Rubrics: More Than Just A Teaching Tool

by Maggie Ambrose

Photo by Walfer X | CC BY 2.0

More and more, grading rubrics are being touted as indispensable when designing learning outcomes for a course and an invaluable teaching tool. Consider Margaret Butler’s article, Resource-Based Learning and Course Design, in which Butler identifies clarity of purpose for students and instructors alike as a benefit of using rubrics in the legal research education setting.  As an added bonus, using rubrics as part of teaching pedagogy has been proven to assist student development of meta-cognitive skills and critical thinking.

This post however, is not about rubrics as a teaching tool. I focus instead on tackling implicit bias as an additional benefit of using rubrics in the grading process. I recently attended a workshop on implicit bias at Cornell and was able to take away some key points and apply them to my work as a law librarian and lecturer in law.  Here is what I learned:

(1) Implicit bias is not about racism.


Photo by Martin | CC BY-NC 2.0

Everyone has implicit bias, and for good reason.  It is part of our evolutionary design to take cognitive shortcuts and a natural reaction to stress and information overload. While there are certainly racists in this world, even the most open-minded, well-intentioned people have implicit bias that can negatively affect their decision making processes. It is therefore the responsibility of everyone to realize their own implicit bias and take steps to prevent it from negatively affecting judgment calls.

(2) Implicit bias can take many forms.

The case study used in the workshop ran the gamut of implicit bias. It highlighted how implicit bias can manifest itself in instances when an idea voiced by a person of color or a woman is glossed over until it is reaffirmed by a white man, or through the assumption that a woman candidate for hire with employment gaps had children and may not be as dedicated to a position.

Other insidious examples include ranking a job candidate with a “white sounding” name higher than a candidate with a “minority sounding” name even though  on paper they have the same qualifications, or simply preferring the white candidate because he or she is recommended by someone in a known network that also happens to be historically white- and male-dominated.

Again, it is important to stress here that in the case study none of the examples were meant to demonize a certain group. Everyone has implicit bias, including women and minorities. We are all, at different moments, the character who sees the world a certain way and doesn’t stop to realize that that the view may be very different from another perspective.

Women can be just as likely to make assumptions about other women as their male counterparts, and racial minorities can have preconceptions about other racial groups, whether majority or minority. Whether a person is male or female, a minority or part of the majority, bias can come about, not because of any ill intent, but simply out of situational factors that require people to fall back on stereotypes and preconceived notions shaped by past experience, to fill in information gaps or aide with cognitive overloads whether it is justified or not.

(3) Implicit bias can be reduced.

The good news is that the negative effects of implicit bias can be mitigated, which brings us back to rubrics. One of the strategies to minimize implicit bias is transparency. In the case of hiring practices, this means being clear on what will and will not be considered in the application process.

Similarly, in the case of grading, rubrics can lend transparency to the grading process to, identifying from the outset the specific criteria upon which students will be graded. The more specific the criteria, and the greater degree it is adhered too, the less room there is for the instructor to make assumptions about student work that may or may not be affected by the grader’s implicit bias. This holds true whether the instructor is grading papers, determining class participation, or calculating whether or not to give a student an extension on a project or penalize students for perceived lack of professionalism.

Other transferable strategies include ensuring that there is enough time for the grading/hiring process so that those making decisions don’t feel compelled to take mental short cuts, and being sure to think through every decision to provide justification and hold oneself accountable for those decisions.

Ultimately, preventing the negative consequences of implicit bias involves no small amount of self-reflection, and the act of considering the different lenses through which the world can be perceived is an exercise that instructors owe their students and themselves.

About margaret.jane.ambrose

I work as a Access & Research Services Librarian at Cornell Law. I am also a Board Member of ALLUNY.
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