FIPSE Grant Funds Critical-thinking Rubric That Improves Teaching, Learning

PULLMAN, Wash. — Five years ago, Carol Sheppard taught like most good faculty members. Solid lectures. Tough assignments. High expectations.

The Washington State University assistant professor of entomology wanted to expose her students to the very best of what she knew, and she wanted them to think — not just memorize. But even from her honors students, she noticed a lack of critical analysis, particularly in written work.

Today, Sheppard is discovering considerable gains in her students’ abilities. She didn’t have to change her expectations — she made them more explicit. Sheppard used a critical-thinking rubric, an adaptable tool to articulate what she wanted students to accomplish on specific written assignments.

While Sheppard might have graded papers before based on a “gut feeling,” now, she says, “this forces me to point out where I want emphasis and show students where I am coming from.” And not only can Sheppard grade papers faster using the rubric, but also grading is fairer because it is quantitative.

The rubric is part of a collaborative project developed by faculty from WSU’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, the Campus Writing Programs and the General Education Program. The project received a $378,675 grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education. WSU chipped in another $463,610.

Faculty members complain that students can’t analyze well, says Diane Kelly-Riley, associate director of Campus Writing Programs. But faculty members often don’t explain to students what they want. “This bridges the gap.”

The FIPSE grant focuses on integrating faculty expectations into the general education curriculum and demystifies the process for students, Kelly-Riley says. In addition, the project is expanding to Washington community colleges and public universities. It begins this fall.

The critical-thinking rubric is a scale that lists specific expectations, such as finding a source and analyzing it, and gives corresponding points. More important tasks are awarded more points.

Sheppard adjusted the rubric for a term paper, and she says the quality of her students’ work improved substantially.

If there is any hitch to using the rubric, it is that students still have to care enough to rise up to and meet the expectations. Kelly-Riley says while students initially grumble, “when all is said and done, the students’ work improves.”

Sheppard says she will continue to adapt the rubric for other writing assignments. For her, it is “a new leaf on teaching.”

“I taught a lot of years before I came here, and I was never taught about these things,” she says. “I came to realize I wasn’t doing what I thought I was doing. When I started teaching, I was asking students to regurgitate material. This forces me to think about what I really want to achieve.”