The Power of Student Designed Rubrics

student designed rubricsWhen students design their own assessments, they get a tremendous amount of ownership over their learning. They can utilize their own interests and passions to demonstrate their understanding of concepts. Engagement goes up, and they develop some really creative ideas. For example, I have had students do final projects on social media, like Instagram or Twitter. Some have created their own websites and podcasts. Another one started work on a musical. And finally, after 21 years of teaching, I had a student create an interpretive dance.

However, the big problem is this: how do you grade a bunch of projects that are so fundamentally different? One rubric won’t fit all of these projects for a couple of reasons:

  1. There is no way that I can measure the success of something like a dance and something like a podcast with the same instrument.
  2. I’m not an expert in a lot of the areas that students are working in. They are, either from prior experience or because they figured it out along the way.

Student Designed Rubrics

The solution is to have students design their own rubrics. By doing so, they take ownership of what quality work looks like for whatever they’re doing. And this actually makes the grading easier, which I’ll get to below.

The rubrics below are from a recent project in which students were reading novels they selected themselves and designed their own assessments. They started working on the projects at the same time they started reading and created their rubrics once they had decided what they wanted to create.

Where to Start

Of course there are factors that I want them to be assessed on, so I don’t give them total control. For this project students had to demonstrate how the author of the novel explored a particular theme of their choosing.Therefore, I wanted to assess them on their understanding of theme, as well as their ability to find support from the text. There isn’t a specific state standard that addresses audience. I created one because I wanted students to focus on a particular audience as they designed their projects.

As a district we had already done the work to develop mastery rubrics from the state standards. I grabbed a few that we had developed and tweaked the language when needed to make it more specific to the task. I followed the format of mastery rubrics: achieving is what you get if you meet the standard, extending requires going above and beyond, and developing falls short of meeting the standard. (I assume not seen is self explanatory.)

project rubric
The three categories I chose. I did not come up with these descriptions. Other teachers in the district did.

Since I wanted the project to be out of 80 points, although it didn’t really matter what the point value was because it was 30% of their grade.

This left 50 points for the students to divide up as they saw fit to create their rubric. They had to have five new categories, but they didn’t have to all be worth 10 points if they wanted to emphasize certain things over others.  I told them to consider the following:

Skills: What are the skills that you had to learn or had to already possess in order to do the project successfully? Have you demonstrated them?

Quality work: What does your work need to look like in order to be considered high quality? How can you measure that? They may not have the resources to make something truly professional, but there are some production values that they can always employ.

Publication: Is your work in a place where people who are interested can access it? Have you tried to get it in front of those people?

Quantity: Is there a certain number of something you’d like to create, such as blog posts, podcasts, or videos?

I shared my initial rubric with the students, had them add their categories, and share it back with me. We then had a conference about them to make sure everything would work well and we were both happy with the end result.

In some cases I thought that the students had set hard to reach goals and encouraged them to dial it back. In other cases they had two skills in one category, and failure in one would make it impossible to get a perfect score even if they nailed the second. In that case, I told them to break it up into two new categories.

An Example Student Designed Rubric

Here’s an example of the categories a student designed for her project. She created a soundtrack of sorts in which she selected songs to accompany certain parts of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. However, she didn’t just select the songs. She learned how to play them on the piano because that’s her passion.

She had two things at play here. She wanted a category the captured the technical aspects of the performance, but she also wanted a website that was clear and easy to navigate, which involved figuring out how to embed the songs on the site. Here’s what she came up with:

sample rubricsample rubric

If you’d like to see what she did, you can check it out here.

The Final Grade

Once students hand in their project and I look at them, they bring a rubric to me that they score based on what grade they think they deserved. We have a five to ten minute conversation where together we figure out the score we both think they earned.

It’s important to remember at this point the learning has already taken place. There’s no point in being too critical at this point (in fact, I end up being pretty generous.) And my experience has been that the kids are pretty honest, and in a lot of cases harder on themselves, than I would be.


There are some aspects to this that you’ll have to manage. It is of course possible to game the system and set the bar low so you don’t have to do much work. That’s when you have to push them to do more than they think they can do or want to do. I also had students that wanted to change their rubrics after their first submission because they changed their project in some fundamental way. I didn’t have a problem with this, but you run the risk that they are changing it simply because they can’t budget their time to get everything accomplished. I recommend only allowing one revision, and only before a certain date.

If you’d like to read more on using design thinking in the ELA classroom; check out these posts:

Getting Started With Student Generated Assessments in ELA

I’ve Been Thinking About Design Thinking

Student Project Think Tanks

David Rickert is a high school English teacher in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. He has been teaching for over 20 years and has taught virtually every grade and every subject. David is passionate about developing lessons that make difficult language arts subjects fun and engaging. He is also an author on Teachers Pay Teachers



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