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Using Action-oriented, Process-driven Rubrics Today to Shape the Producers of Tomorrow

Updated: Mar 9, 2018

Empowering students with meaningful feedback that inspires them to take action to improve their work.

By: Jason Fillette and Carrie Vice

For educators like us, who have more than a decade of teaching under our belts, it’s apparent that grading student projects has changed quite a bit over the years. No longer is it acceptable to assign a seemingly random and mysterious grade to a project, nor is it okay to use a checklist of expectations, each assigned with what seemed to be an arbitrary point value. Teachers don’t typically grade projects like this anymore because it only assigned a value to the work; it did not provide any feedback to the student.

Today, teachers often assess projects using a rubric. But has the feedback within those rubrics really improved the level of performance of students? Do they help students reach their full potential? Is the feedback provided within them understood, valued, and applied by students? Many teachers, despite their efforts and intentions to provide meaningful feedback, would likely admit the answer is no.

Why Do We Need an Action-oriented Rubric?

The feedback provided within a traditional project rubric may not be as helpful as one may think. Why? The project is evaluated as a product of learning, as opposed to being evaluated throughout the process of learning. To evaluate it as a product is to evaluate it too late. Typically, teachers assess a project after it is completed. By the time the student receives the feedback, it is too late for them to apply it, make necessary adjustments to the project, and improve the work. Teachers can only hope they will remember the feedback for the next project, which could very well involve application of a dramatically different set of knowledge and skills.

Another problem with focusing the rubric on the product, rather than the process of learning, is that the students become more concerned with their grade, as opposed to the feedback that they are receiving within the rubric. The students are left with a label of the product, a judgement of their work, which often transfers to a label of themselves. This can be accompanied by a positive or negative self-image based on the desirability of that label. These kinds of labels send a message to our students that they are either "bad" or "good" in different subject areas. It exacerbates the fixed mindset in so many of our students, which increases the likelihood that they transfer that mindset to the next project, performing in a similar way and making little improvement.

Have we really maximized our ability to boost student performance by grading this way? Have we empowered them to apply necessary changes to their work? Have we even addressed the process of learning that takes place as a student works through a project? Isn't the learning process the place we need to put our focus if we want to improve the end product of a project?

In our classrooms, our students are engaged in a project-based learning format, where feedback and revision are critical components to the success of the project. We were frustrated with using a traditional rubric, as it did not empower our students to take action when necessary. As facilitators of project-based learning, it is necessary that we “offer valuable feedback on what planning the team has accomplished, what is completed, and what is yet to be done” (Bender, 2012). We wanted to provide our students with a rubric that they could use throughout the project to assess their own progress, as well as provide talking points for us to give feedback throughout the process. Students benefit from the opportunity to apply feedback they’ve been given to an existing project, so they can shape that project for the better, before it's too late. Students also respond better to feedback if it is presented not as a score, but rather as actions that they can take to improve their project. This is what has led to the idea and implementation of an action-oriented rubric in our classrooms. What is an action-oriented rubric? It is a rubric that provides actions for students to take to progress with their project rather than providing labels at the end. By giving students action-based feedback during the project, students are empowered to do the things that they need to do in order to get the project back on-track. Through action-oriented rubrics, students can understand that they have control over the outcome of their project by making adjustments to what they are doing. Their self-assessment helps students to develop the “skills and habits of critique and revision, which are important lifelong learning skills” (Hallermann, Larmer, & Mergendoller, 2011).

Why Do We Need a Process-driven Rubric?

Today’s rubrics often assess valued domains or categories, such as creativity, neatness, depth of thinking, and other valued categories. Since each project can vary so greatly from one to the next, we often end up needing to create new rubrics with every project. In addition, when giving students the voice and choice that keeps them motivated within a project, they often end up creating varying products, which adds another level of complexity to uniformly assessing their work. If we want students to improve performance from one project to the next, we need to provide consistent feedback on specific learning domains. It would be daunting and likely ineffective to assess every content standard and every 21st century skill within a rubric. The information you collect may help you populate your grade book, but how helpful is it for student improvement? Changing the focus of the learning domains to something more process-oriented allows the students to focus on actionable ways to improve the process, therefore improving the outcome.

Reimagining the Rubric

We have developed an approach to creating and using a rubric that provides meaningful feedback to students. Through the use of an action-oriented, process-driven rubric, we encourage our students to take action to value and improve their learning process. This approach empowers our students to maximize their potential.

While we have found our rubric to work especially well with project-based learning, we also feel that it can be applied to other learning opportunities that rely heavily on the students going through a particular process, such as the writing process or a scientific investigation.

Pictured below is an action-oriented, process-driven rubric that we created and have used with a high level of success in our classrooms.

Action-oriented Indicators

Those who use rubrics in their classrooms would likely agree that, “Good rubrics provide sufficient detail for individuals to self-evaluate their work during the development or work completion process” (Bender, 2012). Providing the students with actions helps to give them the awareness that they need to improve and empowers them to make changes. Each action-oriented indicator provides students with an action to take as they move forward with their project, decided upon after careful reflection and review of the work they’ve done so far. Students should gain this action-based feedback multiple times throughout their work on a given project, giving them time to refine their process and enhance their work.

Our rubric communicates the following actions, as seen in the arrows above each domain: sustain, strive, and adjust.

Sustain: When this action is assigned to a particular learning domain, it informs the students to continue doing what they are doing because it is going so well. Strive: This action is assigned to a learning domain when the student’s process is leading them to success but are encouraged to take specific action(s) to maximize potential. Adjust: This action is assigned to a learning domain when the students need to fix something within their process in order to be successful, before it's too late.

Process-driven Domains

In our classrooms, teaching through project-based learning, needs to be “deliberate coaching so that the groups are efficient and produce quality work” (Stanley, 2012). We have found four domains that can be consistently and effectively utilized with students, no matter what the project might be, to guide and shape their learning process during a project: quality, quantity, collaboration and autonomy. Quality:

Giving feedback about how well a job is being done is essential. Rather than providing feedback on the quality of the final product, provide feedback on the quality of the process. After all, going through a better process can make a good product great, don't you think? For teachers to properly assess quality, students will need to present deliverables that show evidence of thought and care throughout the process. For example, if they are conducting research, the notes they take while researching would be the deliverable that can be assessed. A student whose notes are paraphrased, concise, and organized has gone through a better process than a student’s notes that are haphazard or wordy. To help students understand what a quality job might look like, we also develop “Quality Checks” which lists for students what actions are valuable for that particular part of the process. This information gives students a target. Quantity: Quantity is the perfect compliment to quality. Often teachers emphasize quality so much that students struggle to finish things on time. How often do your students (or their parents) ask for more time to complete an assignment? Giving students a seemingly endless amount of time to complete a task, is not setting them up for real life. Often times, when working through a project, students can lack a sense of urgency to get to work. They tend to squander class time and create bad habits. This happens because many projects transpire over a sustained amount of time, and many students can't clearly see when they are behind schedule until it is too late. We want them to learn to maintain a good pace as they work. By breaking the project into phases that have deadlines, students can spot quantity issues before the whole project is in jeopardy. They are empowered to adjust their process to get back on track. Collaboration: Collaboration skills are valued 21st century skills that are desired in classrooms and workplaces alike. Creating a classroom environment that naturally allows students to act as truly collaborative, productive, positive and supportive teams is difficult. To expect group dynamics to always run smoothly is not realistic. By putting them in teams to work on something rigorous will naturally set them up for conflict and that is not always a bad thing. With conflict comes varying perspectives, conversations, and the opportunity to compromise or consider the ideas of others. By giving students frequent opportunities to receive feedback and reflect upon how effectively they work together will help them to become stronger collaborators as they progress through a project together. Autonomy: How often do we, as teachers, wish our students would independently make responsible decisions for themselves that will lead them towards success? Autonomy is a domain that encourages students to properly manage themselves throughout a project. Teachers who emphasize autonomy will be teaching students who feel empowered to set their own goals and schedules, manage their resources, solve their own problems, and make reflective adjustments throughout the project. Through feedback about autonomy, students feel in-control of their own learning and teachers can feel more confident in moving into the facilitator role as their students take ownership.

The Transformation

Using a project-based learning approach in our classrooms, we wanted our students to engage in meaningful, rigorous, and authentic learning experiences -- experiences that would challenge their thinking and spark innovation. However, it wasn’t until we changed the way we guided our students with meaningful feedback that we truly saw the transformation from passive learners to empowered problem-solvers.

Using this action-oriented and process-driven rubric throughout the duration of a project has had a profound impact in our classrooms, not only on student performance, but on ourselves as educators. It represents a much-needed mind shift in ourselves and our students -- a mind shift that puts the students in the driver seat as they control their learning journey. It has helped to transform our classrooms to communities of effective, productive, collaborative, reflective, and empowered thinkers and workers.


Bender, W. N. (2012). Project-Based learning: differentiating instruction for the 21st century. Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Corwin Press.

Hallermann, S., Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. R. (2011). PBL in the elementary grades: step-by-step guidance, tools and tips for standards-focused K-5 projects. Novato, CA: Buck Institute for Education.

Stanley, T. (2012). Project-based learning for gifted students: a handbook for the 21st-century classroom. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press Inc.

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