DePaul University Teaching Commons > Teaching Guides > Feedback & Grading > Low-Stakes Assignments

Low-Stakes Assignments

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
  • Quizzes
  • Journaling
  • Writing

Breaking Down Larger Assignments

Components of a Larger Project

When 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
  • Abstract
  • Thesis statement
  • Outline
  • 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.

Mid-Project/Quarter Conferences

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 ease.

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.


Weekly Quizzes

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.

Reading Journals

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.

Discussion Questions

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. 

  • Faculty Instructional Technology Services (FITS)

    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 FITS liason, who can help you find--and use--a technology appropriate for the task at hand. 

See also

Evaluating your teaching 

Further reading

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 TLA library

Teaching Commons

1 E. Jackson
Chicago, IL 60604
(312) 362-8057