Using Rubrics to Communicate Expectations

Using Rubrics to Communicate Expectations

Recent research revealed that, among non-traditional students enrolled in online classes, clear communication of grading criteria and meaningful feedback were among the most important components for student engagement in online classes (Martin & Bolliger, 2018). However, students indicated that it was common to receive a less-than-perfect grade with no indication of what was expected, what was wrong, or how to improve (Martin & Bolliger, 2018). One simple solution is the use of rubrics.

According to Brookhart (2013), “a rubric is a coherent set of criteria for students’ work that includes descriptions of levels of performance quality on the criteria.” Although rubrics can be used to evaluate student work, they are primarily designed to describe the expectations for student work. This clear communication of expectations increases student self-efficacy and, as a result, improves engagement, student satisfaction, and retention (Kim & Kim, 2021). In addition, a clear description of quality student work can serve as a starting point for providing meaningful formative feedback that encourages student growth (Dumford & Miller, 2018). Finally, there is an additional benefit to using a rubric. Using a rubric provides the faculty member with a clear description of each level of performance, making grading faster and easier and allowing for greater grading consistency and reliability (Moyer et al., 2015).

Students at a Table

Holistic Rubric

There are three general types of rubrics: holistic rubrics, analytic rubrics, and single-point rubrics. The holistic rubric is the most basic type of rubric. The holistic rubric “lists three to five levels of performance, along with a broad description of the characteristics that define each level” (Gonzalez, 2014, para. 2). This allows all criteria to be evaluated simultaneously, thus increasing inter-rater reliability (Brookhart, 2013). Holistic rubrics can be graded quickly and are particularly good for summative assessments. However, the single score does not necessarily provide students with detailed feedback for improvement and thus may require additional instructor comments.

Analytic Rubric

An analytic rubric is the more common rubric and “breaks down the characteristics of an assignment into parts, allowing the scorer to itemize and define exactly what aspects are strong, and which ones need improvement” (Gonzalez, 2014, para. 6). Analytic rubrics are an excellent choice for formative assessment or for encouraging student growth and improvement. An analytic rubric with well-defined and aligned criteria can provide the instructor with diagnostic information and pinpoint specific areas for student feedback. The drawback is that analytic rubrics take more time to design and score than holistic rubrics. However, once they are created, it is also easy to adapt them for summative assessment (Brookhart, 2013).

Single Point Rubric

A single-point rubric is similar to an analytic rubric because it requires detailed criteria for each aspect of student performance. However, the criteria are not ranked. In other words, “it only describes the criteria for proficiency; it does not attempt to list all the ways a student could fall short, nor does it specify how a student could exceed expectations” (Gonzalez, 2014, para. 11). Typically, the criteria for proficiency are listed in a middle column with a column to the left for comments regarding areas of concern or items that need work, and a column on the right for comments or evidence of student work that exceeds the proficiency criteria. The disadvantage is that a single-point rubric will require additional feedback from the instructor when the student falls short of proficiency. However, Gonzalez (2014) argues that the open-ended nature of a single-point rubric allows room for students to stretch themselves beyond the instructor’s expectations. In addition, single-point rubrics make it easy for students to self-assess or peer-assess.

Benefits of Rubrics

Quite simply, rubrics provide instructors with a method for improving instruction because they require the educator to consider the objectives and carefully align the instructional content and assessments to meet those objectives. In addition, rubrics help students learn by providing clear expectations, meaningful feedback, and opportunities for self-assessment. Rubrics can also increase student confidence and self-efficacy and, when paired with instructor modeling or exemplars, can be extremely useful for students who are typically more motivated and engaged when they thoroughly understand the expectations for an assignment.

Learn More

For a simple example of each of the rubric types mentioned above, check out the Gonzalez (2014) link provided in the references below. In addition, the references by Brookhart (2013 & 2018) provide guidance for creating quality rubrics. For online instructors, Canvas has a built-in rubric tool that makes developing, recycling, and using rubrics quick and easy. To learn more about rubrics as an evidence-based best practice for courses or to receive additional assistance with rubric design, contact Faulkner University Online to work with an instructional designer or professional educator on rubrics for your course(s).


Brookhart, S. M. (2013). How to create and use rubrics for formative assessment and grading. ASCD.

Brookhart, S. M. (2018). Appropriate criteria: Key to effective rubrics. Frontiers in Education, 3.

Dumford, A. D., & Miller, A. L. (2018). Online learning in higher education: Exploring advantages and disadvantages for engagement. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 30(3), 452-465.

Gonzalez, J. (2014, May 1). Know your terms: Holistic, analytic, and single-point rubrics. Cult of Pedagogy.

Kim, S., & Kim, D. (2021). Structural relationship of key factors for student satisfaction and achievement in asynchronous online learning. Sustainability, 13(12), 6734.

Martin, F., & Bolliger, D. U. (2018). Engagement matters: Student perceptions on the importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 22(1), 205.

Moyer, A. C., Young, W.A., Weckman, G. R., Clarence, M., & Cutright, K. (2015). Rubrics on the fly: Improving efficiency and consistency with a rapid grading and feedback system. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 4(2), 6-29.