What is ‘holistic evaluation’?

I’ve been thinking recently about the idea of ‘holistic evaluation’, which you occasionally hear mentioned in lifelong learning. In assessment circles the term is used much more frequently, and appears to be used to describe an approach to assessing writing. The more general use of it to describe an approach to organisational or programme evaulation seems out to be quite rare, and e been my attempts to get to grips with it havrather unrevealing.

Quite a few authors seem happy to use the term in their titles and keywords without explaining what they mean by it. One author simply used the term in his title, with no further elaboration. So I was relieved to find one clear definition at least.

Scott Nicholson, in the context of library and information studies, defined it as follows:

In the context of measurement and evaluation, it means that a more thorough knowledge and understanding of a system can be gained from combining different measures than can be derived than taking those measures separately.

The implication is that this approach will ‘guide evaluators to the consideration of the entire system and not just the problem areas’. I’d be interested to know if there are other, possibly more ambitious statements and explorations of an idea that sounds initially promising, but is rather hard to pin down.

1 thought on “What is ‘holistic evaluation’?

  1. I would add that the statement would be more promising if it included the human element. Odd to say, but I believe appropriate in these times of automated writing evaluations (AWE). Li, Link, Ma, Yang, and Hegelheimer (2014) noted that AWE’s were designed as part of holistic evaluation in that the use of the automated evaluations was to be complemented with the feedback from the instructor. I failed an AWE a couple years ago due to spelling errors. The required writing piece concerned a place of employment. Apparently the electronic evaluator had not heard of the children’s hospital I wrote about and assumed I misspelled the name each time I included it in the piece. While the AWE may have been considered a holistic evaluation because it measured several different aspects of writing, had a human been involved as described by Li et al. there would have been an opportunity for me to prove that there were no spelling errors in my submission.


    Li, Z., Link, S., Ma, H., Yang, H., & Hegelheimer, V. V. (2014). The role of automated writing evaluation holistic scores in the ESL classroom. System, 4466-78. doi:10.1016/j.system.2014.02.007

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