The Unspoken Problem with Low-Stakes Assignments

Having at least some low-stakes (or no-stakes) assignments in college courses is touted by advocates of student success and practitioners of andragogy as essential for creating safe and productive learning environments for students. The theory goes that students are more likely to learn if it is safe to do so, safe to make mistakes and safe to do so without having an immediate and detrimental impact on the semester grade. 

I have always been a fan of low-stakes assignments and fairly low-risk exams. I would never teach a class where one test given in one day counted for 40%, 50%, or more of the semester grade. Just as the high-stakes standardized testing is a measurement of one (very specific) thing, on one day, major exams have some similar limitations. I like to have the Midterm and Final be about 10% or 15% each of the semester grade. The test will not make or break their grade. I also like to give either daily or weekly in-class written quizzes and a variety of other assignments with low-stakes. 

For details of how I do this, check my teaching page here. Or syllabi for this semester here, here, here, and here.  

I’ve recently really noticed one problem with low-risk assignments that I’ve never heard or seen discussed: Students realize that it is low-risk and elect not to do it because (they think!) it will not impact their grade or will do so in the most minor way. For instance, last night my students in one of the classes I am teaching had an online discussion due. The grade distribution for the assignment was as follows: 

A+ 3
A 5
A- 0
B+ 0
B 3
B- 0
C+ 0
C 0
C- 8
D+ 0
D 0
D- 0
F 0
Zero 27

Twenty-seven students didn’t do the assignment! Online discussions are designed to give student a “easy” opportunity to earn 10% of their semester grade and to specifically connect present-day issues with the past and talk about these with classmates. There are 6 discussions over the semester, one grade is dropped. Click here for the questions used this semester.

Those who fully completed the discussion did a very good job. Some posts were truly exceptional. This is for sure a frustrating problem. A few students said they forgot, a few others were sick. But I think the core problem relates that each discussion question isn’t 15% (or more!) of the semester grade.

My goal is to help students realize–and we talk about this some but they still need to further internalize it in some cases–that they learn so much more with low-risk assignments both because they are low-risk with room to make mistakes/not make a perfect grade on everything and because they get regular practice reviewing, discussing, and writing about History. All students benefit from regular practice.

One solution used by some professors is a blanket rule in the syllabus that all assignments must be submitted (even if they receive an automatic zero for being late) in order to pass the course. To me, this is too punitive and defeats the purpose of low-risk assignments. In deed, part of why I drop a discussion grade is so that there is room to make a mistake and learn. Education, after all, is about learning. I haven’t yet thought of a way to truly help the completion rate for some low-risk assignments be consistently higher. One rule I have that occasionally helps some is that in order to do extra credit students must complete at least 70% of all assignments in a given category. Any other thoughts, dear readers?

A similar problem to low-risk assignments exists with out-of-class no-stakes assignments because students generally don’t do voluntary assignments. That’s why it is essential to have truly important learning experiences required or completed during class time.