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. Mid-term projects or exams come too late to yield the necessary guidance. As Vincent Tinto writes in Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action (2012), "To be effective, assessments must be frequent, early, and formative." Indeed, at colleges and universities recognized by the National Survey on Student Engagement for their success in promoting student's active engagement in their learning: "Feedback from faculty to students is timely and frequent, as documented both by NSSE data and by interviews with students and faculty members" (Kuh, et al. 2010).
Low-stakes assignments tend to work best when they generate formative feedback regarding where students are in the course, what they are doing well, and where they may need development to ultimately succeed in the class. At DePaul, there is a general expectation that students will be given feedback early in the quarter, and low-stakes assignments are a powerful method of doing so.
For students in their first year, whether as freshmen or transfers, such feedback is especially important in order to help them understand the expectations at DePaul. Early feedback also enables faculty to use DePaul's Academic Reporting Process to identify students from targeted populations (e.g. students in their first year, on probation, participating in athletics, PLUS, STARS, etc.) who may need additional assistance and share that information with the students themselves along with their academic advisors.
Feedback should be given often so that students can benefit from having multiple opportunities for improvement. Though given less weight, low-stakes assignments may be similar in type and kind to high-stakes assignments: they tend to reflect the kind of work students are going to be expected to do for a final exam, paper, or other summative project. All in all, early feedback is one of the most important contributions faculty can make towards helping students succeed in their classes and make critical progress toward their degrees.
Benefits of low-stakes assignments
- Gives students a realistic idea of their performance early in the term, enabling them to seek appropriate resources as needed
- Opens up lines of communication between students and their instructors, and may increase students' willingness to ask for help
- Allows instructors to direct students to resources if they need further assistance or support
- Gives students an opportunity to be active participants in the evaluation of their own learning
- Increases the likelihood that students will attend class and be active and engaged
Examples of low-stakes assignments
Breaking Down Larger Assignments
Components of a Larger ProjectWhen assigning students a writing or research project, break down the elements of the project
and use one or more as a low-stakes assignment. Require students to
submit their works-in-progress so that they can receive early written
feedback and a small grade, which could consist simply of a check or
check-minus. Any one (or more) of the following elements could be
collected and used as a low-stakes assignment:
- Prospectus or proposal
- Thesis statement
- Annotated bibliography
- Specific sections of the final project (e.g., introduction, methods, lit. review)
- Early-stage drafts of a paper
Build in Drafts & Peer Review
Midway through a writing project, have students bring a full or partial draft of their paper to class and then exchange feedback with a peer. Although the assignment is made by students rather than the instructor, students still receive valuable feedback that they can use to revise their work.
Try providing students with a rubric to help them give their peers targeted, assignment-specific feedback. Also, consider inviting Writing Center tutors to your class to model how peer review can be conducted effectively.
Around mid-semester or during the planning stages of a major course project, cancel class for a week and ask students to meet with you for conferences instead. If the class is too large for you to meet with each student individually, assign students to meet with you in groups, or one-on-one with their TA. The conference time might be dedicated to discussing the students’ progress towards course goals or providing feedback on a particular project.
To get the most out of your conference time, ask
students to complete and bring with them a self-assessment form or
project proposal. Alternatively, ask students to write down one question
they have about the course, content covered in class, or an assignment
they are currently working on. Having a document to reference will keep
the conversation on track and help put both you and your students at
Group Work Planning & Reflection
When students are working in groups, require them to submit a statement outlining each group members’ responsibilities and/or a timeline that measures their progress.
For a course where exams are the primary means of summative assessment, give students a quiz at
the end of each week with questions based on content covered up to that
point. Although the quiz might not count for credit (or might only
count for a very small portion of the final grade), it will give
students an idea of what they already learned and which concepts they
need to spend more time with. Quizzes can be paper-based, conducted
in-class using iClickers, or posted online in D2L.
In-Class Problem Solving
In a course where students learn new computational or mathematical concepts, have a problem posted on the board
or screen at the start of each class. Students can work individually,
in pairs, or in small groups to find the solution. Spend the first five
or ten minutes of class going over the problem as a big group.
Course Concept Journals
Consider having students keep a regular journal
where they can engage with and apply course concepts. For example, in
an Introduction to Political Science course, ask students to read the
politics section of the New York Times and keep a weekly
concept-application journal. For each entry, students should select one
article that they read, summarize it, and show how the article
demonstrates a theoretical concept discussed that week in class. Review
students’ journals every other week or so and give each entry a grade
out of ten points.
In a course where students are required to do weekly readings, assign a reading journal.
Entries might require students to summarize and respond to the source,
or to answer a set of questions provided by the instructor. Students can
submit their journal entries through D2L, by handing in hard copies every other week, or by posting them on a course blog.
Short Writing Assignments
Give students a prompt that corresponds to a class reading assignment, concept, or activity and have them turn in a short written response.
During the next class, hand back the students’ responses with your
brief feedback, indicating whether the students are on track or not (a
simple “check plus” or “check minus” could be used). In large classes
where you might not have time to give individualized written feedback to
each student, share and discuss one or two anonymous students responses
at the next class meeting.
If discussion is an important element of your course, post open-ended question in D2L
designed to elicit “What would I do?” responses from your students
(this works particularly well with questions concerning ethics). Require
your students to post reactions to their classmates’ responses,
indicating whether they agree, disagree, or both--and why.
Support for low-stakes assignments at DePaul
- University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL)
Discuss how you can incorporate writing in a low-stakes assignment by contacting Matthew Pearson, Assistant Director for Faculty Services at the UCWbL. You can also invite peer tutors to your classroom in order to demonstrate effective peer review before having your own students give feedback to one another.
- University Libraries
If you’re interested in using an element of a research project as a means of giving early feedback to students, connect with a university librarian, who can offer you feedback and resources on designing research projects for your students.
- Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL)
Have a question about integrating discussion forums in your classes? Not sure which platform might be best for setting up a course blog? Then contact your CTL liason, who can help you find--and use--a technology appropriate for the task at hand.
Evaluating your teaching
Angelo, T., & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.*
Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging ideas: the professors guide to integrating writing,critical thinking and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.*
Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.S., and Whitt, E.J. (2010). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.*
Lang, J. M. (2013). Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.*
Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.*
Tinto, Vincent. (2012). Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Warnock, Scott. (2013). Frequent, low-stakes grading: Assessment for communication, confidence. Faculty Focus. Madison, WI: Magna Publications.
* These books are available from the CTL library.