Using Rubrics for Quick Grading and Meaningful Feedback

Imagine you are teaching a large class with hundreds of students. You want to give them an open-ended assignment that involves technical writing and data analysis, but you want to make sure this assignment isn’t too cumbersome to grade. Many instructors face this challenge—how do you design a “soft skills” assignment and what tools do you use to grade quickly, while still providing students with useful feedback?

Assistant Professor Alison Polasik found a solution that works for her course in the College of Engineering. She developed a lab report assignment so her students could practice reading graphs and demonstrate their ability to create their own graphs from raw data. This assignment also challenges the students’ technical writing skills. But how does she grade nearly 600 submissions each year in a reasonable amount of time?

“It all starts with assignment design,” said Polasik. “It needed to be relatively short, with a laser-like focus on the key skills I wanted the students to develop.”

Polasik has discovered fundamental aspects of an assignment that can be graded quickly. First, the assignment should be short while still meeting objectives. Next, templates and rubrics for the assignment should be shared with students, which set expectations and create consistency across submissions. Another important aspect to ensure a quick turnaround is requiring a PDF submission. This way, nothing is lost during the import process (table formatting, Greek letters, etc.).

After crafting a concise assignment, Polasik uses a combination of tools that allow her and her TAs to grade each submission in three to five minutes. Check out this video to see rubrics, Turnitin, SpeedGrader and the Canvas Gradebook in action:

To keep her grading team on the same page, Polasik creates a grading key with discrete options and examples of what qualifies for each number of points within the rubric. With a bit of training, all of the graders align with the grading key, providing consistency for all students across sections and semesters.  

In addition to numeric values and freeform comments, SpeedGrader allows you to save and reuse comments, which is very helpful when grading hundreds of assignments.

“Since a lot of the errors are made frequently by a number of students, I can just have a list of common problems where students might have lost points and select those from my list,” Polasik said.

Students have benefitted from this type of open-ended assignment. In following semesters, Polasik has noticed how her students’ skills have grown. Those who have completed lab report assignments with her in the past show stronger data analysis and technical writing skills in future courses.

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