Digital Storytelling in the Composition Classroom:
Addressing the Challenges







A Sample Rubric for Assessing Studentsí Work in Digital Storytelling

"It must be a very pretty dance," said Alice timidly. 
"Would you like to see a little of it?' said the Mock Turtle. 
"Very much indeed," said Alice. (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,Lewis Carroll)

As discussed in the previous section, addressing the challenges of assessment means recognizing the unique affordances of digital storytelling as well as adapting the relevant practices of assessing print-based composition wherever there are shared features. With that pragmatic point in mind, let me present a sample rubric that identifies both types of elements that need to be considered and given credit for when assessing digital storytelling work.



The author establishes a purpose of the overall story early on and also maintains the focus on that purpose throughout the work. As in print-based composition, the purpose may be stated or implied.


The choice of different media assets as well as how they are organized and presented shows that the student is aware of the audience/viewer. When asked, the student can describe how the subject matter and the selection, organization, and organization of the media assets fit a particular audience. The script is written with a clear sense of the audience and the voice over is done with a tone that will suit that audience; other media assets also appropriate and effective from an audience point of view.


The overall structure of the story/argument and placement of assets in that structure are effective. There is a good beginning, middle, and end. The amounts of time and emphasis given to different parts or issues make sense. 

Logos, Pathos, Ethos

The work is intellectually significant, emotionally engaging, or appealing to the audience in other ways—based on its subject matter and purpose.


Subject matter

Content is engaging -- viewer is left with thought-provoking ideas.


The student worked diligently in drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading the script with a particular focus on conciseness and precision. The "story" or subject matter of the script is not only interesting/significant in itself but also reflects that the student has learned the content of the course.  The script serves as a logical framework for the rest of the media. The student ha integrated external information, cited sources, and fulfilled other requirements of the script.



The student has been diligent with planning the project, doing research on the subject, creating or finding appropriate media assets, drafting and revising/editing the script, effectively integrating media assets, preparing for and recording an effective voiceover, appropriately referencing external source within the text and documenting them in a credits slide at the end of the work, and if the work is supposed to be presented before class, his or her presentation or performance is effective. If the work is done in groups, members of the group have each worked effectively in planning, coordinating, and contributing to group's work.



Voice quality is clear and consistently audible throughout the presentation. The voiceover reflects careful drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading of the script.

Music and sound effects

Voiceover, background music and other audio assets are layered effectively so that one medium is heard most clearly at a time. They are rhetorically effective; meaningfully integrated with other media; and have an effective volume, tone, and tempo.

Still images

Images create a distinct atmosphere or tone that matches different parts of the story. The images add rhetorical effectiveness and symbolic and/or metaphoric meaning to the work.

Transition and other visual effects

Transition and other effects created through editing of media do not just produce "cool" effects but are done meaningfully. The effects are seamless and unobtrusive.


Videos used in the work contain recognizable and meaningful images and movements, support the meaning of the story logically as well as aesthetically, do not take unnecessary artistic license, do not have distracting or unwanted visual information or background, are paced appropriately, and do not compromise relevance for the sake of interest or for technical reasons

Pacing and economy

The voice over and other media are presented neither too fast nor too slow; there is rhetorically effective increase and decrease of speed in the presentation of materials. Since digital "stories" should be short, the student has saved time and communicated the message in a precise and concise manner. No words, images, or sounds are redundant or rhetorical out of sync.



All the elements and parts of the work rhetorically fit together and are effectively presented within the overall logical framework. For instance, images and sound effects that are meant to illustrate and enhance a verbal statement do not conflict with the text or with each other.



The student has cited external sources in the voice over and in any visually represented text or media. There is a credits page at the end.

Language issues

The student has paid sufficient attention to grammar, spelling, mechanics, and other linguistic issues in the voiceover, captions, and other places where verbal language is used. 

Many of the sections in this rubric are adapted from frameworks of rhetorical analysis of print-based composition, but I add new rhetorical elements that digital storytelling adds on to traditional composition, especially the various media involved. More importantly, I include sections that will allow composition teachers to account for the "coherence" and synthesis of media as well as unique processes of composing digital stories. In Digital Storytelling in the Classroom, which is a theoretical and practical guide to using digital storytelling in the classroom, Ohler (2008) subdivides the components of digital storytelling into what he calls a "media grammar." Ohler's media grammar includes the grammar of still images and videos, grammar of audio assets, grammar of transition and other effects, and grammar of organization. "Grammars" like Ohler's and more specific rubrics like the above both allow the teacher to effectively analyze and assess student work; they also serve as an instructional tool.

By using such rubrics, teachers can specify what learning goals and standards students are expected to meet or have met. Ohler’s "media grammar" focuses on media components, but it does not place them within a larger rhetorical framework that composition teachers generally adopt. Therefore, in my rubric, I attempt to bring together a media-focused assessment strategy with a rhetoric-focused strategy in order to account for unique affordances of multimodal components as well as break down features that it shares with conventional texts.

Rubrics make assessment easier by helping us consider different aspects of a piece of composition separately as well as together, allowing us to assign specific grades and provide specific comment on those aspects, while also helping us consider the work as a whole. Rubrics can also facilitate assessment by helping teachers focus on the process as well as specific components and their effectiveness. For further reference, here is a sample rubric from a University of Massachusetts website, and here is another rubric that focuses more on the production process than on the product.

In the next section, I implement and illustrate the above rubric by analyzing/assessing a sample digital story by Rocio Palacios, which I briefly commented upon above. I must note here that I do not have access to the work done by students; thus, I have selected a story that is similar to the works that my students produced so that I can address similar issues while illustrating the rubric that I have presented above.


Purpose: Rocio seems to have a clear purpose to her story and the argument that she advances through the narrative; by the end of the video, we understand that she means to use the personal narrative to comment on the issue of obsession about physical appearance among American and upper class Mexican societies. However, she does not make a statement or suggestion about that issue until one full minute into the four minute video. She does use visuals that help her indicate her theme earlier than her words. For example, the title page shows an image of a woman whose face is hidden while only her beautiful eyes are visible, hinting at the issue of physical appearance. But by using the "funnel" approach of introducing the thesis, which is more appropriate for longer written papers, she wastes a quarter of the precious time that she has in a short video.  

Audience: This digital narrative was composed for a college course titled "Latina life stories" in which the teacher says that she tries to "enable [her] students to theorize their own stories, to participate in the process of constructing new knowledge" (web). The narrative is appropriate to that context, the issue is relevant, and the selection and organization of the different media assets also show that the student has the awareness of primary audience.  

Organization: While the narrator takes a little too much time in getting to the point, the overall structure of the story and its argument are effective. There is a good beginning, middle, and end. The amounts of time and emphasis given to different parts or issues make sense. 

Logos, Pathos, Ethos: Considering the objectives of the course as delineated by the teacher, the student’s work is intellectually significant and emotionally engaging. The author’s ethos is reflected in the design and presentation of the story.


Subject matter: Rocio’s story is based on her personal experience, but she connects it to a larger social issue, making her work intellectually significant like a good academic paper. While she does not spend much time elaborating her argument, once she indicates the theme, we are able to follow the argument of the story, which is quite thought-provoking.

Script: Perhaps the best element of this digital story is the voiceover of the narrative, which seems to indicate that Rocio wrote a standard narrative essay and then diligently drafted, revised, edited, and proofread it before recording her voice.  The multimodal rendering of the story in the script reflects that she has learned the content of the course.  So, as a logical framework for the rest of the media, the script is very well done.


Digital storytelling assignments like this are often given as group assignments, but this one is an individual project. While no collaboration seems to be involved, Rocio seems to have planned the project well, done some study and research on the subject, found or create appropriate media assets, develop a good script, recorded an effective voiceover, and effectively integrated media assets into the final product.


Voiceover: The voice quality in this work is clear and consistently audible throughout the presentation. The work could have a certain amount of pausing and change in pace in the voiceover, because once the narrator starts telling the story the approach of illustrating what the voice says with the help of images continues to the very end. The lack of variation in that approach makes the voiceover a little monotonous, although the voiceover in itself is considerably effective.

Music and sound effects: Like the voiceover, the background music is integrated effectively as a whole. The background music is loud in the beginning, but it appropriately fades in the background as the narrator starts speaking. The sounds are layered effectively and they are rhetorically effective in terms of choice, volume, tone, and tempo.

Still images: One of the weaker aspects of Rocio’s work is her use of images: there are too many of them, some of them jar with the tone of the story, and most of them only superficially add or reinforce the meaning of the story. Many of the photographs from the narrator’s childhood and family life visually show us what she is talking about and they also help create an atmosphere and tone, but the images not only overwhelm the audience’s attention, they are also redundant. Except in a few cases like the image in the title screen, the images do not seem to contribute symbolic and/or metaphorical meanings to the narrative.

Transition and other visual effects: Rocio doesn’t use any special transition effects in her video. However the default transitions are seamless and unobtrusive.

Video: She does not use videos in this narrative, like digital storytelling work often do.

Pacing and economy: The voiceover somewhat lacks variation in pacing, and there is lack of economy in the use of images. But even though there is no rhetorically effective increase and decrease of speed in the presentation of materials, overall the video is neither too fast nor too slow to follow. The work is appropriately short: it is just over 4 minutes.


Coherence: In terms of coherence, the sounds, images, and text generally fit together rhetorically and they are effectively presented within the overall logical framework of the narrative. Even though the images are often superfluous, they still help the author illustrate and enhance her verbal statements in the voiceover; they do not conflict with the text or with each other very much.


Credits: Given the nature of the course for which this assignment was done, Rocio could have used and cited external sources. At the end of the video, she must have at least documented the musical background that she uses in the work.  

Language issues: The language used is always appropriate. The script of the voiceover seems to have been revised and edited. The author’s choice of words is appropriate for an academic work like this.

When I reflect back on the question that my student asked as to why I gave him less credit than he had expected, I realize that at the time I lacked the analytical vocabulary for assessing multimodal composition. Indeed, the students' question must have been prompted by own lack of ability to provide analytical critique during the course of the semester as he and his peers did the work. At the end of the semester, I assessed the students' work critically, as I did other modes and genres of composition; but that critical assessment was implicit and based in a "hunch" that the group's work lacked a focus and purpose behind their use and the integration of various material and media. My assessment of their work was holistic rather than based on a set of criteria or rubric like the above. If I had a clear basis of assessment like above, I would be able to separate and explicitly describe what was done well. I might not have given students more or less credit than I did, but I would have assessed more conciously and also conveyed my reasons more clearly to them.

To use the analogy of the Turtle's response to Alice's request, if I had a clear basis for assessing my students' digital stories, I would be more able to do the critical, intellectual dance of analytically describing the strengths and weaknesses in those works.


Ghanashyam Sharma