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Grading One Question vs. the Entire Assessment: What's Best for Student Learning?

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

When creating assignments and exams, teachers face an important decision,whether to grade each question or task discretely, or evaluate the overall work product holistically. Both item-specific and holistic grading have potential upsides and downsides for providing feedback, aligning to objectives, and more.

This article explores the key differences educators should consider when choosing between grading one question at a time versus the whole assessment.

Girl answering the question: Grading One Question vs. Grading the Entire Assessment

Potential Benefits of Item-Specific Grading

Scoring individual exam questions or assignment parts independently offers some advantages:

  • Provides more personalized feedback by highlighting which items students struggled with using targeted comments.

  • Uncovers conceptual holes and misunderstandings by pinpointing where students go astray question-by-question. Enables reteaching of problem areas.

  • Can be fairer for those with partial mastery who understand some concepts but not others. Students earn points on questions answered correctly.

  • Motivates showing step-by-step work to earn partial credit on method. Provides insight into student thinking processes.

  • Simpler tallying of points per item avoids complex rubric creation for holistic grading.

  • Aligns well with discrete fact- or skill-based assessment items that do not interrelate.

Potential Challenges of Item-Level Grading

However, there are also some downsides to consider with grading each question individually:

  • More time consuming for teachers to provide per item feedback compared to holistic grading.

  • Can promote point chasing over actual learning if students fixate on maximizing scores question-by-question.

  • Misses assessment of higher-order connections and synthesis between questions since items are isolated.

  • Poor alignment with learning goals involving analysis, synthesis, writing skills best measured holistically.

  • Can introduce subjectivity and calibration issues when applying partial credit across very different questions.

Benefits of Holistic Assessment Grading

Alternatively, evaluating student work as an integrated whole offers some advantages:

  • More efficient grading through streamlined rubrics assessing multiple skills and objectives holistically.

  • Better captures synthesis and connections between concepts since work is evaluated as a unified whole.

  • Aligns well with complex goals like analysis, synthesis and written expression spanning the assessment.

  • Rewards comprehensive integrated mastery of knowledge and skills rather than maximizing item scores.

  • Reduces potential for point chasing stress by emphasizing overall proficiency.

  • Performance level rubrics provide benchmarks for “exceeds,” “meets,” “approaching,” and “does not meet” expectations.

Potential Challenges of Holistic Grading

However, holistic assessment also comes with some potential difficulties:

  • Students receive an overall grade but may lack clarity on precisely which concepts or skills they struggled with.

  • Lower credit for partial mastery compared to grading each item discretely.

  • Requires thoughtful design of aligned rubrics spanning multiple performance levels.

  • Can introduce subjectivity without proper rubric norms and calibration.

Key Factors to Consider When Choosing Grading Approach

The ideal assessment grading strategy depends on considerations such as:

  • Are discrete skills or higher-order integrated skills more important for the learning goals?

  • Will students benefit more from granular item feedback or holistic analysis?

  • Does the subject align better with item vs. whole scoring?

  • Is there time for extensive item grading and comments?

  • What potential drawbacks could arise from each approach?

Often a blended item and holistic grading strategy provides the right balance.


Grading items individually offers detailed feedback but risks point chasing. Holistic assessment allows efficient evaluation of complex skills but may lack transparency. The right approach depends on aligning to outcomes, content, and student needs. With intentional design, grading can enhance instructional value whether utilizing item, holistic or blended methodology.

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