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.


They Whys and Hows of Writing Across the Curriculum

There you are at the top of your game.  You are widely recognized as an ace at teaching Geometry or Biology and suddenly it happens, the Lord Voldemort of educational innovation: Your principal tells you that a significant part of your annual performance evaluation is going to depend on how well you support writing in your class.   You KNOW that many students in your class do not write well.  A dedicated teacher, you have already tried to deal with this by assigning more written work:  You have asked Geometry students to explain in writing how they arrived at a proof; you have asked Biology students to write a three page paper on the pros and cons of human cloning.  The results made you want to propose marriage to your protractor, to tearfully seek solace among your amoeba and paramecium slides.   

But wait.  Writing across the curriculum really is a good idea.  And it doesn’t require that you take a crash course in Teaching Subjects You Haven’t Mastered at the New Trends School of Education.  Like so much else in modern life, it requires things much more elusive: patience and common sense.

Why Must We Teach Writing Across the Curriculum?   The short answer is: Because writing has become a core requirement for finding any kind of employment.  The notion that you need to write well only if you plan on seeking a “white collar” job is obsolete.  As Kelly Gallagher points out in Write Like This, writing skills have become part of the evaluation process for aspiring plumbers, landscapers, policemen, fast-food workers, bankers, mechanics and chefs.  According to a report from the National Commission on Writing two-thirds of salaried employees held jobs with writing responsibilities – and that was back in 2004!  The same report found that U.S. employers rate more than 80 percent of high school graduates entering the work force as “deficient” in written communications skills.  Although four-year college grads do better, the numbers are still alarming — nearly 28 percent can’t write basic memos and other communications critical to day-to-day office operations.  

These real-world demands for better writing are actually good news for teachers.  Remember, writing is just thinking on paper.  The more your students write, the more opportunities they have to think and reflect on what they have learned. Colleges and universities across the country have taken the lead in emphasizing writing across the curriculum, and  student response has been extremely positive.  For instance, here’s what a student from the University of Manoa (Hawaii), a highly writing-intensive school had to say about writing and learning:

  • [Writing] helps you get a perspective of what you studied. When you read something–okay, you read it and you sort of understand it, but when you actually have to write about it and tell someone else, in writing, it forces your mind to think of it in a new way. You have to organize your thoughts, you have to make it into some sort of order rather than just thinking on the vast subject. And it forces you to refine your thinking to even more than just having these general ideas. When you have to try to convince someone in writing, it forces you to think a lot sharper . . . it forces you to be even more analytical. (History major)

This response was typical.   And, when directly asked in a survey,  seventy-six percent of Manoa students reported feelings of confidence when writing in their major.

I can almost hear you say, “Alright already.  Writing is important.  But why should I have to focus on writing in my class? Isn’t that the English teacher’s job?”   Well, yes, of course.  But for students to grasp the importance of writing, they need to spend more than 1/5 of their school day thinking about it!

How Can Math and Science Teachers Be Expected to Teach Writing?   What if, despite being a cracker jack math teacher, writing gives you the heebie-jeebies? How can you possibly be effective at supporting writing in your classroom if you break out in hives whenever you’re asked to put pen to paper?  Here’s some more good news:  you don’t have to do all the work.  In fact, as we will soon discuss, when you encourage collaboration and peer review in your class, your role in “teaching” writing becomes more of a coaching role, supporting students who work collaboratively.  And even when you do assign papers to students individually, you are not expected to supply feedback the way English teachers would.  Consider these guidelines to teachers in writing–rich (WR) courses from Carleton College, another writing intensive institution:

What is  Writing Rich  (WR) Course? This DOES mean that… This does NOT necessarily mean…
A WR course will normally have 3 or more writing assignments. …students have opportunities for improving their writing over the course of a term. …three formal papers with detailed feedback from the professor on each.
A WR course will offer students feedback on their writing. …professors provide written comments. …professors comment on sentence structure or mechanics;…professors line-edit students’ writing;…professors comment in detail on all writing assignments;…all feedback the student receives must be from the professor.
A WR course will provide students with opportunities for revision. …students have an opportunity to write more than a single draft of at least one assignment. …professors must read, comment on and grade multiple drafts of a single paper.

The takeaway is that to support writing in your classroom, you do not have to become a superhero who can instantly transform himself into an English Language Arts teacher. 

Where Do You Start?  Since writing is just thinking on paper, start by asking your students to think.  Once a week as a “do now” activity, post a big question on the board and ask your students to take five or ten minutes to answer it using the three questions all good writers use:

  • What’s my point?
  • How do I support it?
  • So What?

Then randomly choose students to come to the front of the class and give an oral presentation of their answer.  Encourage the rest of the class to ask questions, to respectfully challenge the presenter.  This simple activity  encourages thinking and therefore encourages writing!  After doing this for a few weeks, you will be able to transition into short writing assignments. To cut back on the labor intensity of teaching writing, create peer editing groups in your class.  Confer with the English teacher on your team and find out who the strong writers in each class are so you can group four or five students together with least one strong writer on each team.  These teams can work together to review first drafts of short writing assignments and suggest specific improvements to each writer. 

Here are a few writing assignments, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin, you might want to start out with:

  • A fifty word sentence, summarizing what the student learned in (Math, Science, History) that week.
  • A one minute paper requiring students to cite one new bit of information they learned in class and to ask one question about something that remained unclear.
  • A weekly journal entry, one paragraph long, reflecting on how what was learned in this week’s class is relevant in the real world.
  • An explanation of how a Math problem was solved:  This assignment might be given with a rubric so that students understand the criteria on which they will be graded.

These simple short writing exercises will help students flex their writing muscles. 

Another suggestion (from both MIT and University of Wisconsin) for teaching writing across the curriculum, is to sequence assignments, specifically:

  • Repeat the same assignment; vary the topic.  For example, if you want students to explain how they answered a math problem, spend a lot of time modeling how the answer should look when you first give the assignment.  A couple of weeks later, ask students to explain their answers again, and briefly refer back to the model you already gave them. The next time you give the assignment, you probably won’t need to do any more modelling!
  • Move from simpler to more complex assignments: For example, University of Wisconsin’s writing center suggests that “Over the course of a semester you might build up to a six-page critical review of several sources by having students complete the following series of assignments: a one-page summary of one source; a two-page summary and critique of a single source; a four-page review of two sources (with revision); a six-page review of four sources (with revision). You might first asks students to write a close analysis, then later have them write a longer paper that includes another close analysis. This approach to sequencing assumes that students will be better equipped to write longer papers or undertake more cognitively challenging tasks if they first have the opportunity to build their skills and their confidence.”
  • Break a complex assignment into smaller parts.   For instance, you might want to assign students one 2 – 4 page paper relating what they are studying to the real world (e.g., ”Please write a two to four page argument on why  students must study Algebra in high school.”).    Instead of just assigning the paper with a deadline a few weeks later, break the paper into parts with shorter deadlines, and required peer review team approval before you move to the next step. 
    • Assignment one:  Choose a topic and a potential thesis statement and have it peer-reviewed.
    • Assignment two: Draft your short outline (What is my point?  How do I support it? So what?)  and have it peer-reviewed.
    • Assignment three:  Write your introduction and have it peer-reviewed.

And so on.  (By the way, stay tuned for next week’s post, which will highlight the benefits of peer review and how to teach students to be peer editors.)

There is a lot more to say about writing across the curriculum, and this blog will focus on specific strategies in future posts.   In the meantime,  check out Colorado State University’s wonderful website, which has links to scores of colleges that emphasize writing across the curriculum with very positive results!