Friday, July 20, 2018

The evils of rubrics - a new article by Professor Debbie Borman called "De-grading Assessment: Rejecting Rubrics in Favor of Authentic Analysis"

Let me confess my own bias against the use (or overuse) of rubrics in law school. Yes, I've used them in the past too but very rarely anymore because I've come to believe they're the devil's work.  I can't blame profs for trying to make their expectations about graded assignments as clear as possible in order to help students. It's our job (sort of).  On the other hand, when it comes to preparing students for the intellectual challenges of law practice, clarity is way overrated.  In our efforts to be clear, we're also sending a counterproductive message that the sophisticated, nuanced skills needed to produce a high quality piece of analytical writing can reduced to a convenient, handy-dandy, easy to digest formula.  Instead of a reductionist approach, we should be asking students to spend even more time and effort trying to sort out what makes a memo good. They likely won't be too happy with us about that, but their future clients may thank us. 

Anyway, enough of my rant . . . . Go read Professor Debbie Borman's great article called De-grading Assessment: Rejecting Rubrics in Favor of Authentic Analysis, 41 Seattle U. L. Rev. 713 (2018), yourself. Here's the abstract:

Assigning grades is the least joyful duty of the law professor. In the current climate of legal education, law professors struggle with issues such as increased class size, providing “practice-ready” graduates, streamlining assignments, and accountability in assessment. In an effort to ease the burden of grading written legal analyses, individual professors or law school writing programs or both may develop articulated rubrics to assess students’ written work. Rubrics are classification tools that allow us to articulate our judgment of a written work. Rubrics may be as extensive as twenty categories and subcategories or may be limited to only a few criteria. By definition, rubrics require the development of rigid, standardized criteria that the student must fulfill to earn a certain number of points. Points earned in each section of the rubric are totaled to form the basis for the student’s grade. In assessing legal analyses according to a standardized rubric, however, many subtleties of structure or content and much of the creativity of legal writing is lost or unrewarded or both. Using a rubric to assess legal analytical writing may result in the exact opposite of the intended result: an excellent and creatively written persuasive brief or legal analytical argument may “fail” the rubric and earn a lower overall grade, while a legal analysis that fulfills the exacting criteria of the rubric may earn a top grade despite lacking the intangible aspects of excellent persuasive writing. Good writing does not result when locked into the matrix of a rubric. Rubrics may impair writing and result in bad legal analytical writing. Rubrics replace the authentic, holistic analysis of writing and reasoning with inauthentic pigeonholing that “stamps standardization” onto a creative and analytical, that is, nonstandard, process. A holistic approach to grading and evaluating legal analytical writing, including engaging in authentic conversations about writing, leads to more comprehensible written work product and ultimately better lawyering.


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