Exploring Low Stakes Assessments

--Originally published at FLN Hub Syndicated Posts – Emerging Education Technologies

Providing full credit (100%) for completing some assignments or assessments can be a great way to decrease ‘test stress' and grade anxiety, gather much-needed feedback about student learning and skills development, and help to bolster grades.

Last November, I attended a NERCOMP sponsored Faculty Innovation PD session at Fairfield University. The first presenter was Carol Ann Davis, English Professor and Director of Curriculum Development for the Center of Academic Excellence. In her talk, Professor Davis discussed Low Stakes Assessments. This was not something I was familiar with, but I thought it made a lot of sense to consider and put into action.

BTW, I know this isn't really an edtech topic, but emerging and evolving practices and assessment and grading are as interesting to me as emerging ‘edtech', so I'm writing about it.

This article on DePaul University's Teaching Commons site uses the term “low stakes assignments” while also clearly referring to them as a form of evaluation:

“Low-stakes assignments are forms of evaluation that do not heavily impact students’ final grades or other educational outcomes. The purpose of low-stakes assignments is to provide students with an indication of their performance while taking a course and give students an opportunity to improve their performance prior to receiving a final grade, either on an assignment or in a course.”

I think that captures it nicely. I also really like what Sarah Jones has to say about LSA in her MSU Inside Teaching article, “A Case for More Testing: The Benefits of Frequent, Low-Stakes Assessments“. This is her lead in, but the article is in-depth and very worth the exploring:

“What if I told you about this magical teaching practice that, done even once, produces large improvements in student final exam scores, helps narrow the grade gap between poorly prepped and highly prepped first year college students, and might even result in more positive course reviews? What if I also told you this magical teaching practice is something you already know how to do?”

In her talk, Professor Davis explained that she has a percentage of assignments that are each worth 100% as long the student submits something. While this may seem like a way for students to take the easy way out, her experience has been that this is rarely what happens. More often, students embrace the opportunity to put in a good effort and earn a low-anxiety good grade with an assignment that still provides feedback to the teacher on the content being covered.

On reflection, I quickly found myself thinking that some of the discussion assignments I have in some courses I've taught might very well work better as low stakes assignments. At a minimum, a good percentage of students would have better grades because I was too harsh regarding grammar, spelling, and how specifically they answered questions that were posed. While these are vital skills, they don't need to be assessed in every assignment. (And it doesn't hurt that it is also less time-consuming work when it comes to grading.)

The more I read and learn about low stakes Assessments, the more I see how beneficial they can be for students. It is a much more student-focused approached to assessment than having all assignments and tests be high-stakes. Of course, it is important to realize that the idea here is not that ALL work in a course has to be low stakes. By finding a balance of low, medium, and high-stakes assessments and work, one can provide a teaching and learning environment that is much more effective for a wider range of students than the high-stress approach that is still too common in many classrooms.

I'd love to hear more from other educators about their experiences with low stakes assessments. Please drop a comment!

Resources for Exploring Further



  • I completely agree, both with the practice of given low-stakes assessments and with the finding that most students do not take this as an easy way out. I’ve been giving these for several years now on each of my prep sheets that students fill out as they watch or do the lower-cognition assignments at home. In class, they have a chance to correct their work and won’t lose any points as long as they had attempted to find an answer.
    Since all the pre-class prep work prepares them (haha, it’s PREP work!) for the in-class group tasks, learners are eager to get the necessary knowledge so that they can perform well within their group. The pre-class work also nets them 50% of their grade for each day, so that is yet another pressure (besides the need-to-know and peer pressure) to submit thorough and complete work for low-stakes assessment. Learners assume responsibility for their learning and exercise autonomy during the group activities.
    As an added bonus, the groups check their work while I’m only circulating, so that I don’t have much grading to do. It’s a win-win situation!

    • Outstanding! Thanks for sharing Birget. It sounds like flipped learning + thoughtful use of low stakes assessments = increased students autonomy and success!

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