A Rubric to Track Critical Thinking

When it comes to assessing student writing, rubrics reign supreme.  There are probably enough of them to wallpaper every floor of the Empire State Building twice over.  And yet, colleges and employers tell us most high school graduates can’t write.  So maybe we need to find a different way to think about how to assess student writing.

Most writing rubrics look pretty similar.  They rate student writing across a range of factors, including whether the main idea is clearly stated, whether the paper is organized well, whether it includes rich vocabulary and whether it has grammar or spelling errors.   Rarely does a rubric allow the user to assess whether the written work tells us something worthwhile.  This is a problematic, because if the main point is not worth making, the paper, no matter how well-organized, richly worded, and grammatically polished,  is weak.

If we start with the basic premise that writing is just thinking on paper, then it makes sense to begin our assessment of writing with an assessment of thinking.   In an earlier post we laid down a general approach for how to assess student progress in critical thinking.  Now, let’s take that approach a step further and actually create a simple rubric to assess the level at which students are thinking about the words they read.

Let’s review the basics:  Well-written (or spoken) works should answer the following questions: 

  1. What is the point?
  2. Is the point one that is worth making?
      • Is it obvious?  (Do we already know it?)
      • Is it arguable? How?
      • Is it important? Why?
      • Is it interesting? In what way?
  3. Does the author adequately support that point?  If so, How?
      • Appeals to our emotion or to our belief in the author’s sterling reputation are not support for a main point, but they are worth talking about.
  4. Does the author tell why we need to know what he has written?
  5. Is there another way to look at look at it? 
      • Can you take what the author is saying and come up with a different  main point or conclusion?

Since each of these questions targets a different level of thinking, we can craft a very simple rubric to track student progress.    Let’s start with a rubric that will help track the critical thinking skills of students as they read. 

Can the Student Do This?

Not Yet

(0 points for each bullet)


(1-2  points for each bullet)


Identify the Main Point

  • Misses the point.


  • Gets the point 


Assess Whether the Point is Worth Making

  • Does not recognize a weak main point.


  • Explains why the main point is or is not a strong one. 


 Find support (or lack of support) for the main point?

  • Does not identify any support for the main point.
  • Does not distinguish strong from weak support.
  • Identifies support for main point.
  • Assesses whether support is strong or weak.




Answer “So What?”

  • Does not comment on what the author’s “takeaway message” is.
  • Does not offer a plausible takeaway message.

  • Explains what the author’s takeaway message seems to be.


 Think of another way to see it?

  • Does not present an opposing argument or alternative conclusion.
  •  Presents an opposing argument or alternative conclusion.

Based on this rubric, your weakest readers/thinkers would get a check;  your strongest would get a check plus 12 (Of course, you can use your own numbering system, but this is the general idea).

How would you use such a rubric?    The common core standards place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of having students read non-fiction and having them write logical arguments.   So let’s start by assigning students a non-fiction argument to read. The Battle of the Binge, by Jack Hitt, deals with a subject many teenagers can relate to and fits the bill nicely.    (By the way,  this selection is featured in the Norton Reader, a treasure trove of short non-fiction pieces, many of which are suitable for upper high-school students.)    The general approach would be to assign this piece for students to read, and then to have them critique it by answering the following questions:

  1. What is the author’s point?
  2. Is it a point worth making?  Why or why not?
  3. How does the author support his point?
  4. So what? What do you think the author wants us to do or think about as a result of reading his work?
  5. Is there another way to see it?  What might be the counter-argument to this author’s claims?

Short answers are fine for this exercise.  Now let’s see how some sample responses would be scored on the rubric.

 What is the author’s point?  

  • 2 point response:  The author’s main point is that binge drinking on college campuses is a result of raising the legal drinking age to 21,thus depriving students the opportunity of “learning to drink” on campus.
  • 1 point response: The author’s main point is that it was wrong to raise the legal drinking age (implied, but not the main point).
  • 0 point response:  Binge drinking on college campuses was as big a problem in the 1970s as it is today.  (If the student entirely missed the point, you need go no further on the rubric:  The grade for this assignment is a “check.”)

          Is it a point worth making?  Why or why not?

  • 2 point response:   Yes, because it offers an interesting explanation of the cause of a big contemporary problem.
  • 1 point response:  Yes, because it is interesting (not specific).
  • 0 point response:  No because encouraging teenagers to drink is dangerous (author is not encouraging young people to drink).

       Does the author support this main point?  How?

  • 2 point response:  The author offers anecdotal and factual support for his claim:
    • He learned to drink alcohol through his own college experience.
    • His nephew, now attending the same college, knows many students who binge drink alone, often in the woods to avoid being caught.
    • Despite various attempts by colleges to reduce it, binge drinking persists on campuses at alarming rates.
  • 1 point response:  Any response that cites some, but not all support for the main point.
  • 0 point response:  No supporting points cited at all.

 So What?

  • 2 point response:  We need to change the way we think about this:  If you can vote and fight in a war, you ought to be able to drink.
  • 1 point response:  We have to lower the drinking age to 18 (not quite, he is suggesting it would be difficult to do this and that we need to change the culture first).
  • 0 point response:   We have to outlaw binge drinking (author never suggests this).

Is there another way to see it?

  • 2 point responses:
    • Is binge drinking only on the rise among college students?  What if it is on the rise among all age groups?  That would weaken the author’s argument.
    • The author says that legislators raised the drinking minimum as a reaction to the “raw emotion deployed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” but he does not tell us whether deaths due to drunk driving have decreased as a result of raising the minimum age.  Have they?  If so, maybe we need to change nothing.
  • 1 point response:  It is up to parents to teach their children social habits, including how to drink and how to abide with the law as it is (a counter argument based too much on personal  opinion).
  • 0 point response:  No counter argument offered.

What Does All this Have to Do with Writing?!

This exercise in teaching students to become critical readers and then tracking the results is an important step in teaching them to think.  And remember, writing is thinking on paper.  When you teach your students to write an argument, you will ask them to use the kind thinking in their own work that they used to critique arguments such as this one.  Then you can grade them using a writing rubric that flows directly from the reading rubric.  

Coming soon:  How to craft and use a writing rubric that tracks critical thinking progress.


Writing Across the Curriculum: The Pros and Pros of Peer Editing Teams

If you are a chemistry teacher who has just been asked to incorporate writing into your curriculum, your biggest concern may (justifiably) be:  How am I going to find the time to do this? 

The key is to help your students help each other.  To that end, a small investment of time at the start of the school year can make a big difference.

Just as there are some students who are naturally gifted in math and science, there are some students who are naturally gifted in writing.  We have all come across them.  By the time they get to high school, these gifted writers express themselves almost as well as well as their English teachers and often better than their math or science teachers. 

Get to know these writers.  Start your year by having students write a short paper titled “My Life as a Scientist” (or, depending on your subject, a mathematician, and historian, a linguist, etc.).  It is a great way to break the ice and a good way to separate strong from weaker writers. Explain to the class that since this assignment will count as their first quiz grade, they need to take it seriously.  Here’s how your actual assignment might look:

Write a one and one- half page minimum, two page maximum (double spaced 12 point, Times New Roman font) paper about your life as a scientist.  Be specific about your likes, dislikes, difficulties and strengths in your science classes to date.  Here are some questions to think about as you organize your paper:

  • What is your earliest memory of science?
  • What do you know about the scientific method and how much do you use it in your day-to-day life?
  • What do you like most about science?
  • What do you like least about it?
  • What was your favorite science class?  Why?
  • What are your greatest strengths as a scientist?
  • What are your greatest weaknesses?
  • Do you enjoy reading science fiction? Why?
  • If you had one suggestion for how to make class more interesting this year, what would it be?

DO NOT merely answer these questions.  Make sure your paper is well organized and has a strong introduction and conclusion.

Do not do any modeling for this assignment; just let your students write.  The results will give you a great deal of information about both the quality of writing among your students and their level of interest in your subject.  (Yes. you could skip this assignment, and just ask the English teacher on your team who the strong/weak writers are, but isn’t it worth it to find out for yourself?)

Once you have identified the strongest (and weakest) writers, group students into editing teams of four or five members each.  Make sure each team has at least one strong writer and, if possible, no more than one very weak writer.  These teams will do the bulk of your grading on written assignments.

How to Get the Most from Peer Editing Teams

If you teach a non-ELA class, peer editing teams can lighten your load by providing feedback on both short and longer written assignments. For instance, suppose a math teacher assigns the following journaling assignment to her geometry students:

Two times per week, you will be required to write a 150-200 word journal entry describing what you learned in class, how what you’ve learned in class is relevant to the real world, and what question (s) you still have. Take your time writing these entries. 

Try to have your response look something like this:

Yesterday, we learned how to measure the volume in different shaped solids.  This process is analogous to the one used for measuring the area of a rectangle or circle except that it incorporates a third dimension. For instance, we previously learned that the area of a rectangle is defined as its length multiplied by its width. The volume of a rectangular solid is defined as length times width times height, or the area of the base of the solid multiplied by its height.  This makes sense intuitively.  Similarly, the area of a circle is equal to pi multiplied by the radius squared.  The volume of a cylinder is therefore pi times the radius squared times the height of the cylinder.  Volume measures are regularly used in day- to- day life.  How many books will fit in that carton?  How many CDs in that cylindrical container?  These are practical questions that need volume calculations. What is unclear to me is why we also study how to measure the volume of irregular shapes that we do not usually see in our lives.

Make sure your essay does not look like this:

Yesterday, we studied volume.  It was very interesting.  Volume is length times width times height.  You definitely need a calculator for the answer.  This is relevant because, when you think about it, everything has volume.  We are not paper dolls LOL.   The question I have is why do we ever measure things in cubed feet.  That sounds gross. I would rather we measured things in cubed inches. I am looking forward to using graph paper in class one day soon.

Instead of grading these entries, the teacher might leverage the capabilities of her peer editing teams.  Here are two approaches:

  • Have your peer editing teams meet once per week to share work and collaborate on writing one final entry for the “team journal.”  Briefly observe how each team works together (with your grade book in hand, so that you can note when a student has failed to do the assignments) and allow the teams to know you are available for assistance. Then have one student from each team step to the front of the class and present the team journal entry.  Grade only the presented team entries, assigning the same grade to each member of the team. In other words, grade five entries instead of twenty-five!
  • Have students make copies of their journal entries for each member of their editing team.  Have each team member rotate being editor-in- chief, reviewing the journal entries of all members and writing a final, improved entry for the team journal.  Grade only the editor- in- chief on the team journal entry (recognizing that each student will serve in this capacity several times throughout the year).

Peer editing teams can also be useful in evaluating longer, formulaic writing assignments, such as lab reports: 

  • Begin with a lesson for the entire class on how to write a good lab report (ideally, model the entire process for the class from outlining, to writing to editing).  Then supply each student with a copy of a model lab report, including the outline used to create it.
  • The next time a lab report assignment is due, instead of collecting it, have students break into peer editing groups. Instruct the groups to evaluate each report based on the model and make suggestions for improvements. 
  • Give the students one additional day to write the improved draft, which they will hand in for a grade. 

In addition to making grading a little easier, this process helps to underscore a basic truth about writing:  good writers write more than one draft!  

If you decide to assign a longer paper, such as a biography of a scientist of mathematician, or a persuasive essay on, for instance, why biology classes should (or should not be)  required in high school, peer editing teams can play a key role in cutting back on your grading and improving the outcome: 

  • Break the assignment into smaller parts.  Instead of assigning a paper, start by having students explores possible topics and thesis statements.  Then have them create simple argument outlines (What is my point?  How do I back it up? So what?)
  • Have students, with these basic ideas in hand, break into peer editing teams to discuss their thesis statements and outlines get suggestions for improvement.
  • Have students hand in their basic argument outline (What is my point?  How do I back it up? So what?) to you on an index card. You will want to read these to make sure a student is not getting off to a bad start.
  • Have students write their first draft and then meet with peer editors for feedback.  Have peer editors follow the “How Much Red Ink Should You Use?” guidelines in helping the student to improve the draft, and have each student take notes on what needs to be changed/improved in his draft.
  • Have students write a second draft and hand it in with the original draft and peer editing notes for improvement attached.

Yes, you will still have to grade the papers.  But the quality will be better, and the idea that good writing requires revision will be reinforced to all students.  That is supporting writing across the curriculum!