What are Rubrics?
Evaluation rubrics are a powerful and flexible tool for making the important stuff measurable, delivering clearly reasoned answers, and much more.
Rubrics can take many forms – a “language ladder” showing multiple levels of quality, value, or performance; a diagram or a set of descriptions that does the same. The most common form is a table or matrix with a series of ratings, each with a description of what the evidence should look like for that particular rating.
Rubrics are useful not just for “doing evaluations” but also for evaluative monitoring, evaluative quality assurance, evaluative research, performance monitoring, performance appraisal, and even for setting up programs for success in the first place.
Here’s why some rubric magic might be just what you need:
- Making the important measurable. If you ever get frustrated that what’s easily measurable simply doesn’t capture what’s truly important, rubrics are for you. Making the important but intangible things measurable at long last – no more defaulting to the same old metrics that so often capture the least important aspects of performance.
- The antidote to simplistic targets and goal-based evaluation. Rubrics are a great option if your organization or client gets frustrated with targets, which are by default dichotomous and simplistic (met = good; unmet = bad). More on the psychology of targets later, but if you need something more nuanced, something that reflects the fact that a near miss on a stretch goal is better than easily clearing an easy one, rubrics can provide a more nuanced, multilevel interpretation of “success”.
- Giving voice to values. Rubrics methodology can provide a place, space, and voice to values in evaluation.
Rubrics are especially powerful for culturally responsive and transformative evaluation approaches where huge priority is placed on unearthing and giving life to values in evaluative work. Rubrics provide a user-friendly and structured way to do that, and one that will greatly enhance your ability to communicate to external audiences who don’t always get why the values piece is so crucial.
Rubrics are also completely applicable for more traditional monitoring and evaluation. They can be developed independently by the evaluation team or collaboratively with clients and stakeholders. An added benefit may surprise you: By challenging and helping you to make the values (i.e., “how we define quality and value”) explicit, you may well find that your supposedly value-neutral evaluation is in fact a stark reflection of the values and norms of the dominant culture – ways of thinking and judging performance that are so deeply embedded that you hadn’t noticed them before. And that, I tell you as a white evaluator, is extremely enlightening!
The process of making values explicit does two things. First, it brings a sharpness and clarity to the thinking of those driving the evaluation. Second, it makes the values and evaluative reasoning far more transparent and intelligible to an outside audience. That means that more people are able to truly understand how you got to your conclusions, and they are better able to discuss, debate, and critique them with you. Both of these allow the evaluation team to hone, tighten, and clarify the evaluative part of their work.
Guiding evaluative reasoning – make it more systematic, transparent, and valid. The better clarity and transparency enhances people’s opportunities to discuss and critique. And that helps us lift our game.
Evaluation rubrics can also help prevent arguments after the fact about whether the findings/results are any good or not (i.e., evaluative conclusions). When you involve the right people and develop a rubric that truly reflects a consensus and reality about what “quality” and “value” should look like at different levels of success, and when you do this before the evidence is interpreted, drawing the evaluative conclusions is much more straightforward.
Enhancing evaluation design. The process of developing rubrics helps identify the evidence required to answer evaluative questions. It also means that every piece of evidence, qualitative and quantitative, will have a very specific ‘home’ to go to in the evaluation analysis and report. Personally, I have found this massively improves the efficiency and value for investment of my own evaluation work.
Set change efforts up for success. If done at the front end (during program or policy design) or early on (during early implementation), a well-designed set of rubrics sets the program up for success because it clarifies for everyone what success is going to look like. A clear vision of the aspired-to and needed future state – when we can visualize it we are more likely to be able to achieve it together.
Check out Jane’s book, minibooks, and her fun and accessible e-clinic, featuring a great little video introduction to rubrics, in bite-sized chunks.
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