What would doubting Thomas do? Some thoughts on assessment

Dr Mel Duffy, Lecturer in Sociology & Sexuality Studies, School of Nursing & Human Sciences


Grading examinations or assignments has become problematic in recent years.  There was a time where grading was perceived as being the stepping stone enabling students to become better communicators through writing on their field of study but more importantly on a subset within that field of study.  It was not based on the banking method of learning but on the fluidity of knowledge whereby what was learned in one subset directly and indeed at times indirectly influenced the next subset. Within this system students produced work by an allotted time, it was marked and in return the student received feedback.  Upon receiving a lower grade than expected the student would have been permitted to resubmit taking into consideration the pointers that had been discussed.  This however would appear today to be the stuff of nostalgia.  No longer do academics have the time to accept re-submissions rather they are now termed as re-sits.  The language surrounding students’ ability has moved from reality to that of the rarefied world of potentiality without due regard to the authenticity of that potential in the first place.   Therein lies the problem.  Do rubrics really encourage ongoing learning in the student? Are they really a system of empowerment for the lecturer?  Or is the true reality they exist, that is rubrics, as the Berlin wall between the academy and the legal system.

If we are to assume that rubrics are aids to the development of a robust curriculum then are we suggesting that the tried and tested methods of the past produced less than robust results.   In actual fact there appears to be little questioning of the validity for the usage of rubrics particular in the constant chatter in the educational setting that increasingly has gone public that is the ‘dumbing down’ of our degrees.  If we are constrained by the rubric for assessment are we failing to recognize the creative, once in a life time brilliant mind before us as the rubric is too tight to allow for that?  We are ruled by convention, teaching students to produce in a format that sits with the ‘high impact’ output requirement of academia failing to recognize that within the journal of such ‘high standards’ rarely do more than 10 actually read the article but it makes the producer and by extension institution look good.  Marx suggests that new knowledge is the pushing of an already existing idea into a direction never thought of before.  Within this way of thinking will we the academic fail the person who does just that as it does not sit within the confines of a particular box.

What emanates from this is my real fear of failing the student, the one or ones that do not fit the mold but rather sit outside the box looking in and discovering that there is no place for their thought processes.  My concern arises from my experiences of dealing with 1st year students who struggle with the idea that we ‘kinda like to know what they think’ and then confine them in their writing by our grading tools.  Therefore I am the doubting Thomas of the rubric who may in reality only be converted upon its usages or indeed be able to adequately answer the statement posed through reflecting on their usage.

Editor’s Note: Anyone interested in the whole idea of rubrics and whether there are better alternatives might like to read this fascinating article on comparative judgement.



Panadero, E.; Tapia, J. A. & Huertas, J. A. 2012. Rubrics and Self-Assessment Scripts Effects on Self-Regulation, Learning and Self-Efficacy in Secondary Education. Learning and Individual Differences Vol. 22 pp.806–813

Rezaei, A. R. & Lovorn, M. 2010.  Reliability and Validity of Rubrics for Assessment through Writing.  Assessing Writing Vol. 15 pp.18–39

James, P. W. 1997. What’s Wrong–and What’s Right–with Rubrics. Educational Leadership, Vol. 55 No.2 p72-75


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