From Essay Writing to the Rubric Technique?

Since I have been involved in lecturing in sociology and anthropology, I have mainly assessed students’ understandings of key concepts and case studies that were presented during lectures. To the surprise of many freshers, they were not asked to learn any technical terms by heart. I think that the role of lecturers (and assessors) in the two above mentioned disciplines is to stimulate critical thinking and give students an overview of historical and recent debates. Since thinking about culture, gender, class, ethnicity, and age is shaped by a person’s own identity, it is important to allow students to reflect on their own experiences and identity in an open and tolerant learning environment. The bottom line is that the ability to transfer knowledge from one context to another is highly valued. Nonetheless, the academic system is designed to assess the skills students learned during a course.

I feel that the role of the lecturer is to help students improve their skills while engaging in learning activities. Although multiple choice tests can be useful in anthropology and sociology, I much more prefer to give first-year students an opportunity to engage in essay writing and apply learned key concepts to their own everyday life or current political debates.  Drawing from a wide variety of essay questions or prompts, I strive to combine formative and summative assessment. Midterm essays can for instance help assess if student have understood a specific theoretical perspective or a case study. I often ask them to write about the approach used in a given study to see how they make sense of its technical terms and findings. Examples of summative assessment, that is usually submitted at the end of the term, include final reports about mini-research projects, a term paper, or an oral exam on a mutually agreed topic.

Playful Assessment with the Rubric Technique

Inspired by the content of the Playful Assessment Module, I explored how the assessment technique rubrics can make the learning experience of students more playful and engaging. Instead of asking students to draw a poster as suggested on the Metarubrics blog on the website of the Teaching Systems Lab, I recently asked three friends to create a mind map to see how they understand theoretical concepts or processes or how they summarizes a case study. All three participants were not trained in anthropology, but eager to learn something about Instagram.

Phase 1    

I began our learning assessment game by describing a recent ethnographic study on the new attention economy that Instagram has established. I spoke for exactly 5 minutes.  (The study draws on the neologism ’instafame’ and is well summarized in this article:  Marwick, A. E. (2015) Instafame: Luxury selfies in the attention economy.) I told my friends about the study and the perspective on digital culture that Marwick developed. After that I asked them to develop a mind map in PowerPoint. I suggested visualizing the attention economy that I briefly described before. They had 5 minutes to draw a mind map.


Phase 2


Mind map 1: Bob 

Mind map 2: Madis

Mind map 3: Nadja

Phase 3

All three participants were given 3 minutes to present the mind map and explain what it visualized.


Phase 4

Subsequently, I handed out the Rubric Sheets to all three participants and filled out one myself. We then discussed which rubrics should guide the assessment of the mind maps on instafame.

We agreed on five main criteria:

  • Appropriateness of the visualized concepts
  • Quality of visualizing the relationships between concepts
  • Variety of symbols and shapes used in the mind map
  • Clearness of the oral presentation of the mind map
  • New concepts, perspectives, and interpretations developed mind map


The rubric technique allowed us to reflect on the evaluation criteria in a playful way. A great benefit of the rubric techniques is that the players can be moved from initial judgments of the study or the sharing of their own experience with social media to a more conceptual level where they can creatively re-compose the key terms used in the study. The rubrics that we develop are, of course, debatable. While we ensured that all four participants could influence at least one criterion, we knew that the many other evaluation criteria could be chosen. However, I had the feeling that this game was not so much about results, but about getting familiar with the case study and its theoretical perspective, and there are, of course, different valid interpretations of the text.  I am convinced that the rubric technique is a great tool for facilitating group discussions. I am thus planning to use it again in a workshop later this year.





  1. Hello! I agree with your approach that the role of the lecturer is to provide opportunities for the students to learn. It was inspiring to read about your experiment on how to include your “students”. In a playful way, you gave your them the opportunity to actively be a part of their learning.

  2. I got really inspired about your activity with the rubric technique cause I have have given an opportunity in examination a course for my students to draw and explain a mind map instead of writing an essay. So far they have recorded a powerpoint but your idea is applicable directly to my purposes. I am planning to use it on my course in fall.

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