Rubrics – Origin, Purpose, Characteristics and Bloom Based Applications


 Origin, Purpose, Characteristics and Bloom Based Applications


Lawrence P. Creedon


Rubrics have to do with assessment and evaluation. They are an alternative to the more traditional, subjective procedure of awarding a grade in response to teacher judgment, quotas or other competitive procedures. Rubrics are neither subjective nor competitive. In using rubrics teacher subjective judgment is kept to a minimum and quotas are not used in controlling the number or percent of grades that can be awarded in a given category. Individual competence and mastery are the determinants.


With rubrics teacher subjectivity is reduced. Grading systems that adhere to a predetermined formula are eliminated. With rubrics the quantity of the work performed and the mechanics of language usage and construction in reporting on what has been learned are not interwoven with the quality of the work performed. Each is evaluated separately.


Rubrics are criterion referenced. Competence is defined as the capacity to do what needs to be done. The definition of standards and benchmarks as applied to rubrics is not the same as that associated with standardized tests and the No Child Left Behind, United States federal education law. However, rubrics  are standard and benchmark based.  The standard is stated in terms of mastery and benchmarks indicate the level of mastery.


Origin of Rubrics

The use of rubrics in education is of recent origin; however, as with many so-called initiatives in education the concept is not new. Historically the term is derived from the Latin term rubrica meaning “red earth.”  During the middle ages it was common for important passages within official documents to be highlighted in red ink Red markings within liturgical documents indicated the rule or religious precept that was being promulgated.  In legal documents, text in red often indicated a heading in a code of law that led to rubric coming to mean any brief, authoritative rule.


Characteristics of Rubrics

  1. The purpose of a rubric is to clearly and distinctly identify the terminal behavior expected from a learner as the result of a learning experience.
  2. Rubrics are criterion referenced. The criteria for performance are stated in the rubric.
  3. Rubrics focus on competence. Competence is defined as the capacity to do what needs to be done.
  4. Rubrics can be holistic, multiple or task specific. As holistic, a rubric focuses on a complete concept, topic or issue. As multiple, several subordinate rubrics to a holistic rubric are developed with each multi rubric related to the same issue, topic or concept. As task specific, a rubric is limited in scope and breadth to one specific task related to a holistic rubric or one component of a multiple rubric.
  5. Rubrics ought to be developed in conformity with a taxonomical framework such as found in Bloom’s six category cognitive domain.
  6. Rubrics ought to be developed so as to address a variety of intelligences in cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains.
  7. Rubrics ought to be developed at the outset of the learning experience, and shared before instruction begins with those for whom they are intended.
  8. Learners themselves ought to participate in the development of the rubrics consistent with their personal level of competence and maturity.
  9. Instruments used for evaluation [tests] ought to be an outgrowth of the rubrics developed for the learning experience.
  10. The terms used in a rubric ought to be clearly defined, specifically related to a level of cognition and be constant in application from rubric to rubric.
  11. Rubrics are applicable at all levels and in all curriculum areas.


While not recommended, but if necessary in order to come into compliance with traditional grading procedures, rubrics can be converted to a letter or percentage grade.


Limitations of Rubrics

Rubrics are not the “Silver bullet” of assessment. And, they are not universally embraced. For example AlfieKohn [], among others, has offered a thoughtful critique of rubrics.[ English Journal, Alfie Kohn March, 2006, Vol 95, no.]   However, Kohn does not address the process of applying Bloom’s taxonomy to rubrics. It is this application that will be addressed in the remainder of this paper.


Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy Applied to Rubrics

Benjamin Bloom et. al. Six Category Cognitive Domain Taxonomy [1956] provides an excellent vehicle for the development and application of rubrics. Bloom’s taxonomy was and continues to be an effort to minimize arbitrariness and subjectivity in grading. As stated by Bloom and that of his colleagues the purpose of their taxonomy was to:

…develop a theoretical framework which could be used to facilitate communication among examiners….After considerable discussion, there was agreement that such a theoretical framework might best be obtained through a system of classifying the goals of the educational process, since educational objectives provide the basis for building curricula and tests and represent the starting point for much of our educational research.

The “framework” referred to by Bloom is now understood to mean rubrics.


Bloom and his associates had two intentions in offering the taxonomy. First, they intended to:

…provide taxonomy of educational objectives so as to provide for classification of the goals of our educational system. It is expected to be of general help to all teachers, administrators, professional specialists, and research workers who deal with curricular and evaluation problems… For example, some teachers believe their students should “really understand,” others desire their students to ‘internalize knowledge,” still others want their students to “grasp the core or essence” or “comprehend.” Do they all mean the same thing? Specifically, what does a student who “really understands” do which he does not do when he does not understand? Bloom, p. 1.


Second, they intended that the taxonomy should be of direct help to classroom teachers responsible for curriculum building. The original 1956 Bloom taxonomy handbook states:

Teachers building a curriculum should find here a range of possible educational goals or outcomes in the cognitive area (“cognitive” is used to include activities such as remembering and recalling knowledge, thinking, problem solving, creating).  Comparing the goals of their present curriculum with the range of possible outcomes may suggest additional goals they may wish to include…. Bloom, pp. 1 and 2. 


The relationship between the taxonomy of Bloom and his colleagues and the contemporary focus on rubrics is clear. Later on in this piece it will be shown that today Bloom’s taxonomy has application that extends far beyond that intended by its original framers.


While Bloom’s taxonomy is not the only structure suitable for creating rubrics, adherence to Bloom minimizes the subjective nature of rubrics. A commercial reality is that many listings of rubrics are nothing more than a regurgitation of more traditional approaches to test building. In such situations all that has been changed is the name and it is an example of the same old wine in new bottles.


Subjectivity such as teacher judgment can be a major limitation of rubrics that do not follow a cognitive structure such as that found in Bloom. At the outset it should be cautioned that teacher subjectivity is not always a limitation and to be avoided. Often when teacher judgment is offered in holistic fashion concerning a student it can be more valid and reliable than other forms of evaluation.


However, when subjectivity characterizes a rubric the whole process has been reduced to another form of a traditional approach to grading such as awarding letter or percent grades, quotas, or manipulating grades to fit the bell curve. Such procedures are in sharp contrast to rubric based evaluation with their clearly and distinctly defined criterion for competence and mastery.


In this context, the purpose of schooling is learner mastery of that which is being taught and not competition among learners. It is self-fulfillment for all and not survival-of-the-fittest for a few. Rubrics do not foster an oligarchy.  In the words of Alfie Kohn the purpose of schooling is to maximize success and not to ensure that there will be failures. Rubrics properly understood and applied can contribute to the quest.


Bloom’s Six Category Cognitive Domain

The six categories of Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy are:

  1. Knowledge/ Information
  2. Comprehension
  3. Analysis: Compare and Contrast
  4. Synthesis
  5. Evaluation
  6. Application.


The six divide into low order and high order cognitive categories. Low order has to do with Knowledge/Information and Comprehension. High order relates of the other four. It is commonly recognized that for the most part schools deal in low order activities, while their promotional literature as found in mission statements, etc proclaim that they focus on high order pursuits. For the most part standardized tests are low order cognitive. The best examples of this are the tests mandated by NCLB.


In their taxonomy Bloom and his colleagues use the term knowledge as opposed to information when considering the data input to the learning experience. Bloom defined knowledge as: those behaviors and test situations which emphasize the remembering, either by recognition or recall, of ideas material, or phenomena. Bloom, p. 62.  However, in reality when Bloom and his associates discuss knowledge they go far beyond information. They actually use the term knowledge in synoptic fashion to summarize the total impact of all six cognitive categories on the learner. To them knowledge referred to the seamless whole. Bloom and associates postulated four categories of knowledge as knowledge specifics, terminology, facts, and universals and abstractions Bloom pp. 62-75.


In contrast, information is limited to data only which relates most closely to what Bloom terms as knowledge of specifics and terminology.  At the outset it does appear as if he and his colleagues are equating information with knowledge. They are not.


I prefer to use the term information when referring to the first step in the cognitive process and reserve the word knowledge to indicate the sum total of the whole six category taxonomically based learning experience.


Bloom’s understanding of comprehension and analysis – compare/contrast is straight forward. No further clarification will be offered here.


When considering synthesis, Bloom goes beyond the common understanding of the term as referring to bringing varying and possibly contrasting views together into a new whole. To Bloom, synthesis is the only original aspect of the whole cognitive process. It is the creative component. Synthesizing is advancing what is to a new level. It relates to the ancient Greek concept of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. It is at the level of synthesis that new knowledge is created.


To Bloom and his associates evaluation was not an activity or an event that took place solely at the end of a learning experience. Rather, evaluation was to be on-going throughout the entire learning experience. W. Edwards Deming in his concept of Total Quality Management in industry promoted the notion of evaluation being an on-going process rather than a single terminal exercise. While not colleagues, Deming and Bloom agreed on the place and purpose of evaluation. In the last years of his life Deming attempted, with little success, to bring the concepts of TQM to bare on the education establishment.


Evaluation as proposed by Bloom, Deming and a host of others is in sharp contrast to the high stakes standardized test approach of NCLB. Through NCLB the learner sinks [gets held back] or swims [gets promoted or graduates] based on the results of standardized tests.


Application as understood by Bloom implies that no real learning has taken place unless what has been learned can be put into practice.  Bloom takes issue with the notion of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It honors the notion that learning without application is not learning in any meaningful sense.


The six categories of Bloom’s taxonomy are not rigid. Beyond the first two of information and comprehension they do not necessarily unfold in any predetermined order. Teacher judgment can be decisive in determining the order of the six categories beyond the first two. The order will depend on the topic being considered, the purpose of the learning experience, the learning resources at hand and the learning style of the learner.


Clear and Distinct Rubrics

Bloom and his colleagues identified a list of action words associated with each of their six cognitive categories. In doing so what they did was to anticipate the whole rubric based evaluation process.


It is in using the most appropriate action word associated with a specific cognitive category where a rubric becomes clear and distinct. Action words or verbs that are clear and distinct are factors in defining mastery and competence. Qualitative words such as little, most and some are too subjective to be effective in rubrics and should not be used. To say that an assignment has been completed is not precise enough. It is important to specify at what level of mastery and under what conditions an exercise was completed. Lists of action terms associated with each of Bloom’s six categories are readily available commercially. Or, an enterprising faculty as a professional development activity can develop its own. Among those that are on the market is Quick Flip Questions for Critical Thinking developed by Linda G. Barton and available through Edupress, Inc, POB 883, Dana Point, CA 92629.  Also, Curriculum and Project Planner for Integrating Learning Styles, Thinking Skills, and Authentic Instruction, Imogene Fonte  and Sandra Schurr, Incentive Publications, Nashville, TN, 1996..


A clear and distinct rubric ought to be limited to one specific topic. It should not include several factors such as the process for addressing the task, the format for reporting on what has been accomplished, the correctness of the grammar [including spelling], and finally, the content being considered. Each of these ought to be considered in separate rubrics. Also, when awarding a value to each level of content mastery within a rubric, components such as process, format and language mechanics ought not to be of equal value with content. For example, if a rubric is to have a mastery/competence range of from zero to four points, then conforming to expectations in process, format and language mechanics is not equal to mastery and competence in the content of the rubric. If the learning exercise includes submitting a series of reports the mere submission of the reports is not equal to the actual content of the report. Submitting reports on time and as directed ought to receive no more than the minimum number of points possible. In this example that would be one point.


Submitting a report or a series of reports has little to do with the quality of the work accomplished. All it signifies is that a requirement for submitting an assignment has been met. However, if the purpose of the rubric is to address process, format or grammar mechanics, then awarding quality points beyond the minimum for each of these factors would be appropriate. The subject matter of the learning exercise stands alone and through the rubric mastery and competence is identified. As stated earlier, competence is defined as the capacity to do what needs to be done.


Scoring Rubrics

A common approach to scoring rubrics is a number-based quality point system usually ranging from zero to four points. The four point system is not an absolute. Alternative approaches are appropriate as long as whatever is used is consistent among all applications and by all users.


Zero points indicate non-compliance or lack of understanding of the assignment. At the other end, four quality points indicates exemplary performance as indicated by the four Bloom categories identifying critical thinking, metacognition and application. The four are: analysis- compare and contrast, evaluation, synthesis and application.


One point is indicative of low order cognition as in information accumulation and comprehension. Such activities as recalling, describing, identifying and regurgitating are indicative of low order cognition and thus in a rubric would receive one point. It is these two low order categories that are most frequently associated with tests whether they are teacher-made or standardized. Examples are true-false, multiple choice and short answer questions. Some form of recall or regurgitation is being called for.


The awarding of two, three and four points in a four point scale indicates that the learner has gone beyond recall and regurgitation to higher order components of critical thinking such as analyzing, comparing and contrasting, evaluating, applying and synthesizing. Two points can indicate an ability to analyze and compare and contrast. Three points can indicate competence in evaluation and application. Four points can be reserved for synthesis or meta cognition. It signals an ability to go beyond what is to a new thought, use, or application.


Synthesis, according to Bloom, is the ability to consolidate all that has gone on before in the other categories and create something new. Not necessarily a new discovery for humankind, but rather an epiphany for the learner.


Using Bloom’s taxonomy in this manner is consistent with a constructivist approach to learning. Among the characteristics of a constructivist approach is that learners construct their own knowledge from within the context of their own experience. This is in contrast to the attempted infusion of knowledge pre-determined by a source or authority external to self and the learner’s experience. Obviously the concept pf experience needs to be defined, however, to do so is beyond the purpose and scope of this paper. Consulting the work of John Dewey is a good source in this regard.


Rubrics and Old Wine

Publishers of educational materials in the “How-To” category have made available a plethora of paperbacks to assist teachers in responding to the learning needs of learners. Many of these publications have a great deal of merit; however, others are of the same old wine in new bottles variety.

Many, if not most in this category, do not fit the description of rubrics as presented here. Many are nothing more than traditional approaches to grading re-packaged in a new format with new terms to describe old approaches. Many do nothing more than recast grading in response to teacher judgment and regardless of the descriptors used come out as A, B, C, etc. Educators are often accused of marketing old wine in new bottles and if that is true frequently the shoes fits for rubrics. It is these that Alfie Kohn and other critics of rubrics seem to address.


Applications Beyond Testing

Rubrics have many applications beyond being used in testing. Several are cited here.

  1. Standards and Benchmarks: Earlier in this piece reference was made to rubrics providing a vehicle for expressing standards and benchmarks.
  2. Individual Accountability: Learners, under teacher direction and guidance, can create rubrics for themselves indicating the road that must be traveled in order for each learner to accomplish his/her personal best.
  3. Peer Assessment: Two or three classmates or colleagues can establish a “critical friends” support team where they critique each other consistent with individually or peer developed rubrics.
  4. Formative Assessment or Supervision: Provide a technique that can be applied in a formative program of professional development or supervision.
  5. Critiquing a Professional Development Activity or a Faculty Meeting:  Provide an alternative to the traditional procedure for soliciting “feedback” at the conclusion of a professional development activity or faculty meeting.
  6. Parent Input: Provide a vehicle for soliciting parent input and feedback at either a private meeting with a student’s parents or in conjunction with a meeting with the parent community.


Questions to Consider

In an article related to the topic of grades and grade inflation published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Alfie Kohn raised several questions that can be applied to rubrics and their application. Kohn posits that the current debate over grade inflation and standardized test scores is misdirected. He asserts that the focus ought to be on grading itself. In so doing Kohn has by inference focused the spotlight on rubrics and their application. Kohn has proposed that the debate on grading and grade inflation should focus on such questions as:  [Kohn, ibid.]

  1. What unexamined assumptions keep traditional grading in place?
  2. What forms of assessment might be less destructive?
  3. How can professors and teachers minimize the salience of grades in their classrooms so long as grades must still be given?
  4. If the artificial inducement of grades disappeared, what sort of teaching strategies might elicit authentic interest in learning?


Included in a response to questions 2-4 can be a consideration of rubrics.


Note: Examples of rubrics developed by former Framingham graduate students can be found on separate Creedon monograph.


Ipse dixi.t

Lawrence P. Creedon

Federated States of Micronesia, 2006.


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