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Low-Stakes Assignments: Challenges and Opportunities

For Those Who Teach

Low-Stakes Assignments: Challenges and Opportunities

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Low-stakes assignments include work we have students do that doesn’t count for a large part of the course grade. There’s a strong set of reasons to use these kinds of assignments, but also some challenges. Let’s take stock.

The case for low-stakes assignments

     For Those Who Teach

  • Low-stakes assignments provide opportunities to practice using the skills and knowledge needed to complete the large projects in a course; be those high-stakes exams, major writing assignments, or other complex projects done individually or in groups. This benefit accrues only if the low-stakes tasks involve skills or work with content similar to that required by the big assignments. Quiz questions reinforce content knowledge and can get students comfortable with the kinds of test questions they face in the course. Short analysis papers can give student practice constructing the arguments they’ll need to put together for the longer position paper. Impromptu discussion can prepare students for more formal presentations.
  • Low-stakes assignments significantly diminish the pressure to always get a good grade. When there’s only a few chances to earn points, students get stressed and that often compromises their ability to do their best work. Or, they become fixated on doing exactly what they think the teacher wants. In both cases, what they might be learning by doing the assignment takes a back seat. Low-stakes assignments tend to be more learning focused than grade focused.
  • Low-stakes assignments allow students to fail when the consequences aren’t dire. We learn from mistakes, often in profound and memorable ways. But most of our students live in fear of making mistakes. They don’t take risks, or try things they don’t know how to do, or don’t think they can do. To them, education and learning are not the grand adventures we know them to be. Low-stakes assignments put course work in a safer context.
  • Low-stakes assignments can reinforce good study habits. Most of these assignments (quizzes and reaction papers, for example) provide ongoing, regular interaction with the content. Students (and some of the rest of us) tend to procrastinate. If they stay up all night writing a paper, preparing for an exam, or doing a project they had weeks to complete, they never experience the improved performance that results from working regularly on or in preparation for the big course assessments.
  • Low-stakes assignments are an efficient way to develop skills that are not the main focus of the course but important across the curriculum. Students could write in a math course; craft arguments in an engineering course; or work in groups in a poetry course. Low-stakes assignments imply short experiences using the skills but collectively those experiences reinforce the pervasiveness of the skill.

The challenges of low-stakes assignments (and some solutions)

  • Students don’t take low-stakes assignments seriously. They don’t count for much so they can be written off and some (or is it a lot of) students notoriously underestimate how much can be written off without serious consequences. When it’s early in the semester several can be skipped because there’s lots more to come, or they can be ignored because the exams count for so much more. If written off, then none of the assignments’ potential is realized.

Solution: Explain the rationale behind these assignments. Let there be some serious consequences if they aren’t collectively taken seriously. For example, a set of quiz scores well below average might mandate an extra exam.  

  • To students, low-stakes assignments look like the busy work that was the bane of their existence in high school. That’s not what they expected to have to do in college: worksheets, nightly homework problems, questions on the reading. Bad attitudes about low-stakes assignments also compromise what they can accomplish. These attitudes, coupled with their low point value, encourage students to complete them with the least amount of effort.

Solution: Provide examples that illustrate the level of quality that’s expected. Explicitly point out the connections between the low- and high-stakes assignments.  

  • These brief assignments generate an endless stream of assignments that must be graded, and grading is already a least favorite aspect of teaching activity.

Solution: Devise efficient grading processes. Don’t provide a lot of individual feedback. Give the class feedback with anonymous examples. Use a rubric. Collect them all but randomly select a subset and grade those.

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