Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The end of 513 -- Inquiry Based Learning

I hate to be evaluated and I struggle with rubric writing. You might wonder why I decided to go back to school to upgrade my qualifications at this late stage in my life. Sometimes I wonder myself, but the learning I've gained as I've moved from 'doing courses' to using this as an opportunity to reinvent myself as an educator has been worth all the anxious hours. After 513 is done, I'll have only 2 courses left, and I'm even entertaining dreams of attempting a doctorate. I'd love to be called Dr. Sue -- not to be confused with Dr. Seuss!

In the IBL course, Matt Cwalina points out that "the use of rubrics in the classroom began gaining popularity towards the late 1990’s". Now, I trained to be a teacher in the early 1970's. What feels natural and normal to younger teachers who grew up in a rubric-driven education system has been a challenge for me all through the Instructional Medial program.

Andrade (n.d.) defines a rubric as "a scoring tool that lists the criteria for a piece of work, or [says] 'what counts' " and "also articulates gradations of quality for each criterion, from excellent to poor." She goes on to explain that a rubric should "as concisely as possible ... explain what makes a good piece of work good and a bad one bad." What has become evident to me after reading many assignments and discussions in my courses over the past year is that the way rubrics are written (yes -- even our Wilkes rubrics as explicit as they try to be) can make the difference between students and instructors guessing and knowing what constitutes excellence.

Terms such as: well/sufficiently developed, clear, adequate/inadequate, limited, superficial, subtle, voice, minimal, and evident awareness leave a lot of room for individual interpretation. It seems that even in courses at the Master's level, except when it comes to counting bibliography errors or discussion responses, personal interpretation of general descriptive words still sometimes guides both students' work and instructors' evaluations. Unlike students in a classroom, we online learners don't often have the benefit of being able to compare work, grades, and comments.

So how, then, does one approach the problem of writing a rubric that will give students clarity? When I used to mark assignments and tests (yes -- even math tests), I had to go page by page so that I'd do all examples of longer questions consistently. I was definitely a teacher who knew excellence when I saw it but I also would have been hard pressed to put that into words. Rereading the Bresciani presentation assigned in the last unit of this course gave me a clue. She says (slide 5) that rubrics are a way of 'norming' teacher expectations and of "informing students what you are looking for." These are easy words to write, but they can be very difficult objectives to meet. Some hard mental slogging may be required to work out what those general terms really do mean rather than just come up with other synonyms.

Slide 15 was the most helpful.
When I read those questions, I realized that I could apply my learning in the IBL course directly to the problem how to write a good rubric. In Week 5 we learned about writing writing 'reasoned explanations' . In an explanation, you make a claim and substantiate it with evidence. This is my project from Week 5.

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In a rubric, you set the set the target and then put into words what it will look like if a student is meeting this target. That's what makes this kind of writing so difficult. You can't just say what want; you have to say how you know it when you see it. Without the evidence, the explanation/rubric is just not complete. You have to reach deep inside and put feelings into words.

You have to make internal standards which are usually a complex blend and delicate balance of many factors explicit. You have to balance brevity with explication. You have to box yourself in by 'setting it in stone'. You have to put yourself in the shoes of struggling students -- those for whom general descriptors hold little meaning or perhaps a meaning which is different from your understanding -- and ask yourself what evidence they must produce to show you they 'get it'. If a student, parent, or colleague could still ask "How will I know?" (which echoes the "how do you know" question that underlies inquiry-based learning), your rubric may have all the boxes filled in, but it won't reveal to your students what it really takes to make you happy.

BTW -- Matt Cwalina who wrote the IBL course has been hired by Discovery and if you have an opportunity as a teacher who uses Discovery resources to get involved with any of his pro-d work, do so. This has been a great course and he's certainly an instructor who models what he believes in his teaching. Good luck at DE, Matt!



Andrade, H. (n.d.). Understanding rubrics. Retrieved June 23, 2010 from

Brecaiani, M. (n.d.). Creating, implementing, and using rubrics. Retrieved June 23, 2010 from

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