What is a rubric and why you should use it in global health education-small

What is a “rubric” and why use rubrics in global health education?

Reda Sadki Global health, Learning, Learning design, Theory

Rubrics are well-established, evidence-based tools in education, but largely unknown in global health.

At the Geneva Learning Foundation (TGLF), the rubric is a key tool that we use – as part of a comprehensive package of interventions – to transform high-cost, low-volume training dependent on the limited availability of global experts into scalable peer learning to improve access, quality, and outcomes.

The more prosaic definition of the rubric – reduced from any pedagogical questioning – is “a type of scoring guide that assesses and articulates specific components and expectations for an assignment” (Source).

The rubric is a practical solution to a number of complex issues that prevent effective teaching and learning in global health.

Developing a rubric provides a practical method for turning complex content and expertise into a learning process in which learners will learn primarily from each other.

Hence, making sense of a rubric requires recognizing and appreciating the value of peer learning.

This may be difficult to understand for those working in global health, due to a legacy of scientifically and morally wrong norms for learning and teaching primarily through face-to-face training. The first norm is that global experts teach staff in countries who are presumed to not know. The second is that the expert who knows (their subject) also necessarily knows how to teach, discounting or dismissing the science of pedagogy. Experts consistently believe that they can just “wing it” because they have the requisite technical knowledge. This ingrained belief also rests on the third mistaken assumption: that teaching is the job of transmitting information to those who lack it. (Paradoxically, the proliferation of online information modules and webinars has strengthened this norm, rather than weakened it).

Indeed, although almost everyone agrees in principle that peer learning is “great”, there remains deep skepticism about its value. Unfortunately, learner preferences do not correlate with outcomes. Given the choice, learners prefer sitting passively to listen to a great lecture from a globally-renowned figure, rather than the drudgery of working in a group of peers whose level of expertise is unknown and who may or may not be engaged in the activities. (Yet, when assessed formally, the group that works together will out-perform the group that was lectured.) For subject matter experts, there can even be an existential question: if peers can learn without me, the expert, then am I still needed? What is my value to learners? What is my role?

Developing a rubric provides a way to resolve such tensions and augment rather than diminish the significance of expertise. This requires, for the subject matter expert, a willingness to rethink and reframe their role from sage on the stage to guide on the side.

Rubric development requires:

  1. expert input and review to think through what set of instructions and considerations will guide learners in developing useful knowledge they can use; and
  2. expertise to select the specific resources (such as guidance documents, case studies, etc.) that will help the learner as they develop this new knowledge.

In this approach, an information module, a webinar, a guidance document, or any other piece of knowledge becomes a potential resource for learning that can be referenced into a rubric, with specific indications to when and how it may be used to support learning.

In a peer learning context, a rubric is also a tool for reflection, stirring metacognition (thinking about thinking) that helps build critical thinking “muscles”.

Our rubrics combine didactic instructions (“do this, do that”), reflective and exploratory questions, and as many considerations as necessary to guide the development of high-quality knowledge. These instructions are organized into versatile, specific criterion that can be as simple as “Calculate sample size” (where there will be only one correct answer), focus on practicalities (“Formulate your three top recommendations to your national manager”), or allow for exploration (“Reflect on the strategic value of your vaccination coverage survey for your country’s national immunization programme”).

Yes, we use a scoring guide on a 0-4 scale, where the 4 out of 4 for each criterion summarizes what excellent work looks like. This often initially confuses both learners and subject matter experts, who assume that peers (whose prior expertise has not been evaluated) are being asked to grade each other. It turns out that, with a well-designed rubric, a neophyte can provide useful, constructive feedback to a seasoned expert – and vice versa. Both are using the same quality standard, so they are not sharing their personal opinion but applying that standard by using their critical thinking capabilities to do so.

Before using the rubric to review the work of peers, each learner has had to use it to develop their own work. This ensures a kind of parity between peers: whatever the differences in experience and expertise, countries, or specializations, everyone has first practiced using the rubric for their own needs.

In such a context, the key is not the rating, but the explanation that the peer reviewer will provide to explain it, with the requirements that she provides constructive, practical suggestions for how the author can improve their work.

In some cases, learners are surprised to receive contradictory feedback: two reviewers give opposite ratings – one very high, and the other very low – together with conflicting explanations for these ratings. In such cases, it is an opportunity for learners to review the rubric, again, while critically examining the feedbacks received, in order to adjudicate between them. Ultimately, rubric-based feedback allows for significantly more learner agency in making the determination of what to do with the feedback received – as the next task is to translate this feedback into practical revisions to improve their work. This is, in and of itself, conducive to significant learning.

Learn more about rubrics as part of effective teaching and learning from Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, two education pioneers who taught me to use them.

Image: Mondrian’s classroom. The Geneva Learning Foundation Collection.