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In my opinion

A universal marking rubric

Our students like having rubrics for their assignments, but we couldn’t find a good example. So we created one.


Here is the dilemma: our younger students really insist on rubrics. But, as instructors, we worry that a rubric could stifle creativity and lead the mind from “doing your best job” to “satisfying what the prof wants.”

With this in mind, we have developed a set of criteria that a good rubric should fulfil:

  1. Provides sufficient clarity to satisfy student desire for guidance and transparency.
  2. Does not constrain the freedom to be bold and original.
  3. Communicates clearly that we mark from the bottom up (starting with 0%) and not by deductions (starting at 100%).
  4. Is applicable to blogs, essays and presentations (it saves time and increases confidence if a single marking scheme can be used again and again by students, teaching assistants and professors).
  5. Related: covers all key components of good scholarly efforts.
  6. Further related: easy to grasp and remember.
  7. Ideally, ordered from the aspirational to the mundane.
  8. Fun is better than dull!

We were not able to find a simple and appealing rubric with such features and ended up creating and testing our own. The resulting OSCAR scheme, below, fulfills the eight criteria.  And we have found over the years that it is much liked by students and TAs alike:

(O)riginality: Is the text (or project) original, discerning, interesting? Strive for creativity, novelty, critical thinking and interest to reader (20%).

(S)tyle: Is the text proofread and ready-to-go (is the presentation or project polished)? Strive for good grammar and format (paragraphs and pagination) and careful visual presentation (20%).

(C)larity: Can I remember the main points after putting down the page (or after the presentation or pitch)? Strive for clear sentences, clear structure and good flow (20%).

(A)rgument: Am I convinced? Are the story and argument sound? Strive to be convincing and provide depth by showing your background work (20%).

(R)elevance: Does the text fit the assignment and follow guidelines? Strive to be on topic and respect all guidelines, including length (20%).

An aside, since we are working at a bilingual university, it’s very helpful that the acronym still works in French (if one is generous with “relevance,” given its Old French and Latin origins):

(O)riginalité : Le texte (ou le projet) est-il original, judicieux et intéressant? Recherchez la créativité, la nouveauté, l’esprit critique et l’intérêt du lecteur (20%).

(S)tyle : Le texte a été révisé et peut être soumis (la présentation ou le projet sont-ils soignés)? Surveillez la grammaire et le format (paragraphes et pagination) et veillez à une présentation visuelle soignée (20%).

(C)larté : Puis-je me souvenir des idées principales après avoir déposé le texte (ou après la présentation)? Formuler vos idées avec des phrases et une structure claires, en suivant une séquence limpide (20%).

(A)rgument : Suis-je moi-même convaincu? Le récit et l’argumentation sont-ils solides? Efforcez-vous d’être convaincant et d’étoffer vos affirmations en explicitant les démarches de votre travail de recherche (20%).

(R)elevance-pertinence : Le texte remplit-il la mission demandée et suit-il les directives? Efforcez-vous de pas dévier du sujet et de respecter toutes les consignes, y compris la longueur (20%).

The scheme provides sufficient guidance without dumbing down the work. It starts with originality, which is aspirational (and perhaps increasingly valuable, now that knowledge systems become capable of replacing experts). It ends with relevance, which provides some comfort since that requirement is easily satisfied by the student.

In the above, we indicate an equal weight of 20% for each of the five components. It would be easy to emphasize, say, the importance of argument by designating 30%, perhaps at the cost of reducing style to 10%. We tried that and fell back to the simple equal weight approach.  Simplicity is often a virtue.

The pictures of “Oscar the Glamorous” on top and “Oscar the Grouch” at the bottom are memorable and motivating. Do you want to be a star (the top picture shows the Oscar trophy of the film industry’s Academy Awards) or an extra (the bottom picture shows the Oscar character who resides in a trash can in the children’s TV show Sesame Street)?

We believe the scheme is highly universal and can be used in many contexts. Give it a try on this very text – it will work!

We used our OSCAR scheme (in the English version only) over four years for different purposes, with different teaching assistants and different students. As they say in the film industry, we are giving it “two thumbs up!” Perhaps it could be useful to you?

Marc Saner is a professor and chair of the department of geography, environment and geomatics at the University of Ottawa. Ally Gray is an evaluation officer at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Stephanie Woodworth is a third-year PhD student and teaching assistant at U of Ottawa.

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  1. Heather / March 9, 2021 at 21:43

    If a student is unsure how to approach an assignment, they can take the initiative to either meet with you during office hours with some well-thought out questions and/or they can take the instructions to the academic skills centre and get some assistance breaking down what is being asked of them. Pandering to cop outs does not promote effective learning. Even providing a generic rubric reinforces the demands students feel entitled to make.

    It is time professors evaluate the function of education and start responding to such demands in a way which promotes effective learning. What does demanding a rubric look like upon graduation and in the workforce? Are these students going to demand rubrics of their employers? Are they going to be paralysed with a lack of self-confidence because the working world declines to prop them up with all the crutches they’ve been showered with in university? The value employers used to see in university graduates was that they had initiative, thought critically to develop an approach to a task, communicate THEIR ideas effectively and solve problems using independent thinking.

    Students can insist all they want. The key function of pursuing a university degree is to develop independent thinking and critical analysis. Providing a rubric undermines this, as it merely gives them a recipe to follow in order to achieve the grade they want. Why reinforce their demands by giving them any rubric? Why not have the courage of your convictions and apply effective instruction, perhaps helping them to analyse the instructions to determine how they relate to the course material? You know, teach.

    If you look up the research of rubrics, their use value is in co-constructed learning. They could be beneficial to help students to establish roles and responsibilities within a group and develop criteria for evaluating the contributions of their group members. That is completely different from giving them a recipe to follow for completion of their assignments, which are intended to be an opportunity for them to showcase their mastery of material. The more we give in to demands which undermine the value of a university education, the more demands will be made.

    Next up, are we going to get an article on how to accommodate the upgrading movement without appearing to do so?

    • Marc Saner / March 16, 2021 at 16:08

      Thanks for the comment. I share the worry — which is why I prefer this generic rubric over the “cookbook” students seem to want. It provides just a bit of guidance but not too much. We did not find that it stifled innovation, critical thinking, initiative, creativity …

      We found that the OSCAR scheme was also helpful for teaching assistants when discussing marking standards in large classes. This ultimately leads to greater comparability and consistency among the marking done by TAs. Personally, I would not use a rubric in a seminar setting and certainly not for grad students, but that’s a matter of personal approach.

      Should the university change? Not to diss conservative values entirely, I have faith in change. I believe that new generations bring their own approach, and they also bring real value that we may not yet fully grasp. Us older people have to lead, yes, but we also have to adapt, and increasingly so.

      • Kim Solga / April 26, 2021 at 15:13

        Thanks for this piece – I’m saving this rubric right now for trial next academic year!

        I’ve been using rubrics for a few years now across all my classes, and I find them really helpful for two reasons: first, because students need to know that, while inherently subjective on one level, marking work in the arts and social sciences is based on core expectations, and those expectations should be clear for all; second, because I need to be able to test myself against the rubric, to ensure I’m giving students fair grades for their work based on my own stated expectations, regardless of my personal feelings, and that the grading is comparable one paper or project to another.

        Heather: At their root, rubrics are about ensuring our standards are transparent and our expectations clear. This is by no means a basic byproduct of “just teaching”, nor is it at all equitable to expect students to simply come talk to the prof about what they wish to write or create and what’s expected. Check that assumption: it will be the case for students who have been privileged with access and having their voices heard throughout their academic careers, but not necessarily or even likely the case for students who have felt marginalized during their academic careers. On another level, then, rubrics are, or can be, a valuable tool for equity and inclusion in the classroom and have a role to play in classroom decolonization.

        • Marc Saner / August 11, 2021 at 14:13

          Thank you, Kim, I agree.

          The EDI expectations are increasing pressure driver and one could even cast the call for rubrics under the topic “transparency and justice”: if you have goal in mind, then please disclose it a priori …

          But I am very reluctant to translate the call for transparency into a cookbook.

          So, giving them a set of criteria on the sweet spot between vague expectations and stifling rules remains my goal.

          Many thanks for your interesting thoughts.

  2. Sharon O'Sullivan / March 26, 2021 at 21:50

    I very much liked the article, but I would personally be inclined to alter a few things in it because I find that categories like “style”, “clarity” and “argument” have some conceptually overlapping features….For instance:

    1. The “sentences and structure” part of Clarity sounds a bit like the “paragraphs” part of style – When you talk about “remembering the main points” in Clarity, it sounds to me like you’re talking about the building blocks of the basic argument thread in the deliverable, which is presumably part of the A for Argument criterion

    2. Then your A for Argument criterion talks not only about how your craft/organize your argument, but about the evidence presence to buttress it, which is really what you mean to address by your R for Relevance for Criteria

    So, for the above reasons, while I actually love your Oscar idea, if I used it (and I think I might), I would probably rename/reorganize some of the letter/criterion meanings as follows:

    C for “Clarity of Argument”, including clear/logical flow
    A for “Adherence” to assignment objectives, and
    R for “Research” effort.

    Hopefully those alterations can translate into French just as well). And I would retain the “S for Style”, in relation to appearances, like formatting, polished visual presentation, grammar, etc.

    • Marc Saner / April 7, 2021 at 09:49

      Thanks for engaging, Sharon, interesting ideas! We hope that OSCAR will evolve to greater universality. We have used it for a while, but we are still learning how it pans out in new contexts.

      One nice thing: we have a cross-faculty social innovation initiative on campus (VENTURE) and the manager includes OSCAR in the toolkit.

      Hard to avoid indicators these days. Even in the “real world” of jobs, it’s increasingly normal to have formal job descriptions, formal performance indicators. Even us profs … publish or perish, our most famous rubric! Start counting …