An Empathetic Approach to Writing Rubrics


“Response shows a complete lack of understanding.”
“Piece had no style or voice.”
“Position is incoherent.”
“Thesis is utterly incompetent.”

This is some of the discouraging feedback that we found in an interdisciplinary, cross-institutional survey of assessment rubrics that we collected from online sources and from classes taught on our own campus. There is no question that rubrics play an important role in effective teaching. As Wolf and Stevens (2007) observe, “Rubrics improve teaching, provide feedback to students, contribute to sound assessment, and are an important source of information for program improvement” (p. 3). To achieve all these goals effectively, however, rubrics need to be written with a sensitivity to the impact that aggressive and judgmental language can have on learners. The quasi-objective sheen and abstract universality of rubric terminology may invite educators to fill a rubric with language that they would be reluctant to use when giving individual feedback to a particular student. But for a student receiving feedback from a rubric, the message that some aspect of their writing and thinking is “utterly incompetent” must necessarily feel like a personal criticism. Because it explicates qualities associated with student outcomes on both sides of the continuum from “good” to “bad,” the rubric format requires educators to articulate negative qualities in a hypothetical piece of student work. In a representative article about rubrics, Ragupathi and Lee (2020) insist that students “need to understand what excellent work is and what poor work is” (p. 73), but applying an abstract description of “poor” work to the actual work of an individual student can have an objectifying effect, especially if those descriptions are written without sensitivity to their emotional tone and implications.  Some students, for instance, will not only find “poor” insulting but equate it with socioeconomic stigma. It may sound like, “Your work is poor because you are poor.”

Thinking about rubric language from this perspective is part of a wider project of adopting a “trauma-informed” approach to the language used in educational settings and across society generally. Linn (2020) explains that “most people have experienced trauma of some kind” and that “trauma-informed language includes using words that don’t trigger” the people you’re addressing. The kind of accusatory rubric language quoted at the beginning of the article has the potential to evoke painful, personal associations in students who have experienced trauma and even inflict re-traumatization, which “can occur when a student who has been exposed to acute, chronic or complex trauma is met with punitive responses from authority figures that embarrass, isolate, attempt to control, demean, or demoralize them” (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2020, p. 7). While the educators who wrote these rubrics certainly did not intend for their language to have this effect, it is easy to see how the kinds of value judgements inherent in phases like “utterly incompetent” can, at the very least, dishearten students, and potentially snuff out their motivation to learn.

Fortunately, a handful of simple principles can help educators compose assessment rubrics that promote student achievement and support an empathetic, positive learning environment.

1. Focus on formative rather than evaluative language. Education is a lifelong process. Even at the end of a class, educators should remember that their students are still at the beginning of their educational journeys. They should always frame assessment language in a way that situates students on a continuing trajectory of improvement, and this is true both for students whose mastery is still developing and for those who have completed the course assignments and are ready for their next challenge. Rubric language should therefore focus on future academic and lifelong goals rather than insinuate that learning concludes with a particular assignment. It should open up horizons rather than shut them down. For this reason, rubric categories like “emergent” and “developing” are preferable to critical pronouncements such as “weak”, “ineffective,” and “unsatisfactory.” The language inside the cells should likewise provide constructive suggestions rather than evaluative verdicts. Instead of characterizing a thesis as “utterly incompetent,” the rubric might suggest that the thesis “would benefit from further clarification” or make any number of less “triggering” recommendations.

2. Focus on the work, not the student. A rubric is obviously supposed to describe students’ work, not the students themselves. But rubric language can often conflate the two, connoting that academic failings are personal ones. Educators writing rubrics should be mindful of keeping the focus of their language on relatively objective elements of the students’ work and strive to avoid language that hints at personal failings on the part of the learners. In our survey of rubrics, we found the following phrases:

  • “Does not try to solve problems or help other solve problems.”
  • “No understanding of citations or their importance”
  • “Finds it difficult to interpret the meaning of the work.”

Each of these phrases makes assumptions about students’ inner psychological processes that may or may not be correct and are outside of the rubric’s mandate to assess. If the student did not demonstrate that they had solved problems, used citations, or interpreted a work, the rubric can say as much without making inferences about their perceived intellectual shortcomings.

3. Use quantitative measures when possible. One selling point of rubrics for both educators and learners is their aura of objectivity. Although it is often impossible, especially in the humanities, to evaluate student performance by solely quantitative criteria, rubrics remain truer to their objective reputation when they use numerical standards. Rather than accusing a student of not understanding citations, it is more accurate, and less triggering, to identify a specific number of citations that an assignment should contain, and to cue the rubric language to those numbers. Rather than faulting a student for finding it difficult to interpret a work (as indeed it always is and should be!), it would be preferable to specify a number of interpretive statements that you want students to articulate. Rubrics that contain these more objective assignment instructions not only provide a more reliable and constructive style of feedback to students but also give students a set of concrete goals to strive for. By contrast, rubrics that rely on evaluative adjectives like “strong” and “weak” or “superb” and “poor” do nothing to help students understand how to succeed in the assignment.

4. Don’t be mean. Whether or not a student is suffering from trauma, nobody responds well to being told that their work is weak, incompetent, or unsatisfactory. Being a thoughtful educator means being sensitive to the intended and unintended messages that we communicate in the classroom and throughout our communications with students. In its guide to trauma-informed practice, Pennsylvania’s Department of Education emphasizes that “the most important thing educators can do is form trusting relationships with students” (p. 9). Teachers foster this bond of trust when they acknowledge their students’ dignity, potential, and complex backgrounds. Rubrics as well as other instructional documents—including syllabi, assignment instructions, and other forms of assessment feedback—should always be written in ways that express encouragement, empathy, and respect.

We have included an example of an “empathetic” rubric below. Alternative rubric formats that provide more supportive and constructive feedback to students include holistic rubrics and single-point rubrics. It is important to remember that a rubric is a tool, and like any tool, a poorly constructed one can be at the very least virtually useless and even damaging. Demeaning, condescending, and “deficit-oriented” language—rubric language that, in Jefferey L. Frieden’s words, makes students “feel like losers” (2018)—can affect students in ways that actively inhibit learning. Conversely, rubrics that encourage and nurture student success foster a mindset of forward momentum and growth, which should be the goal of any type of assessment.

Empathy-oriented rubric for a “profile essay” assignment in a first-year composition course

ContentThemeEssay identifies a specific theme, and this theme is consistently considered throughout the essay.Essay identifies a specific theme, although parts of the essay may move away from a focus on this theme.Essay’s theme can be articulated more explicitly.
 SupportEssay contains supporting paragraphs that convincingly illustrate the centrality of the theme to the profile subject’s life.Essay contains supporting paragraphs that clearly relate to the theme identified in the first paragraph.Body paragraphs can be revised to enhance their relevance to the essay’s theme.
 EvidenceEach body paragraph includes quotations from the profile subject and/or biographical details from the profile subject’s life that illustrate the theme.Each body paragraph includes quotations from the profile subject and/or biographical details from the profile subject’s life, but their relevance to the theme can be articulated more explicitly.Body paragraphs can be revised to include quotations from the profile subject and/or biographical details from the profile subject’s life.
StyleOpeningEssay begins with an engaging sentence that establishes the essay’s tone.Essay begins with an engaging sentence, but this sentence can be revised to more effectively establish the tone of what follows.Essay can be revised to begin with a more engaging opening sentence.
 ClosingEssay concludes with a memorable sentence that sums up something important about the writer’s meaning.Essay concludes with a memorable sentence, but this sentence can be revised to enhance its relevance to the essay’s main ideas.Essay can be revised to conclude with a more memorable sentence.
 VoiceWord choice and sentence structure of the essay convey a vivid sense of the writer’s personality.Word choice and sentence structure of the essay convey a general sense of the writer’s personality.Word choice and sentence structure of the essay can be revised to evoke a more powerful sense of the writer’s personality.
MechanicsProficiencyEssay includes no errors in spelling, punctuation, or grammar.Essay includes roughly one error in spelling, punctuation, or grammar per paragraph.Essay includes more than one error in spelling, punctuation, or grammar per paragraph.
 ParagraphingEssay consistently uses paragraph breaks to distinguish key pieces of information.Essay mostly uses paragraph breaks to distinguish key pieces of information.Essay can be revised to employ paragraph breaks in ways that distinguish key pieces of information more effectively.
 FormatEssay is 1,000 words in length and is formatted clearly and appropriately.Essay is 1,000 words in length but can be revised to adhere more closely to the recommended format.Essay is substantially longer or shorter than 1,000 words and/or can be revised to adhere more closely to the recommended format.


Frieden, J. L. (2018, June 30). Does your rubric punish students? Make Them Master It.

Linn, A. (2020, December 21). Why trauma-informed language is important in your writing. Allie Linn Writes.

Pennsylvania Department of Education. (2020, October). Empowerment through common language in Pennsylvania: A dictionary of terms related to trauma-informed approaches in schools.

Ragupathi, K., & Lee, A. (2020). Beyond fairness and consistency in grading: The role of rubrics in higher education. In C. S. Sanger & N. W. Gleason (Eds.), Dignity and inclusion in global higher education (pp. 73–95). Palgrave Macmillan.

Wolf, K., & Stevens, E. (2007). The role of rubrics in advancing and assessing student learning. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 7(1), 3–14.

Randy Laist, PhD, is a professor of English and Elizabeth Lane, EdD, is an associate professor of English at Goodwin University.

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