Teaching and building skills online? Start with rubrics!

Instructional Design
Online Learning
Student Engagement

By: Lucas Ames

Mr. Samuel Finch has been teaching Entrepreneurship for years and loves the idea of students giving peer feedback on each other’s business ideas. He firmly believes in developing each student’s ability to give and receive constructive criticism … at least in theory. In his first attempts at this type of feedback, he is disappointed. Most students seem only interested in giving “pats on the back,” and the feedback is rarely actionable for the students receiving the feedback. Mr. Finch returns to providing the majority of feedback himself because he’s no longer sure his students can give high quality feedback.

I’ve heard the story of Mr. Finch many times. For years teachers have been responding to the call for renewed focus on skills development. Writing from the likes of Will Richardson and Tony Wagner has invited teachers to question “what learning is” and “what students actually need to know.” For many schools the result has been movement toward curriculum that develops highlights skills like collaboration, content curation, discussions, and peer feedback (among others) and away from a spotlight on content. That shift, however, also needs a renewed focus on the difficult task of articulating what these skills consist of and how we communicate and evaluate students on them. For Mr. Finch, this was ultimately the problem. We cannot simply say, “My students collaborated on project X and gave peer feedback on project Y, so I covered it.” We need to ask ourselves questions like, “How do we know that the collaboration was effective?” or “How effectively did we communicate to students what good peer feedback looks like?”

We’ve been asking these questions here at GOA. We know that when our courses effectively implement these global competencies, teaching and learning improve in the online space. Additionally, we believe that these skills are life skills that add value outside of the classroom.

In order to promote skill development among our students and consistency and clarity of expectations among our teachers, we created an Outcomes Library for use in rubrics or other assessment tools.  For students, the outcomes clearly communicate how we define and assess key online learning skills.  For example, the criteria below for content curation illuminate clear expectations for students and later become the areas in which they’ll be evaluated.

Content Curation

Whether or not these are new skills for them, students will benefit from seeing clear, descriptive language that explains what teachers mean by “good reflection” or “good content curation.” While many educators give students the opportunity to “practice” skills like these, far fewer delineate good practice of that skill while also giving direct, repeated feedback. In other words, the Outcomes Library not only makes clear the criteria, but also facilitates opportunities for students to practice these skills and master them.

We’ve intentionally avoided developing a step-by-step procedure for students to become good at certain skills. Rather, the outcomes guide students without grabbing them by the hand and leading them. For students, this guidance, combined with consistent practice and feedback, should result in much better development of these skills. As students see progress, they begin to develop a growth mindset. Since these skills are fungible beyond the online classroom, this growth mindset can promote continued improvement outside the classroom as well. These are life skills that will endure well beyond their immediate success in the class.

For teachers, these outcomes offer clear, descriptive language for giving feedback on critical skills within their courses. Although many of these skills are qualitative, by focusing on descriptive, observable criteria, teachers deliver consistent and predictable feedback, which include making clear specific places where students need to improve. Taking the time to give feedback on these skills can be daunting. Armed with clear and consistent language, however, teachers can expedite the process. Additionally, as students become adept with these outcomes, feedback can be given by their peers, or even better, by themselves as a form of self-assessment.

We’re excited about what our Outcomes Library offers students and teachers. Each member of GOA’s instructional design team contributed toward crafting the precise language of the outcomes. Knowing that our work will need to be updated as we gather feedback from students and teachers, we hope to make our Outcomes even better over time. In this spirit, the library is a living document, one we encourage students and teachers to customize and improve.

The Outcomes Library at GOA is a tool to help teachers like Mr. Finch develop students’ skills. Ultimately, we envision a pedagogical approach that embraces the skills component of education, which includes teaching skills, practicing them, and providing feedback. The Outcomes Library serves as a catalyst for this process.


Lucas Ames
Lucas Ames is an Instructional Designer with Global Online Academy. He is aformer department chair and head cross country coach at the Flint Hill School, a world traveler, an entrepreneur, and an innovative educator, Lucas brings exactly the type of passion that makes GOA the innovative hub for our member schools and beyond. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.