As with most areas of academia, to do your best you need to know what the best looks like.
"The more clear the learning target, the easier it is to hit," said Kenny Wolf, director of assessment at the University of Colorado Denver. Rubrics are used for precisely that. Assessment rubrics are a scoring guide for a product or a performance. These rubrics, given to students prior to their performance, provide standards and deadlines so they know exactly what they need to have in order to succeed.
"Assessment rubrics were an important behind-the-scenes feature of the Olympics this winter," Wolf said. "The way a figure skating routine or a snowboarding aerial is scored is based on rubrics, or detailed scoring guides, that have been given to the judges, coaches and athletes in advance. There is an extreme significance to the fact that not only do the judges know how to score the performance, but that the coaches and the athletes know what is expected from them in advance."
Besides creating a more accessible learning target, assessment rubrics help students who are unfamiliar with an academic culture, such as first-generation college students or students from unconventional backgrounds. Wolf was himself a first-generation college student and was faced with confusion and uncertainty when he was told to do a research paper in his first year of college.
"I wasn't exactly sure what was expected," he said. "An assessment rubric describing key features of the expected performance would have gone a long way in helping me."