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5 Student-Centered Ways to Use Rubrics

Rubrics have so many possible uses for secondary teachers. They not only make students aware of grading criteria and help you to assess projects, presentations, and writing in a somewhat consistent fashion but also provide opportunities for student ownership. Using rubrics in high school can help improve instruction. Make rubrics meaningful by using them to create student-centered learning opportunities.

Welcome to “This or That,” a monthly chat where the authors of Reading and Writing Haven and Language Arts Classroom cover different ways of approaching common decisions in the ELA classroom.

1. Use rubrics to teach students to track their own growth.

Teachers can teach students to track their own growth by using rubrics. Over the past few years, the pressure for student participation in data tracking has increased. Rubrics are a simple way to make that happen.

I encourage my students to be active in the learning process by showing them how to use pre- and post-assessments to measure progress. When students complete a sample essay for me at the beginning of the year, we record areas of strength and skills that need improvement. Then, we set goals. Conferencing with students creates a partnership, which helps motivate them to invest their time and energy toward making sure those goals are achieved.

Rubrics that are clear in design help students to truly understand their growth. Many of my students struggle with grammar, and it always surprises them when they see their score on the grammar diagnostic assessment improve from a 50% to an 80%, for example.

2. Use rubrics to differentiate for diverse ability levels.

I’ve experimented with many different kinds of rubrics. When time allows, I enjoy differentiating rubrics for student ability levels.

What does this look like? 

When our school temporarily collapsed ability tracking, I had special education students sitting in the same room as advanced placement pupils. When it came time for writing a research paper, I needed a way to differentiate for readiness levels. The solution I found most effective was to create three different versions of the original rubric. I then allowed students to select the rubric they felt challenged them most appropriately. Of course, students sometimes needed guidance and encouragement to make wise decisions, but most students surprised me by choosing a more rigorous rubric than I would have assigned them.

Another way I’ve differentiated rubrics to empower students is allowing them to create the criteria and expectations. For example, when my students complete a vocabulary choice board, I allow students to design the rubric because each of them is selecting different vocabulary words and assignments. Because students create the rubric themselves and get approval from me, they are more willing to do the work, and they often excel.

Using rubrics in high school can help improve instruction and learning. Make rubrics meaningful by using them to create student-centered learning opportunities. #rubrics #highschoolenglish

3. Use rubrics to keep students focused during an assessment.

When students are completing an open-ended assessment, it’s easier to keep them focused on the guidelines if I include a rubric built into the page. For instance, during book club, I’ll periodically check for reading progress and understanding with journal prompts. On the bottom of the page, I include three writing categories I look to assess: ideas, organization, and conventions.

Including the rubric in plain sight at the bottom of the page reminds students to check their own work during brainstorming, drafting, and revising. Students know exactly what they need to do, and – even better – the rubric has to be short and concise, so it makes for quicker grading.

4. Use rubrics to develop a common vocabulary.

Teachers use different jargon. For instance, do you use the term thesis statement or claim? Concession or counterargument and rebuttal? Unless you have the same students from year-to-year, it’s important to develop a common vocabulary.

To make rubrics student-friendly, they should use language specific to what you will discuss throughout the school year. In my classroom, we use the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing, so my writing pre-assessment reflects that.

Part of empowering students and putting them in the driver’s seat of their own education is making sure they fully understand our expectations. Rubrics can do that. Before writing an essay, for instance, we study and analyze examples. During this time, we use the same rubric to evaluate the examples as I use when I grade their papers.

All of my students appreciate this clarity and structure, especially my struggling writers when we write our argumentative research paragraphs. Because we’ve established a common foundation, my students don’t look at me like I’m from a different planet when I tell them to revise because their rough draft is missing a concession statement.

5. Use rubrics to work on developing criteria and self-evaluating.

One of the reading strategy skills I teach my freshmen is that of evaluating texts. I always teach them that the first step in evaluating is first establishing criteria for that particular text. What makes…a meme humorous? …an open letter impactful? …a tweet witty? …a book a classic? …an essay exemplary?

When students create their own rubrics, they are learning how to develop criteria and evaluate their own work, like with this picture-based poetry brainstorming assignment. Students appreciate knowing that this skill is imperative in life. They can’t simply walk into their future boss’s office and say, “Our evaluation tool needs improvement” without having specific ideas for what criteria need to be changed as well as what would make each aspect better.

Much of the conversation surrounding rubrics in secondary education revolves around types. I’d argue that the design is not as important as the way the rubric is utilized. Is it simply serving as a vehicle for teachers to assess student work, or does it double as a way to put students in control of their own learning and to improve instruction? The type of rubric should be determined by the desired instructional outcome.

Looking for an alternate view? Lauralee from Language Arts Classroom lays out her process for how to create meaningful rubrics in this sister post.


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