High Stakes and Low Stakes Assessment

Incorporating a variety of assessment approaches can help manage workload as well as provide students the opportunity for feedback on their progress throughout the course.  Studies show that student learning is enhanced with frequent practice, so distributing these opportunities throughout the course can lead to an effective learning experience.

While not always the case, high stakes assessments are typically associated with higher assessment value/score and low stakes with lower; however, meaningfully marrying the two approaches to assessment can help create a more robust and effective learning experience. 

Understanding High and Low Stakes Assessments

High StakesLow Stakes
Enables students to demonstrate competency, strengths, and synthesis of course objectives across the full course.Enables students to practice and learn from mistakes; typically focused on a specific element or content in a course.
High percentages of course grades associated with fewer major assessment points and therefore fewer feedback points.Lower percentage of course grades associated with multiple assessments; feedback for improvement is provided.
May not provide learners with feedback early in the course, so they are unaware of how they are doing, what their strengths are and where they may need to improve.Allows learners to know how they are doing early in the semester and throughout the semester: identifies what they are doing well where and how to improve, etc.
There is high stress points as fewer assessments are used.May be less stressful, as they are perceived at a lower value.
Increased workload at concentrated times in the term. This tends to be a challenge as high stakes assessments are assigned at typical times in the term (i.e. mid-term, end of the course)Steady workload spread out over the course of the term. This can be a particular challenge for students taking more than 2 courses.
Examples: Mid-term exams, final exams, major papers and presentations.Examples: Contributing to discussion posts, mastery learning quizzes, and one-minute papers.
Resource Link: High-Stakes Assignments.Resource Link: Low-Stakes Assignments.

An Example of Shifting a High Stakes Assessment to Low Stakes

Consider this scenario. You have a high stakes assessment like a research paper/project that is worth 40% of the final grade. In an effort to help keep students on task and create opportunities where cumulative feedback can be offered, align the course content in such a way that it allows for the paper to be broken into component parts, due at various points in the term:

  • Outline 4%
    • Annotated bibliography 4%
    • Introduction 4%
    • Body 8%
    • Conclusion 4%
    • References 4%
    • Full paper put together 12% (where the feedback from each component is incorporated)
      • Total 40%

Drawbacks: This requires a lot of time from both student and instructor; student to do and instructor to provide quality feedback so students can improve on next assignment or assessment point. This can add stress for both student and instructor.

  • Consider a student taking five courses, where each course has two assessment every 3 weeks = 40 assessments to be completed throughout the semester. Some instructors have assessment points every week, which would mean that a student taking five courses could have 60 assessment points throughout the semester.

The Happy Medium

There is a happy medium between all high stakes and all low stakes assessment.

  • A mix of high and low stakes can benefit both the student and the instructor.
  • Self-checks automatically provide feedback to students where the student responds, (and responses are not recorded), to multiple choice, matching, fill in the blank, and short answer questions. This provides the student with an indication of how they are doing in the course, provides feedback on weak points, and should be stress free. The work on the part of the instructor is upfront in creating the questions and feedback.
  • Peer feedback in various stages of major high stakes assignments students to learn from each other, obtain feedback, and use the feedback when submitting their final product. Rubrics and other guidance will help make the feedback rich and useful.
  • General Feedback from the instructor can be presented in the form of text (discussion post) or a video note (returned with the submission feedback) where the instructor highlights some of the great work presented in submissions, along with common, notable areas for improvement.  The feedback is generalized, but gives the student a deeper glimpse into what the instructor was expecting from the work. 

Deeper Dive

Resource by Daph C. and Ruth H.