Month: January 2018

Speaker Spotlight: Heather Weger on “The Good, the Bad, and the Rubric”

Interviewed by Victoria Fedorets on January 8th, 2018

Listen to our interview here:

Join us for our Voices from the Field speaker series on February 1, 2018 from 3:30-4:30. This will be a virtual presentation. To register, visit our webpage here: FEBRUARY 2018: The Good, the Bad, and the Rubric: Designing and Using Rubrics Effectively. 

A transcript of the talk is below:


Victoria Fedorets (VF): We would like to welcome our guest speaker, Dr. Heather Weger for our Spotlight interview prior to her talk on February 1st , 3:30 pm to 4:30 pm. If you do not mind, I would like to introduce you briefly and then you can tell us more about yourself, including how the topic of your talk is important to you.

Dr. Heather Weger (HW): OK. Great.

VF: Dr. Heather Weger has been in the English language field since 1999 when she began her English teaching career in Germany. She holds a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from Georgetown University, as well as two Master of Arts degrees (one in Teaching in TESOL & Bilingual Education from Georgetown University; one in Adult and Higher Education from University of Oklahoma). She has been teaching full-time at Georgetown since 2007, and is currently an Associate Teaching Professor in their English Language Program housed in the English Language Center. She has presented on numerous topics in invited workshops and lectures, as well as at international, national, and regional TESOL and linguistics conferences. The author of multiple articles, Dr. Weger’s research focuses on effective teaching strategies as well as the social and co-constructed nature of language learning and language teaching. Thank you very much for being here with us today and thank you for your time today.

VF: Please tell us a little bit about yourself, including how the topic of your talk is important to you.

HW: Sure. As you just mentioned, I’ve been in the English language field for approximately 17 years. I did start out teaching English overseas in Germany, then moved to DC in order to complete my doctoral work in applied linguistics at Georgetown University. Though I’ve taught some courses elsewhere, I’ve predominately been an Associate Teaching Professor in the English Language Center at Georgetown where the majority of my students are international learners of English whose goals are to prepare themselves to enter US universities for undergraduate or graduate programs.


Now, the short explanation about the importance of this topic for me is that I have a love-hate relationship to the domain of assessment, and an interest in exploring the tension between its pros and cons. Assessment, depending on how it is defined, occurs continually when engaging with learners. For the sake of the time, this episode of Voices from the Field will limit its focus to discussing the grading mechanisms of formal assessment measures such as grading essays and presentations. And while I believe that well-planned assessment facilitates learning (hence, the reason I love it), creating and enacting that well-planned assessment is really often daunting and unpleasant for both students and teachers (hence, I hate it!).


So, more specifically for this particular talk, the inspiration was borne out of a tension I began to notice early on in my teaching career. Sometimes a student could talk fluently for 15 minutes, but say nothing worth listening to. Another student might have interesting insights to share, but poor delivery skills. So I found myself struggling to decide how could I codify these realities and honor the strengths that each student had while also drawing their attention to their areas for growth. A good grading tool will differentiate high and low performing students. I needed to find or develop such tools.


VF: What is a rubric? What are some of the defining features of this sort of assessment tool?


HW: A rubric is one type of tool for grading assignments. This means a rubric is not, in and of itself, “the” assessment instrument, but rather it is one part of a larger assessment cycle that includes not only the rubric (meaning the grading mechanism), but it also the assessment task or event (such as a student essay).


In our current national and international educational landscape, rubrics have become one mechanism for making explicit what was once a seemingly arbitrary connection between student performance and the student’s grade.


In my Voices from the Field talk, I’ll outline two defining features: the categories of the rubric and the descriptors for each category. In the talk we’ll examine several examples that illustrate these two features, the categories and the descriptors.


VF: Are there certain types of assignments that tend to be better suited to the use of rubrics than others, or can you create a rubric for just about anything?


HW: You actually can create a rubric for any activity that you have the ability to divide into parts. Having said that, it is likely more trouble than it’s worth for traditional assessment formats, like multiple-choice tests. So, it is mostly used for evaluating a range of written products (like essays or discussion board posts) or speaking events (like presentations or interactive conversations) or blended formats (like poster sessions) that have both speaking and written components.


VF: In regard to the students, in your experience, how do students tend to react to the use of rubrics? What do they value about them, and how much of a learning curve is involved in making effective use of the feedback they provide?


HW: It’s a really good question. Frankly, depending on the details contained in the rubric, the learning curve for students can be high. And, for some students, a rubric is “too detailed.” These students prefer a simple “holistic grade,” and aren’t as concerned with the finer-grained analysis that a rubric provides. For others, the rubric is a critical step in the ongoing learning process; the rubric becomes part of their internal dialogue and planning as they plan for a new assessment moment, like writing a new essay. Certainly, either way, students benefit from multiple exposures to the same (or similar) rubrics across a semester. This principle can even be extended to the use of similar rubrics across different classes if your teaching context allows for teacher collaboration or if your teaching context is a multi-level or multi-semester program. So, repetition and reuse of the same or similar rubrics definitely is one way to mitigate the challenges associated with students learning from a rubric.


VF: The title of your talk begins “The Good, the Bad, and the Rubric…” which seems to imply that rubrics have the potential to be either good or bad, neither, both, or something in between. So, how can rubrics be good, how can rubrics be bad?


HW: This is the fun question, I think. The “simple” answer is that rubrics have advantages and disadvantages, and it is the way in which they are designed and used that we find the balance between those “good” and “bad” sides.


From the student perspective, a rubric allows one to break down complex output, such as an essay or presentation, into its subcomponents and corresponding descriptions. This breakdown allows the student to more easily understand the grade and identify in which of the subcomponents there is the greatest need for improvement. This process enhances the transparency of grading and at the same time facilitates learner progress, and this is the biggest pro, or “good side,” of the rubric.


Now, the “bad,” or negative, side for students is that a fully fleshed out rubric can be difficult to parse, especially for lower-level students who receive a rubric in a language that is not their native language. For example, let’s say you divide a presentation into 3 subcomponents, or categories: (1) organization and content, (2) fluency and pronunciation, and (3) grammar/vocabulary. For each of these three categories, there are typically 5 descriptors. So, this results in a rubric that has 15 explanations, which can be overwhelming for learners to intake.


So, the corollary negative for the educator is that quality rubrics take time to develop and, while theoretically make a subjective process objective, they are still, to some degree, subjective. In the Voices from the Field Talk, I’ll share some ways of minimizing this (and other) challenges for using rubrics.



VF: What is your top takeaway for using or designing rubrics?


HW: My top takeaway is that designing rubrics is a reiterative process; so, do expect to revise your rubric. Also, don’t think of rubrics as being objective; the choice of the categories (subcomponents) of the rubric as well as the explanations that are contained in the descriptors are part of a subjective process. Precisely because of the inherent subjectivity, it’s important to think of rubric design as reiterative; so, we’re back to my number 1 point: do expect to revise your rubric.


VF: Last bonus question, what is your source of motivation? How do you keep yourself motivated?


HW: Lots of coffee (laughing). I think, quite seriously though, the responsibility to help students achieve progress in their language skills, and I thrive on seeing students become empowered. When the student unlocks some new insight into understanding and/or using English, it is very rewarding. Occasionally, those students recognize that I’ve played a part in facilitating that awareness, that new knowledge, and they say a simple “thank you.” That “thank you” is not necessary for my dedication to my field, but it is a refreshing reminder that what we do and how we do it matters in the lives of our students and that keeps me motivated; that…and coffee.


VF: That and coffee ( laughing). That’s wonderful. Thank you again, Dr. Weger, for your vigorous brief talk prior to you talk here on February 1st, when in this practice-oriented session, Dr. Weger will draw on principles developed in her use of rubrics with English language learners, providing examples from several rubrics for productive tasks, including rubrics for written essays, a traditional oral presentation, and a group-based discussion task. Based on an analysis of these samples, she will identify advantages of rubrics and provide tips on how to avoid potential pitfalls. All the attendees receive a handout with these examples.


Thank you so much again, Dr. Weger for finding the time out of your busy schedule to share your insights with us today and we are looking forward to your talk.


HW: Thank you also, Victoria, and thank you for having me on a program today. I look forward to discussing these issues more in February.


Join us for our Voices from the Field speaker series on February 1, 2018 from 3:30-4:30. This will be a virtual presentation. To register, visit our webpage here: FEBRUARY 2018: The Good, the Bad, and the Rubric: Designing and Using Rubrics Effectively.