The Pros and Cons of Holistic Grading

Your students spend ten minutes on the assignment, and you spend ten hours grading. It’s a serious problem, and anyone who has ever graded student writing has been there.

One of the biggest challenges for high school teachers today is assessing student writing. It’s hard to know how many marks to give, and it’s easy to get bogged down writing meticulous comments on every paper that a student submits. At the same time, we want to resist the urge to just slap a grade at the top of the assignment and move on. Neither of these approaches is truly effective.

Holistic Grading: What it is, and what it isn’t.

Holistic grading means that you review the whole assignment, and give it a grade based on its overall quality.  This means that the grade takes into consideration both the content as well as the quality of the writing.  Some people think that holistic grading means grading without needing to give any feedback.  Saying “this feels like an A” is not holistic grading.  You may as well be that college professor who handed out As and Fs with no explanation. He might have claimed to be a “holistic grader,” but that’s not what holistic grading is about—don’t be that guy!

Holistic grading should only be done with a rubric, and that rubric should always be available to the students.  This is important, because without a rubric that explains the expectations for each grade-point, the grade itself is meaningless.  With a rubric, however, students can read a standard note that describes their work, and that can make all the difference.  Returning the rubric with the student’s grade circled is one way to ensure that the grade means something to the student.  Plus, grading using a holistic rubric can cut down on the time you spend grading, without cutting down on the benefit students receive from having their work assessed. Besides, whether we take a holistic approach or not, rubrics are always a good idea.

Using a holistic rubric works best when you:

  • are grading low-stakes assignments that will not be revised.
  • have limited time for grading.
  • are grading multiple short assignments from the same student.
  • use the same rubric throughout the course, so that students can gauge their achievement.
  • pair the holistic rubric with a short comment that informs the student about specific areas of achievement or that need improvement.
  • are grading with a team.  If student writing will be graded by more than one person, a holistic grading rubric can be used to ensure that the grading is consistent between teachers.

A holistic rubric is NOT ideal when you:

  • are most interested in a particular aspect of the writing, rather than the whole work.  If the writing assignment is mostly an exercise is grammar or sentence structure, the grade on the assignment should reflect that.  Similarly, if you care most that the student understands a concept, and the grammar, style, and syntax of the response are peripheral to your purpose, a holistic scoring rubric won’t work very well.
  • never write any comments in the margins or at the end of the assignment.  Yes, holistic scoring can speed you up.  Yes, providing a rubric can save you from writing the same comment on 25 papers.  BUT, writing is individual.  On at least some student writing, it is imperative that teachers take the time to mark up problems and write comments.
  • are working with students on a multiple-draft assignment, such as a major essay. Because of the nature of holistic scoring, it does not pinpoint specific problem areas. If you use a holistic scoring approach on each draft without including comments, the terrible sentence you noticed in draft one might still be there in draft five.  If effective revisions are important, there’s no substitute for marking up the essay.

We know that writing improves with practice, but assigning more writing comes at a high cost for teachers with large classes and too little time.  Work-life balance is hard enough for teachers, and grading huge numbers of papers can have a serious impact on mental well-being and ultimately our effectiveness in the classroom.  Using holistic grading for some assignments can take a little of the time and stress out of grading. It can give you time to focus on the most important things, while still providing students with regular feedback on their work.