and identify where their strengths and weaknesses were before returning to their drafts.


What I loved most about the changes I made in this unit was they got students one step closer to an authentic writing experience.  Developing a common evaluation tool that will be used to rank submitted essays is a real task that real evaluation committees do. Furthermore, anonymous submission and evaluation is also an authentic act; when a student submits an essay to be evaluated, the committee likely does not know the student, so any judgement they place on a piece of writing is done so without a bias for or against the author.  Making these changes to my unit created great platforms for students to have deeper, more meaningful conversations about what is important in this genre of writing, and I hope to find more opportunities like this with future units.

How do you create authentic experiences for your writers in your classroom?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter @pbrink12!

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