Words are amazing things. Some words really describe what they are associated with, some are ambiguous (as Evan Morris, the Word Detective points out, the word sanction can mean both “allow” and “forbid”), some are very beautiful, and some really are very grating, like fingernails on a blackboard. One of the latter is the word rubric. I really dislike the word rubric. Let me be clear: I dislike the word, not the concept that it represents. It raises an image of a pain in the redneck. (ok, that’s a stretch, I know (groan)… go look up the definitions of rube and rick.)

Actually, the origin of the word is more likely associated with the color red, as one of the several latin words associated with red is ruber (or rubra). It was originally used to define letters and words that were printed in red in a manuscript, such as the title, a heading or the first letter in a chapter. It later was used to refer to instructions in a body of text, which were used to clarify, such as a direction in a hymnal as to how the music should be played. But recently it has been used in education circles to refer to a set of guidelines for assessing whether a work or performance was successfully done.

Heidi Andrade, an expert in formative assessment, referred to a rubric as a scoring tool that lists the criteria expected of a piece of work, or “what counts” in the determination of that success. She calls these tools instructional rubrics, and lists not only the expected criteria but also the gradations of quality. So there is clarity in defining what is expected, and also clarity in terms of how those expectations will be evaluated. Everyone can be on the same page… the student can self-assess in terms of determining what the instructor wants to see, and the instructor has clear guidelines and justifications about how the assessment is done.

I recently returned from an institute in San Jose on assessment and the general education. Believe me when I tell you that I heard the term used over and over and over (and over). At the institute teams from higher ed across the country came together to learn how best to determine whether students have successfully achieved the learning outcomes that are associated with different courses that comprise the core of the general education at their universities. Not just that a student got a passing grade in the course, but did he or she effectively learn the content across the courses and the GE categories?

As much as I dislike the word, I realize that rubrics are a great tool for clearly articulating these learning expectations, and will give us a clearly defined set of measures for accomplishing the evaluation of these goals. I guess I’m going to have to get more comfortable with the word… I’ll no doubt be hearing it used more often.

I still wonder about this usage word and its relationship with its origin… is it referring to the red ink that is often used when a paper is graded?