Teaching Strategies

When a Rubric Isn’t Enough

Providing a scaffold and teaching students how to use a scaffold are not the same thing.

Elementary student pointing at whiteboard in a classroom
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“All right—any questions? No? Go!” I told my eighth-grade integrated science students as we began a lesson in which they were to make and support a claim about where in the classroom they should put the starting point for a marble roller coaster. Most got right to work. However, one student looked blankly at his paper, broken pencil in hand. Another stared into space. A third crafted something distracting out of paper.

What had gone wrong? They didn’t raise their hands when I asked if anyone had a question. How could I reach these students?

My colleagues convinced me that these behaviors represented neither what my students knew nor how smart they were. Kids may fool around, but when they cannot produce anything for assignments that they know will impact their grade, there must be something else going on that I’m missing.

The Need for Scaffolding

My school partners with Mills Teacher Scholars, a professional learning organization that facilitates collaborative inquiry for educators. In working with Mills, I was focusing my inquiry project on finding the appropriate level of scaffolding: Too much scaffolding and students all write the same thing, too little and they engage in off-task behaviors or produce work that doesn’t make sense.

I wondered if my students’ uncertainty around my learning expectations prevented them from fully engaging in learning tasks. If they more clearly understood my expectations, would they more competently and confidently explain their ideas? How could I find the right balance in scaffolding my students’ learning?

A Rubric Is Not Enough

I decided to collect data from Claims-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) exercises in my classroom. I wanted to know how I could scaffold writing activities such that students could use relevant evidence to support powerful claims. I theorized that giving them a rubric, a fundamental tool that allows students and teachers to communicate about learning expectations, would help them.

Our next assignment was the one mentioned above—I asked students to explain their rationale for a marble roller coaster design, drawing on their understanding that the higher the starting point, the more potential energy the marble could convert to kinetic energy, or energy of motion. My rubric gave these two criteria:

  1. I can write a claim ​that answers the question and provides an argument ​that connects back to the claim.
  2. I can provide evidence for my claim that makes sense.

It was clear that a higher starting point is better, but students didn’t necessarily use that information. They did also have the ability to write about other starting points, if they had a good rationale for their choice. So I was troubled when they turned in inadequate responses, such as: “[Start] in the corner of the room because you get to have more space and you get different new ideas.”

In taking a closer look at their responses, I realized that many of my students did not use the rubric at all.

Ask Students What They Think

If students weren’t using the rubric, I would need to figure out what additional scaffolding would help them successfully explain their reasoning, but not in identical cookie-cutter responses. A colleague in my inquiry group at Mills suggested that I ask my students to help me understand what might be getting in the way of their success.

Interviewing several students, I learned that they genuinely wanted to do well and that they knew more about potential and kinetic energy than they had shown on paper. But they didn’t know what the purpose of the rubric was or how to use it, and that prevented them from clearly demonstrating their knowledge.

Teach Them How to Use the Scaffold Effectively

I restructured our unit to allow students to understand and practice working with the rubric, using the following strategies:

  1. I led a whole-class discussion in which we came to a consensus on grading a sample of writing according to the rubric.
  2. I set up four stations where students worked collaboratively in teams to figure out the score that various writing samples—their own work and that of their peers—should earn according to the rubric.
  3. Students worked in pairs to read each other’s writing and give constructive feedback using language from the rubric.
  4. Students reflected on their peer feedback alongside the rubric and made revisions before submitting their product for a final grade.

Understanding How to Use the Rubric Leads to Learning

The student who originally suggested starting in the corner wrote this when answering the same question a second time: “I will choose the top corner of the room because the marble will have a lot of potential energy at the top. When you put your marble on the roller coaster the marble’s speed will increase and the marble will have a maximum of kinetic energy.”

I found that most students made similar significant improvements in the quality of their responses.

Through this investigation, I learned that providing a scaffold and teaching students how to use a scaffold are not the same thing. If my students don’t deeply understand the purpose of a tool I provide and don’t know how to use it to support their learning, they may as well not have it at all.