The Deceptive Allure of Clarity

You could be forgiven for thinking that a statement such as ‘The deceptive allure of clarity’ must have come straight from the mouth of Iain McGilchrist, author of ‘The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’. McGilchrist would align this statement with the way in which the left hemisphere attends to the world. In his book he explains that we are living in a left hemisphere dominated world. For the left hemisphere, the parts are more important than the whole. The left hemisphere values the known, familiar, certain, distinct, fragmentary, isolated and unchanging. It abstracts ideas from body and context, seeing things as inanimate and representational. In the left hemisphere’s view of the world, quality is replaced by quantity, and unique cases are replaced with categories.

But this statement, ‘The Deceptive Allure of Clarity’, did not come from McGilchrist, but from a Lancaster University online Department of Education Research Seminar that I attended this week, which was presented by Jan McArthur and Joanne Wood. The full title of their talk was ‘Towards Wicked Marking Criteria: the deceptive allure of clarity’, which is what drew me, and many others, in (the session was very well attended). This was how the session was advertised.

In this seminar we consider the dissonance between two major themes in the scholarship of teaching, learning and assessment in higher education: the engagement with complex and structured forms of knowledge and the development of increasingly precise marking criteria for assessment.  We question what is lost when we aim to make assessment a more and more precise practice?  We argue that academic knowledge cannot always be broken into manageable “bits” but often should be evaluated holistically.  Finally we propose that students who perform “badly” in assessments have often not done this by accident or neglect but rather through diligent and conscientious following of implicit messages we send out as teachers, often in the name of clarity.

They started the session by asking the question: ‘What if the pursuit of clarity is part of the problem?’ By this they were making reference to what they called ‘The Monster Rubric’, which is so detailed and atomised that it loses all sense of what it is trying to achieve.

What follows is my reaction to this seminar and should not be attributed to either of the speakers.

It is easy to find examples of these rubrics online, through a simple search for rubric images. For example here is one with an excessive level of granularity. I can’t imagine how much time it must have taken to develop this rubric – time that perhaps could have been better spent in the service of students?

Most institutions use rubrics for marking students work. Why? Well, principally for quality assurance reasons. The institution/tutor has to demonstrate that the marking is fair and equitable. But in reality, my experience is that for experienced tutors/markers, the rubric is not helpful and so they make the rubric fit their marking rather than the other way round. The rubric does not inform the marking. An experienced marker knows that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. An experienced marker knows that complex knowledge can’t be broken down into bits. An experienced marker knows that there are qualities in assignments, which contribute to the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, that simply can’t be measured, but nevertheless contribute to the mark.  An experienced marker can pick up an assignment, flip through it and know straight away roughly what mark it will receive. The marker then reads the assignment carefully to check this initial assessment and give critical feedback. Only finally does the marker make sure (for quality assurance purposes) that the rubric fits the given mark.

We do students a disservice by misleading them into thinking that their achievements can be broken into bits and that each bit is worth a certain percentage. Complex knowledge cannot be defined in these terms. A rubric cannot cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. The rubric should not be so atomised that there is no room for students to move in.  As Iain McGilchrist says:

‘… the gaps in the structure are where the light gets in. If you tighten everything up, then you get total darkness’. (

If we must have rubrics, then they should be guides rather than prescriptive, and students and staff should be encouraged to move beyond them.