Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Rubrics

I’m hooked on rubrics. And I have one of my colleagues, Keith Kenney, to thank for my addiction. Kenney is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. At a department meeting last September, Kenney shared his ideas about grading with rubrics. A rubric, or grading matrix, is a way to codify specific elements of student work, such as photographs, which do not easily lend themselves to points and percentages.

For example, it is easy to grade a multiple-choice test—if there are 50 questions and the student gets 46 correct answers, the score is 92 percent, which would probably translate into an A, depending on the point spread listed in the course syllabus. But how to grade photographs? What makes one photograph, or set of photographs, worth an A, whereas another gets only a B or a C? And how do you explain this grading system to your students?

What Teachers Say

In the past, I explained my grading system to my students as follows. An A is easy for me to determine, because my jaw drops and I go “Wow!” when I see the photograph. (Some teachers refer to this as the “wow factor.”) An F and a D are also easy: F means the student failed to turn in the work on time, and D means there is something so obviously wrong with the photographs (exposure, focus, misunderstanding the assignment) that the project needs to be reshot.

A grade of C is also relatively easy, because at our university a C represents average work. So, if there is nothing special about the photographs—for example, if they are merely snapshots—they will receive a C grade. The hard grade to assign, I told my students, is a B—the photographs show effort and creativity, but they lack the wow factor. In other words, they are better than average, but they don’t reach the standard of excellence.

What Students Hear

The advantage of this grading system is that it is simple—at least for the teacher, who may have several hundred photographs to look at and grade per semester. The disadvantage of this system is that students don’t understand it. Many students equate a C with an F. They may be under pressure to maintain a certain grade-point average for financial aid; parents and peer pressure may also add to their grade anxiety.

Also, students sometimes feel they should get a good grade for merely fulfilling the requirements of an assignment, whether or not they have made excellent images. And in a few cases, there is simply a misunderstanding of the grading method—one student wrote in an evaluation that my definition of A work was that it needed to be as good as the photographs in my portfolio. What I said, of course, was that A work should be the type of photographs the student would want in her portfolio.


A rubric, or grading matrix, is simply a table—you can easily create one in Microsoft Word. The rows contain specific elements of the assignment, and the columns contain how well the photograph(s) handle each of the elements. Examples of rubrics and some helpful tools to create your own are at RubiStar.

Here is an example from a recent assignment in my Photovisual Communications course at the University of South Carolina. The assignment was to shoot a three-picture photo essay. The row headings are as follows: Assignment Requirements, Assignment Theme: Photo Essay, Variety, Lighting, Composition, Emotional Response, Photoshop Adjustments, Image Quality, and Technical Issues (Resolution, File Size, File Naming, and File Format). The columns are labeled A, B, C, and D. The A column is a description of an excellent solution to the challenge posed by each element of the assignment. The B heading is a satisfactory solution, the C heading is an average solution, and the D heading is an unsatisfactory solution.

For example, here is what is in the A column for Assignment Requirements: “Photographs show complete understanding of assignment requirements.” Here is the D column: “Photographs show no understanding of assignment requirements.” The B and C columns represent in-between statements.

This type of language is repeated for each row of the matrix. Here is the A column for Assignment Theme: Photo Essay: “Essay has a clearly identifiable theme and/or message; it has a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. No photograph is wasted and each photograph is needed to tell the story. The photographs are artistically excellent.” Anyone who has ever taken a survey (“strongly agree,” “somewhat agree,” etc.) will soon get the hang of writing statements appropriate for use in rubrics.

A Lot of Work, Big Dividends

This sounds like a lot of work—and it is. But it pays big dividends. First, it challenges you, as the teacher, to look at each assignment and determine its goals: what are you trying to get the students to learn, and why? In the process of creating the rubrics for my Photovisual Communications course, I found I needed to go back and rewrite all of the assignments, to make them consistent with their respective rubrics.

In the past, my assignments stated the goals I wanted the students to achieve, and then described how they should go about shooting their photographs to achieve them successfully. Now, each assignment has headings that match the row headings on my rubrics. For example, the photo-essay assignment has an extensive description of the Assignment Requirements, including Web sites with examples of photo essays and a hypothetical example of how I would shoot a photo essay about an artist working in her studio. Each remaining heading generally takes its language from the A column in the rubric. The goals are clear.

A second dividend is that the rubric makes clear to the students how their photographs will be graded. Notice that I said their “photographs.” Early on, when I was first trying to create a rubric, I found myself writing “the photographer,” as in “the photographer shows complete understanding of assignment requirements.” But this felt wrong to me. As a teacher, I am not grading the student; I am grading the work. I think this is an important distinction, especially in creative fields such as photography, design, and writing.

As another one of my colleagues, Scott Farrand, says, we teach in a “show me” environment. A student says she is a good photographer, designer, writer? OK, show me. All I have to go on, as a teacher, is the student’s work. So that’s what I grade. If a student is disappointed in her grade, she shouldn’t interpret the grade to mean she is a bad student or a bad photographer—with the rubric, she can clearly see which elements of the photographs were successful and which were not.

The third dividend is that using rubrics brings a measure of objectivity to what otherwise might seem to students as a subjective—and therefore possibly unfair—enterprise. In other words, using rubrics eliminates (I hope) any thought by the student that her grade was based more on my personal likes and dislikes than on the quality of her work.

Of course, there is still the wow factor, or what I label in my rubric as Emotional Response. Because I teach in a school of journalism and mass communications, I try to emphasize the communicative power of photographs. If an image is flat and lifeless, chances are it will not have much communicative value. I also tell my students that—if they choose photography as a profession—their images will have to compete in the visual marketplace, where thousands of images vie daily for our attention. In that case, their photographs will be judged by the rubric of real life.

2 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Rubrics”

  1. I use a similar rubric when grading. For every assigment I specify areas in which I look to evaluate their work. I then score each category (i.e. follwed directions, tells a story, maximize depth of field, caption well writtent and adds context,...) based on the items listed below.

    How work is evaluated:
    A = The work has exceptional merit: superior vision, creativity, initiative in problem solving, thoughtfulness and effort, and fulfills all assignment requirements and goals in an exceptional and significant manner. Technical quality of work is excellent. It follows assignment instructions.
    B = Work is well done. Work exhibits good vision, creativity, initiative in problem solving, thoughtfulness and effort, and fulfills assignment requirements and goals in a better-than-average manner; however, vision, and/or framing, and/or timing, and/or aesthetic quality, and/or writing could be improved.
    C = Work is of average quality. Work exhibits acceptable but average vision, creativity, initiative in problem solving, thoughtfulness and effort, and fulfills assignment requirements and goals in an average manner and contents content of interest.
    D = Work shows a barely adequate effort. Work demonstrates serious effort to fulfill the assignment requirements and goals but is unacceptable and poorly executed. Or, work shows little effort and does not meet professional standards. The work demonstrates that the student tried to fulfill the assignment but had serious technical problems or did not carry through with enough effort to produce a usable assignment.
    F = Student turned in something, but the work is unacceptable. Work does not fulfill assignment requirements and goals and demonstrates unacceptable effort and results. Or, work is incomplete technically, in content, or through late submission.

  2. Yo! David,
    that's a huge improvement over your old system. Kudos on recognizing the need and attending to it, and yes, the rubric of real life, well said.

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