Analytical versus holistic marking schemes

An analytical marking scheme divides the available marks between different criteria, with weightings according to their relative importance. Each criteria is then assigned a portion of the available mark according to the standard reached on that criteria alone and the sum of all the marks gives the total mark.

A holistic scheme does not divide the marks between the criteria. Instead how the criteria contribute to the quality of the whole is considered, rather than as individual parts.

There are various advantages and disadvantages to both systems and both are equally valid.

Analytical marking systems can make marking easier when the work being assessed is long and involved and/or there are many criteria that need to be considered. It can be hard to sustain the level of concentration required to assess such work holistically and dividing the task into smaller components simplifies the task.

However ideally application of such a marking scheme requires us to examine the work separately against each criteria which may mean re-reading the work several times. In reality, we do not do this as it is too time consuming and instead we do assess against several criteria at once, and therefore in actual practice we may lose this benefit of an analytic system.

Analytical systems can make the provision of detailed feedback for students easier as students can receive much information from their marks for each of the criteria. They can tell exactly which areas were well done and which areas need more work, without the need for specific comments from teachers.

A problem with analytical systems though is that often the sum of the whole is less than its parts, and teachers may find that the marks awarded from analytical system do not “feel” right. An example might come from applying an analytical marking scheme that awards a component of marks to the quality of writing and referencing. A student may provide a piece of work that is exceptionally well written but completely off topic. Application of the analytical marking scheme though may well provide a passing mark, when the work is in fact irrelevant.

Another example is commonly encountered in examinations where students approach the task by disgorging all they can think of on a subject rather than actually answering the question. Their answer may contain many true statements that could earn marks, but can also be full of irrelevancies or even contradictions, or be so illogically presented that holistically it is worth very little. Strict application of an analytical markings scheme may result in much higher marks than is actually warranted. A student who writes far less may actually provide an answer that holistically could be considered to be worth more.

The opposite can also be found, especially when students produce highly original work, which may be of excellent quality, but those qualities have not been captured by the pre-prepared marking scheme. It is argued by some that it is impossible to define all aspects of quality in advance – only a sample of possible qualities can ever be specified. Furthermore aspects of quality often overlap and cannot be neatly divided into separate parts for marking.

Holistic marking systems avoid these issues but are seen by some to be less objective, since the process of awarding marks against criteria is internalised and not so explicit. However holistic marking schemes are time-honoured and used in many areas where judgement is required and are considered equally valid. In the end all marking requires a judgement.

I often switch between the two systems as I need to, to best manage workload. I prefer using a holistic system but will often use a skeleton analytical system to help me most easily provide feedback to students and to aid my marking task, especially when working in situations when I might be interrupted. I will then overlay a holistic judgement and may alter the component marks of an analytical system to meet my holistic judgement.


About Liz Norman

Director of the Master of Veterinary Medicine programme, Massey University


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