Grading student projects: Separating content from delivery

makingthegradeI am a big fan of student choice. When students work on projects, I think that they should have as much choice as possible regarding both the topic and the delivery. Choice increases student buy-in and ownership.

Teachers allow choice of topics, not delivery

When teachers and I talk about integrating technology into their lessons, I encourage them to try and build in more choice for students. Most teachers already allow students to choose topics of study, at least some of the time. For example, students are allowed to pick a historical figure, select a mystery book, decide what they sculpt out of clay, and so on.

Fewer teachers seem to be comfortable with student choice of delivery. For any given project, how students show their learning often is tightly circumscribed. Teachers, not students, typically decide whether the end product will be a written report, diorama, oral presentation, mobile, clay sculpture, poster, etc. Teachers, not students, determine what the evaluation criteria will be for delivery, often in excruciating detail. I have seen many of these delivery mechanism evaluation rubrics: they’re normally designed to be student-proof. There’s very little leeway for student decision-making and thus, in the teacher’s mind, error.

The digital technologies that we now have available to us open up a wealth of new ways for students to show their learning. Many of these tools also make it easy for students to work collaboratively. I think there is growing pressure on teachers to open up student delivery choices to include many of these new digital learning options. Parents and students see what the possibilites are and wonder why they aren’t available in their local classrooms.

The need to separate content from delivery

As teachers move in this direction, I think it’s going to be increasingly important to help teachers learn how to separate content (what students need to learn) from delivery (how students show they have learned). Often the two are intertwined in teachers’ minds, and it is hard for many educators to partition grading of the learned content from grading of the delivery mechanism.

I also have heard from teachers that, even if they’re amenable to - and/or experienced at - giving separate grades for content and delivery, they don’t know how to grade effective delivery when students use digital tools. Over time the teaching profession has evolved general ideas about what ‘quality’ looks like when it comes to a written report, a poster, or an oral presentation. Fewer instructors know what they should look for to determine the quality of a video, collaborative mind map, wiki, or photo essay.

It might be helpful for a group of teachers (and students) to come together to create a set of quality rubrics for various common digital tools. Those content-neutral rubrics could then be applied to relevant student work, regardless of subject area. Obviously these rubrics would have to be age-sensitive; what we’d expect from an 8-year-old would be different than what we’d look for from a high-schooler. Also, there may be certain projects for which the creation of a ‘content-neutral’ delivery evaluation rubric is infeasible because the content and delivery are too tightly intertwined. For many situations, however, I think that these rubrics could be incredibly useful.

We need to figure this out

I think we’re going to have to wrap our heads around this as educators. Our tools for exhibiting our learning are going to continue to proliferate. We can’t just keep assigning the tried-and-true, analog-only solutions that we still see dominating current classroom practice.

I confess that to date I have exhibited a lack of flair for creating these types of rubrics, so I’m not sure I’m the one to look to for examples. Others, I know, have a real gift for making rubrics; at least some of them have to be tech-savvy enough to take this task on. Does anyone know of folks who are doing good work in this area? Do you have other thoughts on this topic?

Photo credit: Making the grade

21 Responses to “Grading student projects: Separating content from delivery”

  1. I think it would help to focus on improving assignments (while still giving choice). With better assignments it’s easier to measure the quality of completed work. For example, what if a history class studying the Renaissance went from this Title ~ Notable Figures of the Renaissance. Study a major figure of the Renaissance period. Create a presentation using digital media that informs others about this person’s most significant accomplishments. Demonstrate clear organization and cite all sources of information and images.
    …to this: Title ~ Mingling at the Renaissance Ball With 1-2 partners, study several notable individuals in a shared field (art, science, medicine, architecture, philosophy, music, literature) during the Renaissance period. Develop a defensible set of criteria for an award in this field, and identify the individual most deserving. Design a badge that signifies the meaning of the award and be ready to present it during a public event.

    What the teacher would be looking for in the first assignment would be content knowledge, citation, oral presentation + use of media. In the second s/he would be looking for content knowledge, analysis, comparison, justification, creativity, performance and a lot of dispositional aspects like cooperation, negotiation and communication.

    I can imagine a rubric for the latter, one that would guide kids’ work. Remodeling traditional assignments is challenging. It takes a shift in mindset!

  2. Great point, Scott. This is part of a much larger grading issue. In addition to mixing content with delivery, educators often mix responsibility with content and progress with content, too. I wrote about mixing progress with content a while back:
    Ken O’Connor in his book, How to Grade for Learning, discusses some of these grading practices, albeit not specifically digital tools.

  3. Quick Fix: Make an extra column in the rubric for delivery method.

  4. I have been thinking a lot about this lately. I just read Drive by Daniel Pink and he talks a lot about intrinsic motivation and the things we do in schools that hurt it. One of the things he argues that we miss is real choice. A big part of that is doing something that maters in a way that maters to us. As teachers we almost never say: Here is the outcome you need to show me you can meet. How will you meet it?

    All the boxes we force students to be in just cause passivity and compliance when they could invite engagement. Here is Pink on the subject:
    “We know – if we’ve spent time with young children or remember ourselves at our best – that we’re not designed to be passive or compliant. We’re designed to be active and engaged. And we know the richest experiences of in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice – doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.”

  5. Honestly, I think rubrics are a big part of the problem. They prescribe so many of the variables in a project, that it leaves little open for creativity. Many students become obsessed with meeting the criteria of the rubric, that they don’t concern themselves with creativity or originality. The grade becomes the objective, not the learning.

  6. this has got to be changed at all levels. Any innovation or creativity is being killed by my grad professors prescriptive rubrics which he follows to the letter when evaluating our work (and expects us to follow as we create our work). To make it worse they are not very good rubrics. Fortunately I have enough experience and have embraced working on creating real student choice for a number of years. So, I’m just trying to get through this class (I think we all are); but for the newbie it is creating a false security and false reality. It is totally misleading those who are not collaborating or informing themselves on this thinking. Scott, for every teacher/admin we educate at this end more come into the pipeline uninformed.

  7. There are good resources for the kinds of assessment that you are talking about over at Intel Education’s Assessing Projects page at

    They have many project rubrics that focus on creativity and problem solving as well as on the digital product itself.

  8. I’m an advocate for content based grades and leaving the delivery up to the kids. Who cares how they show what they’ve learned? Unless the delivery is the purpose (giving a speech, a specific media type, a type of writing, etc) give a student a one rubric to rule them all and and let them be creative.

    More info if you click on my name.

  9. I have been allowing students to deliver their work in any format that they choose. What I have found is as long as there is a good rubric for the students to follow during the development of their projects delivery seems to be irrelevant in terms of grading content. Rubrics are created in class and when we develop these we have a cardinal rule that must be followed “How can we measure that?” So students develop grading criteria that measurable. I have found that their rubrics are quite specific and difficult and really challenge the students. This was something I did not expect. Good rubrics allow you to have student’s present material in any form or fashion. I have really been excited about projects and the learning taking place with this system.

  10. In my high school I’ve been working on expanding our literacy initiative (doesn’t every high school have a literacy initiative?) to cover digital media. The idea being that literacy is about communicating in all media, not just about reading and writing words. My Career Growth project for these three years (I’m in the 1st year) is to map text/word literacy competencies to a set of broader “media competencies” (“delivery skills” might be a good title, or “communication skills”). As part of this I’m developing rubrics for video literacy (I’m a Technology Integration teacher, and I also teach Video Production, Computer Animation and Broadcasting). I hope that my video production rubrics can be used by subject-area teachers for their video projects. The subject teacher will be able to integrate my video production rubrics with their content rubric to create a “whole project” rubric that covers a project delivered as a video.

    I’m interested in finding other examples of this kind of work. First off, does anyone have a description of Literacy skills or competencies that is not medium-specific (i.e. just focused on text), but that maps to any medium? Secondly, does anyone have video “delivery” rubrics they’d care to share. I’d be happy to reciprocate.

    John Ranta
    Souhegan HS

    PS One of our teaching teams’ (10th grade Social Studies and English teachers) just completed their Career Growth project on the subject Scott posted about – offering students choices for delivery. These two teachers did a three year study on giving their 90 kids the options of delivering projects on various media and formats (web sites, papers, videos, presentations or journals, I think were the options). These teachers did a lot of work to create consistent rubrics and expectations across delivery types. They also required students to try a variety of media over the course of the year, so as to expand their media skills. If anyone is interested, I can check with them to see if they can share their work.

  11. @John Ranta: I’m sure that folks would love to see whatever you and your staff would be willing to share. Thanks!

  12. @Scott: The easiest way would be for people to email me their requests – JR

  13. How comfortable might your folks be at setting up a quick wiki page with links? That way we won’t clog your email inbox AND it would give your staff some good exposure to the social Web?

  14. Scott, “my people” would be me :). I don’t mind the emails, but I’d be happy to put what we have up on a wiki, when I can find some time. I did a quick search, and google sites looks like a possible host. What would you recommend? jr

  15. Fair enough. Google Sites would work. So would any wiki service like wikispaces or pbwiki or WetPaint…

  16. Scott, can you point me to an example of a wiki that I can mimic? I’ve read a few (primarily wikipedia) but never set one up. I’m familiar with the structure and culture of blogs (create a post – invite comments), but the proper way to create and manage a wiki (does one even try to manage a wiki?) is new to me. Thanks, JR

  17. Would it be possible for me to see an example of a student-created rubric? What level do you teach?

  18. Assessing for Product

    I don’t agree that there needs to be one rubric for content and another one for product. If teachers are concerned with critical thinking skills, it is important to assess those skills throughout the entire process of the project, from the forming the initial research question to presenting findings. The choice of technology comes into play throughout the entire process.

    The students at our school are typically given free reign in their subject areas for choice of research question; they do initial research and form a research question. The technology used here is primarily computer research and documentation. The tech skills we teach are vital to the students as we help them determine credible internet sources, document those sources using online helps such as BibMe. They can also get into researching primary documents online. Those are just a few examples.

    Next, students research and gather data to answer their research question. This can involve using technology to make charts, graphs, visual representations, semantic mapping, etc.

    Finally, students must present their findings in a way that communicates effectively. To us, this means that if they have gathered data about tides and garbage, they may choose to share their findings in a scientific report, a podcast, a Powerpoint, a daily blog, etc. The technology is the tool. The critical thinking skills being addressed fall under Marzano, Pickering, & McTighe’s (1993, pp. 85-86) “Rubrics for Effective Communication Standards,” which are A) expresses ideas clearly, B) effectively communicates with diverse audiences, C) effectively communicates in a variety of ways, D) effectively communicates for a variety of purposes, E) creates quality products. These are the things that should be addressed on a rubric.

    Another good source for technology rubrics would be the “ISTE NETS for Students 2007.” You can check those out at

  19. Sorry. Here is the full reference for the Marzano book. Marzano, R., Pickering, D., & McTighe, J. (1993). Assessing Student Outcomes: Performance Assessment Using the Dimensions of Learning Model. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

  20. I am currently doing a project with my middle school math students. It was a little difficult for me to create the rubric. In my district each student’s grade must be a representation of their knowledge of the standards. However, it is important that the student work is neat. I’ve tried to make my rubric open for student creativity, but we shall see. I appreciate everyone’s contributions before me.

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