Rubrics can be useful.

They can also be instruments of academic torture… for both teachers and students. They can be unwieldy. They can soak up time that could be better spent elsewhere. They can be impossible to comprehend or apply. We don’t want that.

Having students develop their own rubric makes the evaluation tool you use both realistic and helpful.

What you’ll need:

  • Examples of different quality work from around the country. Your local representatives can assist you with sample books if you do not already have a library of them.
  • Spreads, pages, photos, captions, brief stories, and headlines from professional publications (newspapers, newsmagazines, magazines). You can snapshot a plethora of these using your phone at your local bookstore, without spending a dime. You can also go to issuu.com and screenshot them from a variety of magazines created around the world.
  • A scale for scoring that allows students to do less than perfect work and still have it be good enough to publish. If you’re using a 5-point scale, you may consider scoring in this way:

5 Superior performance (100)
4.5 Excellent performance (90)
4.25 Strong performance (85)
3.5-4 Average performance (70-80)
0-3 Developing skills (0-60)

(This scale allows students to demonstrate various levels of capability and mastery. It also helps students recognize that there are a variety of scores within the “great work” range and a variety of descriptors to go along with those.)

  • A place (preferably digital) to keep both examples and descriptions once they are fully developed. Students, parents, and you should be able to find the information and identify the quality of new work by comparing it to the standards.

Where to begin

Photograph and print or digitize a variety of yearbook spread examples. Have students view example work and sort it, with the best work at the left (or top) and declining degrees of greatness to the right of (or below) that. Students will repeat this process for as many factors as you’ll be including on your rubric, so if you want to start with photography (easiest to see immediately), then move to design, then to reader services / thematic incorporation, then to writing, and finally to coverage (requires most time to determine), it makes sense to have students to re-order the same spreads as they evaluate their quality for each factor.

At the end of each sort (for each factor), have students do a gallery walk and discuss similarities and differences among their ordered choices. Have students make note of the elements they now feel are the most important in deciding top quality versus lesser quality work.

Have students return to their own ordered pieces, re-order them if they have changed their minds, and describe what made the piece in the first place different from the piece in second place, and so on. They will use this later.

Repeat this process for each factor you will include in your rubric.

Next steps…

Post the scale of scores you’ll be using.

Have students use their descriptions of the differences among the pieces they sorted and work together to develop the descriptors for each area of the rubric, determining which elements are necessary to place a specific quality of work in a specific score range. You may want them to partner or work in smaller groups, then move to large group participation to allow for quieter students to have a voice in the smaller groups first.

And then…
Choose unified language for each factor and each quality description (lead or lede, dom or dominant package, hed or headline, etc.), so everyone knows what the descriptors mean, then attach the sample work they previously arranged and described to each description block. Place this where everyone can see it for the first few weeks of use, then digitize it and place it where everyone can still find it as a reference piece.

Congratulations! You just had students create a rubric for your publication that determines each factor’s quality and accurately describes each score’s criteria. Now they (and you) know precisely what an A+ looks like and why an A- is not the same.

About the author

Lizabeth Walsh, MJE

Creative Accounts Manager // During her 26 years as a public and private school English teacher and journalism adviser, Walsh has helped many staffs turn their dreams into reality. She is a licensed secondary teacher and understands the challenges today's classroom teachers face. Her newspaper and yearbook staffs earned CSPA gold medal ratings, NSPA All- American ratings, placed in NSPA Best of Show contests, and received JEA Write-Off honors. She was awarded CSPA’s Gold Key for service to scholastic journalism in 2011 and selected as a Distinguished Adviser by JEA’s Yearbook Adviser of the Year committee in 2012. Walsh also served four years on JEA’s Curriculum Commission and 12 years on JEA’s Certification Committee as well as three years on CSPA’s Awards Committee.