Using Rubrics to Assess Critical Thinking

Assessing critical thinking has been a bugbear for teachers for years. After all, critical thinking is not like a problem in math or historical fact with a discrete answer. It’s a global, all-encompassing thinking pattern. Enter the time-honored rubric—a way to measure progress toward that goal.

There are two kinds of rubrics for assessing critical thinking: analytic and holistic. Analytic methods divide a product into essential dimensions (traits), and each dimension is judged separately. A separate score is given for each dimension or trait considered important for the assessed performance. They take longer but are more sensitive to the nuances of the argument. Holistic rubrics give a single score or rating for an entire product or performance based on overall impression of a student’s work. They are quicker and provide a broader picture of the arguments.

Here are some ideas about formulating your own rubric to assess critical thinking.

• The most manageable analytic rubric has from 3 to 5 categories and no more than 4 levels within each category. More than that is too burdensome.

• Definitions of critical thinking abound, and don’t always agree (understatement). As with all instruments, be clear about what you define as critical thinking and the outcomes you expect. To complicate matters, critical thinking in the humanities may have different criteria than, say, those in the sciences.

• Raters (if more than one) must be trained to achieve interrater reliability.

An analytic approach to assessment can expose trends of learning needs that can guide instruction.

This analytic rubric is from by Susan Wolcott’s site (, where you can also find a lot of other helpful information about critical thinking.

Analytic rubrics provide the opportunity to score each criteria area individually. This means you can identify deficiency needs of students in specific aspects of learning. A holistic rubric, on the other hand, allows you to give a single score. Grading is much faster than using an analytical one, but less precise. That can be remedied by writing specific notes to the student.

From Microsoft PowerPoint – Designing Rubrics to Assess Critical Thinking.pptx (

Note: This rubric includes all the criteria that exemplify critical thinking as defined by your program/course/outcomes (as should all rubrics).


Published by Nancy Burkhalter

I am in love with words. Trained as a linguist, journalist and researcher, I write, teach writing, and research everything about writing, especially how writing aids critical thinking. I've taught around the world, including three years in Kazakhstan, and a year each in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Germany.

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