Amy's Whimsical Musings

“Spec”-tacular: Going Beyond the Rubric (The Makes, the TIONS, the Promises)

I have a confession, and I suspect I’m not alone.

I love developing projects and opportunities for my students to create, but I absolutely despise “grading” them. Even worse, I don’t care much for writing rubrics to accompany them. Why? They seem confining and overly prescriptive – the same reason I shy away from lined paper.


What I DO love is:

* sharing examples as a source of inspiration or critique,

*offering feedback throughout the process, and

*sharing and celebrating the creative work after it’s completed

Recently, I heard one of my students, while working on a stop-motion animation project, say to another,

“How long is this supposed to be? Are there any specs?”

I realized that I had articulated the “specs”, but not in a way students were accustomed to. It was more of a “design brief” with expectations illustrated by the examples I’d shown. Perhaps this was not enough. Perhaps I need to be more direct, concise, detailed…? And then I thought,

what if there were universal “project specs” for everything we make in our course?

These would be general enough to fit every project and every student – broad enough not to stifle anyone’s creativity but meaty enough to guide them in the direction they should go.

First we start with a goal – to create something that

* demonstrates learning / knowledge

* leaves a legacy

For a long time  I had this quote in my classroom from the great Saul Bass:

“I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares”


The first of the criteria, therefore would be

1. Make it Beautiful

– some may think this term is relative, but I bet if you brainstormed with students they could define exactly what a “beautiful” piece of work was…and what it is not.

While I like Saul’s swagger, I want my students to see the meaning in their assignments, and be able to share them with a public who cares. Therefore, the second criterion would be…

2. Make it Relevant

– the driving question should be “Ok- so what? Who cares?” Even if the point is “It adds beauty or humour to this otherwise mundane existence”, that’s at least something.

I throw this next term around a lot, and I’m always surprised how many students are at first perplexed by its meaning…

3. Make it Poignant

– the root of this word is “to prick, to sting, to pierce”, and although its connotations are often negative or sad I try get students to think about how they are going to make a serious impression on their audience…how will they evoke an emotional response? Because, that’s what makes things sticky.

Ask anyone and they will tell you I’m a HUGE fan of remix culture (after all, that is what I do on YouTube) That being said, I feel it’s imperative to transform anything appropriated and…

4. Make it Unique

– I show my students work from both ex-students and from professionals in hopes they will be inspired and perhaps take an idea and repurpose it with their own spin. To me, that’s one of the highest levels of thinking.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before in this post, what’s the point of making if you’re not going to share? That leads us to…

5. Make it Transparent

– whether the project itself is digital or analogue I insist that my students share to their peers and the wider public (usually via their blogs and Twitter). I hope this shapes their decision-making in the creative process, knowing that their audience will be global and that they will have “stage time” for their labour.

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 10.32.31 PM


After the project is complete, I ask these “-tions” of my students:

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 10.33.38 PM

1. ATTRIBUTION – give credit to your inspiration and resources. Your work should leave a trail back to the fellow creators who influenced you.

2. EXPLANATION – take time to thoroughly explain your process and technique, providing the reasoning behind your design choices and tips for troubleshooting any issues you encountered.

3. REFLECTION – provide a thoughtful recap of what you learned from completing this project, what you’d change if you could, and what your “big takeaway” is.

4. NO HESITATION – You made it. It’s your baby. Celebrate it with confidence. When you present your work in front of an audience (or even if it’s just the intro you write on your YouTube Channel or blog), you should not simple say “So, um, yeah.”

5. NO SELF-DEPRECATION – While we all love Hugh Grant’s self-deprecating British charm, there is no place for it while presenting the fruits of your labour to the world. Save the apologies and disses for your bad hair days. Your energy is better spent giving shout-outs to fellow creators (your peers, perhaps?) who have made some pretty fantastic things.


My Promise

As teacher/mentor/fellow learner I’ve given myself some specs as well.


– Creativity takes time, and thankfully I work at a school that embraces project-based learning and assessment. If you don’t, you will need to get perhaps more “creative” with your schedule, but it is do-able. Regardless, any project should be open enough where students can have choice in the tools they use and the type of project they do. It’s a good idea to do your homework and find excellent examples and even develop a “virtual toolbox” for them, though.


– Having what I call “Studio Time” for projects does not mean letting the students go to town by themselves while grade papers or something. The teacher/mentor/co-learner needs to find a balance between being actively involved and able to give effective feedback and standing at a distance so as not to be a “helicopter parent”, as it were.


– I’ve spent a lot of time building up my PLN of fellow educators and people interested in technology and media. I strongly believe that students feel ultimately validated when their work is shared and re-shared by the public at large – and particularly if someone “related” to their project takes notice. Twitter is a great democratizer in this way, and there have been many times when “famous” people (artists, writers, scientists, app developers) in the “real world” have publicly acknowledged and appreciated my students’ work, all because of a simple tweet or G+ post.


9 comments on ““Spec”-tacular: Going Beyond the Rubric (The Makes, the TIONS, the Promises)

  1. Rick Bartlett
    August 30, 2013

    Thank you Amy, this is fantastic. So much better than a rubric, yet still provides opportunity for feedback and assessment. This is a clear way to focus any type of artifact or assignment.

    • amyburvall
      August 30, 2013

      Thanks Rick, so glad you found it helpful

  2. Steve Wheeler
    September 2, 2013

    Nice blog post. I may have to tweet this out. Try and stop me 😉

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  4. transmooc
    January 22, 2014

    Bravo, j’aimerai être votre élève.
    Merci, de si bien nous faire partager le modèle que vous êtes.

  5. George
    January 22, 2014

    Amy – thank you, a great practical model for students which indicates what outcomes you want but leaves so much open that it is enforcing independence. Nice ideas…

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  7. Garreth Heidt
    March 6, 2017

    I’m going to share this with one of my art teachers today, but I’ve to say, I’m utterly surprised not more people have commented on this. It’s a brilliant strategy. Contrary to your implication, I’ve taken this and created a rubric…for now. It’s necessary in my school; however, most of the grade on the rubric is perfunctory. The only thing that’s linked to clear outcomes is the reflective essay all students have to write at the end of any project with design specs.

    I thought you might enjoy reading what one of my students has to say about these design specs and the rubric i created:

    “Okay, so I kinda hate this way of grading but I also kinda love it. It’s hard to meet these requirements because these things can be very subjective, beautiful to me may not be beautiful to you, same with everything else (except transparency, that’s self-explanatory). I like it because it makes me feel that my work is for some bigger purpose than just a grade.”

    (Here’s a link to the rubric– . The column descriptors change depending on the unit being assessed. I link you to the rubric for our reading of Huck Finn.)

    • amyburvall
      March 6, 2017

      Wow! What a treat to get this commentary…thanks, too, for remixing it into your own and sharing that. I’m thinking I might revise this post a bit and if so, will include your resources as well.

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