Listen to the interview with Tyler Rablin and Jeffery Frieden (transcript):
I’ve always believed in the power of a good, clear rubric for helping students understand how their work will be assessed. As an English teacher, I can’t even imagine assigning a writing task without a rubric. But all rubrics are not the same: Some can be convoluted messes that overwhelm students, while others can be far too vague to really be helpful. Ideally, all teachers would use the most effective rubrics all the time, but we’re not quite there yet.
On this site, we’ve explored lots of rubric tweaks and iterations that make them more effective, and this post will add more to that work: A different way of developing and using a rubric that changes it from a tool for evaluation to a tool for marking progress and pushing students to keep moving forward.
Two English language arts teachers—Tyler Rablin and Jeff Frieden—developed this idea (first Tyler, then Jeff) and are calling it a HyperRubric. On the podcast we talked about how this style of rubric came to be and how it works. The full transcript is available above. What follows here is a summary of our conversation.
Part 1: Hitting Walls with the Traditional Rubric
This story starts with Tyler Rablin, a high school English teacher from Sunnyside, Washington. After working for several years with the traditional four-column rubric, Rablin found himself wanting more. “I know rubrics are important, I know there’s value in them, but I’m not seeing them really impact my students in a way that I would like to see.”
He identified two main issues with the traditional rubric:
The four-column rubrics Rablin was using did nothing more than describe student skill levels, and they did so in a way that discouraged future growth. “The earlier levels were often stigmatizing,” Rablin says. “It was, These are all the things I can’t do. I’m weak at this. The later levels were the better ones: Good is here and bad is here. When I was giving students that feedback they were not getting the message of, You’re at the beginning stage in this learning process. They were getting the message of, You’re not doing well at this. When you hand that to a student, it just, it crushes them, and there goes motivation almost right away.”
“The language was basically like, I kind of get it, I sort of get it, I mostly get it,” Rablin says. “And for the student, what does that mean? Where do I go next?” For a student who doesn’t really understand the concept, “they don’t have a way into that learning. They don’t really know where to start.”
He started to envision a different kind of rubric, one that would actually help students make progress. It would spell out what they could already do in concrete terms, then show them the skills they needed to develop to move forward.
Part 2: Imagining a More Progressive Rubric
Rablin began experimenting with a new approach: replacing the static descriptors in his rubrics with language that was progressive. He referred to this style of rubric as a Learning Progression.
The image below shows the difference. To keep things simple, this example just focuses on a single row in a rubric containing criteria for using commas with coordinating conjunctions.
In the top rubric—done in a traditional style—the criteria vaguely labels the student’s skills in terms of how many mistakes they make. It doesn’t give them any information about what skills to develop and how to get better.
In the bottom rubric—done as a Learning Progression—the criteria is couched in terms of concrete things a student can learn to do, things that will help them improve.
In this example, and in many of Rablin’s other rubrics, those concrete demonstrations start at the lower levels of Bloom’s, where students are simply defining and identifying, and move up to higher-level tasks where they apply, evaluate, and create with the target skill.
Part 3: Making the Rubric “Come Alive”
If the rubric is digital, teachers can also add an additional layer that hyperlinks the skills in the rubric to resources that teach the skill, thus enabling students to start making progress right away.
With the addition of these hyperlinks, the rubric now becomes a HyperRubric.
See the difference in the examples below, which assess students’ skills in analyzing character development in a text. The top rubric is traditional, with vague descriptors of the skill at different levels. The bottom version, a HyperRubric, not only offers more concrete sub-skills students can work to develop, but also contains links to videos, articles, and models that teach the student how to apply those sub-skills.
Part 4: Putting the Rubric to Work in a Real Classroom
Now that we’re clear on what a HyperRubric is, it’s probably obvious how much more useful it could be than a traditional rubric. Still, if we’re only using it at the end of a learning cycle, as a tool to evaluate work that is already done, its value will still be limited.
Ideally, a HyperRubric will be used within a cycle of feedback, reflection, and iteration, where students can use it to actively work on their skill development.
One example of this is how Jeff Frieden uses it.
Frieden, a high school ELA teacher in southern California (and the person who brought us the ongoing conversations strategy in 2018), first heard Tyler Rablin talk about his new approach to rubrics on an episode of the Teachers on Fire podcast. As he listened, he realized that this different kind of rubric would be perfect for the shift he’d been trying to make with his writing instruction, a shift that moved assessment from the end of a writing piece to the middle.
“For 13 years, I had been assessing the final product,” Frieden explains. “I had a (traditional) rubric and it tended to come at the end. So it was really just an impact on the grade. And full confession, I was using it to justify the scores I was putting on the papers. The hope was that it would transfer to their next piece of writing. But that’s not really what happened. Maybe occasionally it would for a few students, but for the most part it was just me sort of covering myself just to make sure that everybody could understand why points were missing from the document.”
Recently he shifted his approach, giving students a prompt for a writing task, having them do a first draft quickly, then planning his teaching around the areas of need he identified in the first drafts.
The new process, when face-to-face instruction was still the norm, looked something like this:
- Students write first draft, then teacher assesses drafts to reveal trends in writing for whole-class feedback/instruction.
- Students write second draft after receiving targeted mini-lessons in small groups through station rotation.
- Students write third draft, followed by quality check through station rotations.
- Submission and evaluation.
Pre-pandemic, this system worked well, but once students and teachers moved into remote teaching, station rotation became much harder to do. Frieden knew he’d need a vehicle that would enable students to self-assess, along with resources that could help them teach themselves the skills they’d need to progress.
In the midst of this, Frieden saw Rablin’s rubric and knew he’d found the answer. Now his writing cycle follows a similar pattern to the one he was already working on, with the HyperRubric now taking the place of the targeted mini-lessons:
1. Students Write First Draft
Based on a prompt, students write a relatively quick first draft with very little instructional support from the teacher. From there, Frieden reviews the drafts for trends.
2. Teacher Builds HyperRubric
Frieden now builds a HyperRubric based on the trends he saw in the first draft, areas for growth that are common to many students. “At the maximum I would do three of these,” he says. “If I really want this learning to stick, if I really want them to see it’s valuable, then I will reduce it to the really high leverage items.”
Within each cell of the HyperRubric, he links to mini-lessons that will help students reach that specific level.
3. Students Self-Assess and Write Second Draft
From there, students self-assess their work using the HyperRubric, clicking on links to the mini-lessons, and revising. “Right as they’re learning the lesson,” Frieden says, “it’s impacting their draft as soon as they get it.”
Here’s an example of a HyperRubric for persuasive writing, where the focus is on organization. The student has identified their current level, has completed the mini-lesson on transitions at the next level, and has written a reflection about this process:
Once the second draft is written, Frieden’s students write another reflection on the changes made to their draft:
From there the cycle can continue with more self-assessment, reflection, and revision until the piece is ready to be submitted.
Other Questions About HyperRubrics
We’re looking at examples of single skills on a rubric, but teachers are expected to teach many different standards. How does that work?
At Rablin’s school, where they operate on the trimester system, he has recently begun focusing on about eight progressions per trimester, eight skill areas that he targets through various assignments over the course of the term.
“It was kind of a shift for me,” he says, “because at first, that didn’t sound like a lot. I’m used to if it’s just I can analyze theme in a text, that feels like one thing that we’re learning. But when I broaden it out and thought about it in terms of learning progressions, I had to recognize that every single thing I was doing, students were learning five separate skills. Does that mean this is all we’re learning? Absolutely not, but in terms of the progressions I’m being really intentional with, I had to learn to limit it to a lot more than I was used to.”
Frieden limits his use of the HyperRubric to certain types of assignments. “If you’re a teacher listening to this and you’re thinking, oh, that sounds like I have to set up an entire trimester geared towards that and I’m not ready for that. I’m actually using the HyperRubric as one point in a particular type of assignment.”
What about grades? If these are meant to be progressive, how and when do you actually assign students a grade?
Rablin bases a lot of his grades on conferences with students. “Our conversations are centered around these learning progressions. There is an average of scores that results in their final grade. But I’m not averaging those scores over time. It’s not necessarily that I’m counting your earliest attempts and your latest attempts (equally). We had eight skills; overall, what was your final performance or what was your most consistent performance with those eight skills? Your most consistent or more recent scores are what are going to determine your final grade for the course.”
When he calculates grades with HyperRubrics, Frieden gives the most weight to student reflection. “The standard is the focus, and it’s trying to move them along on this progression. But I’m very, very much going to be asking students when it comes to their letter grade, can you articulate to me how this learning that you had in the middle of this assignment impacted the second draft? And then that’s where I’m going to focus all of our energy and importance and I guess the worth of the grade.”