Differentiate my Ride! The Role of the Rubric in Differentiating Projects

Teachers certainly know that their students represent a variety of cultures, abilities, and learning styles. They also understand that by responding to individual students’ needs, those students will no doubt experience a more powerful learning experience. Providing opportunities for student choice in projects they complete, through negotiation, can help us “create motivating assignments that meet students’ diverse needs and varied interests” (Robb, 2008). Yet, we have to think in terms of fairness, too.  If Madison is creating a video and Esteban is writing a series of blogs, how can we be sure that they are both have mastered the objectives that we want them to master, and how can we ensure that neither of them feels the other has an “easier” task? 

In order to ensure that we’re effectively incorporating student choice as a method for differentiated instruction, we have to be able to effectively develop a rubric, and not just any rubric, but an analytical trait rubric. We must be able to discern criteria for quality, which can be applied to any media for presentation or production. 

And that means we may need to rethink our very comfortable, compartmentalized rubrics. Or we may need to use more than one for a project. Let’s take a look at one portion of this 5th grade Ancient Civilization Research project rubric:

These rubric components are two of several--there are more components, such as presentation and organization. This particular project is NOT differentiated as students are all expected to develop a written report and an oral presentation. Thus, if we wanted to differentiate this project for ancient civilizations, we’d need to totally rethink the rubric and our approach to the assessment. 

Notice that Report and Research are separated into (basically) how many sources are used (numerous, general, adequate, insufficient) and a very vague overview of the use of that research, (again with the amounts as the focus for the most part: limited, some, good, thorough) combined with quality of descriptive writing (that will work). Further, the language is very pedantic and not developed with the student in mind. Thus, student motivation will be impacted. 

To differentiate this rubric and the project, we’re going to need to: (1) think more conceptually, (2) incorporate criteria in terms of analytic traits, and (3) write for the student.  Here’s what we might do:

Communication of Ideas

Ideas are creative, clear, and organized, and clearly show the audience how they connect to the civilization chosen

Ideas are clear and organized, but the audience may have trouble seeing how they connect to the civilization chosen
Ideas might be either organized or clear, but the audience isn’t able to see how they connect to the civilization chosen
Ideas don’t make sense and/ or don’t clearly connect  to the civilization chosen

Use of the Research
The research used clearly, effectively, and meaningfully supports the writer’s ideas, and the sources are credible as per the class agreement of what makes a credible source.
The research used supports the writer’s ideas, but it may not be clear or meaningful, and the sources are credible as per the class agreement of what makes a credible source.

The research used may or may not support the writer’s ideas effectively, or the sources may or may not be credible as per the class agreement of what makes a credible source.

The research used doesn’t support the writer’s ideas, and the sources may not be credible as per the class agreement of what makes a credible source.

This revision is, admittedly, somewhat done in haste, but I hope you see how the revised rubric could apply to any medium: a video, an essay, a blog, a visual, an infographic.  Further, notice that the emphasis is on quality of the criteria as opposed to amounts of things (clearly, meaningfully, effectively). Notice the use of “audience,” too, which can apply to any type of product--written, verbal, visual, or kinesthetic. With a short written component for the research, I could evaluate the communication of ideas in an interpretive dance. I also endeavored to make it more student-friendly, but I can see that some wording would probably need to be clarified for fifth graders.  At any rate, that’s the goal. 

Finally, and on a completely personal note, I’ve presented the more effective levels closer to the traits as opposed to less effective traits being presented first. Given that students read left to right, I feel that this approach is more motivational.  Call me crazy. 

But differentiating needs a little crazy to make it work. 


Robb, L. (2008) Differentiating reading instruction: How to teach reading to meet the needs of each student [Excerpt].  Danbury, CT: Scholastic. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/what-differentiated-instruction

Mindy and some of her former students published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation!