Alternative Essay Rubric

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Curriculum

Here’s an alternative rubric that I use when marking my student’s work. At the core of the themantic approach to teaching is the recognition that learning moves from surface to deep learning. The three levels of learning (aka three levels of thinking) are descriptors that can lead to more objective marking and clearer feedback for students.

These levels work at a micro and macro level, so they need to be understood in relation to our learning and assessment outcomes.

IB Psychology Themantically Essay Rubric

If you wanted to, you could change the name of “abstracting” to “critical thinking” or “critical reflection” – in practice it means the same thing.

Example Essay

Five Mark Bands for A – F Grades

You’ll notice that the rubric has five mark bands. If your school is like mine and kids get letter grades and GPAs, this might make it easier to use and comprehend for students. The fewer mark bands you have the more reliable marking becomes between markers because there are less chances for differing opinions. A balance needs to be found.

What are the three levels of learning?

Knowing: this is related to the comprehension of individual units of information that are relevant to the question. In IB Psychology essays, this means defining key terms, and outlining or describing research. For example, in an answer about factors influencing bystanderism, a student may wish to define bystanderism and describe some research by Darley and Latane. They may also state a factor influencing bystanderism, like diffusion of responsibility.

Students don’t need to define all key terms – just using appropriate terminology can be enough to demonstrate knowledge. They need to critically select when to state, define, outline or describe.

I use “description” as an umbrella term that encompasses outlining, defining, stating,  and identifying. All these verbs require is a communication of comprehension of an individual unit of information – a key term or a piece of research in our case.

This level of learning is the easiest for students and teachers to comprehend, and thus it’s the easiest to explain and quantify.

Understanding: in the themantic model we define understanding something as being able to show how two ore more things are significantly related in response to a question or problem. This is deeper learning. For example, a student can explain how diffusion of responsibility or informational social influence may influence bystanderism. Understanding is shown through explanation, which we define as “the communication of significant relationships in response to a question or problem.”

A common mistake students make is after a description of research they make a one sentence explanation that doesn’t fully convey their understanding. Often the difference between a mid-band and top-band answer is just two or three sentences.

All IB Psych’ questions require the application of research to the question, so all research must be explained. A good explanation relies on effective description – how can you show how things are related if you don’t show what those things are first?

This criterion assesses the extent to which a student has grasped a core conceptual understanding in the course.  All IB exam questions ask about relationships, relationships between variables and behaviour, ethics and research and research methods and topics. Students should be demonstrating their understanding of how things are related to reveal conceptual understanding.*

Abstracting: this is the hardest to explain in writing as it is by its very nature abstract. Basically, it requires students to go beyond explanation of a significant relationship and to think abstractly about that relationship.


The easiest example to provide is evaluating a study based on external validity. This requires students to question the extent to which the study could be expected to happen in a different context. This requires abstract thinking.

Questions about ethical considerations require students to demonstrate an understanding of why certain considerations are relevant to particular areas of study. They then need to critically reflect on this and counter argue in some way – perhaps following these considerations could influence validity.

How abstraction is shown will be determined by the command term.

But if this is a bit tricky to grasp, just call it “critical thinking.”


This isn’t a level of learning per se, but it rewards students for their ability to structure cogent arguments and use devices like transitions and sign-posts correctly.

*The term “conceptual understanding” can be a contentious one. It means being able to comprehend an abstract idea. But what is an “idea” and when does it stop being concrete and become abstract? For example, is understanding that serotonin can influence antisocial behaviour a conceptual understanding, or is this too concrete? Would it need to be something like, neurotransmitters influence behaviour, or is this still too specific and we need to go even more abstract with “biological factors may influence behaviour.” I argue that we should be teaching for understanding of the specific concepts in order to reach the abstract ones. Our assessments should reflect this, but they don’t always unfortunately. The old exam questions about principles of the LOAs were the best for assessing understanding of concepts at a range of levels of abstraction.


These levels work at a micro and macro level, so they need to be understood in relation to our learning and assessment outcomes. All of my lessons have three levels of learning outcomes so I can ensure all students are learning. New knowledge is always introduced every lesson (or almost every lesson, or else we’d never “get through the course”). A guiding question guides students towards understanding how this new learning relates and then an abstraction extension pushes those kids that need extending.