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.


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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14 replies

  1. I connect low-stakes assignments to other assignments: test-like questions, pre-discussion summaries. I tell students that the assignments are small, graded mostly on completion, but that they are structured so that doing them should result in better performance on the higher-stakes assignments (like you, I don’t like make-or-break tests, so there are lots of 10-20% of course grade pieces) and that not doing them effectively forecloses higher grades. The individual assignments are low-stakes, but cumulatively they are often 10-20% of the course (depending on numbers) and so doing them really is necessary.

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    • Thanks for your comment and for reading! The 6 discussions are currently semi connected to exams and other assignments and semi related topics that are more just for “fun.” I’ll have to think of ways to more specifically tie them to higher-stakes assignments and/or explain how the discussions build on / along with other assignments.


    • I make it as explicit as I can: the homeworks are in the same style as the tests; the document discussions show up in the final essay options; book chapter summaries can be a rough draft of paraphrases necessary for the book essay. This semester I’m even having them write multiple-choice test questions as part of the review, with the understanding that I might well use their questions for that part of the test (a small part of the test; I mostly hate MC questions for history, and I kind of hope that they will too, once they’ve experienced writing a few dozen).

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  2. I do the sort of thing Dresner does but have TOTALLY given up on low stakes assignments in many classes. I give a lot of no stakes assignments but then grade people on what they learn from these, e.g. on whether or not they have something worthwhile to say in class as a result of having done the assignments (or having done equivalent work: part of what I teach is basic foreign language and there are people who hate verb worksheets and language lab assignments but have some friend they practice with out loud … and really, I do not care how they get their practice in, the language lab is supposed to substitute for a live person so if they have a live person to talk to instead, why penalize that?).

    Low stakes in literature courses is different, and it all depends on the type of student you have. Low stakes can encourage people to take on challenges and risks they might not otherwise, sometimes. But I think the idea of de-intimidating people has gone too far. People study for science classes because they value them; why not have them study for humanities and social science classes?

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    • Thanks for reading and for your comment! To me, there is the issue of low-stakes vs. high-stakes assignments AND the number of opportunities they have to practice the subject/skill. Last spring, discussions were optional and one or two students out of fifty did them. Even if the completion rate is sometimes low (and all of the students promised me they would do the next required discussion), they might be better. I want my students to really “become” historians for the semester and have regular opportunities to learn and write and read, so they have a chance to truly learn the material.

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  3. Become historians, yes, so do I and my history classes in college were like that and it is why they were good. But I find that one can only get them to do this if they are in the class by choice. Then, yes, the low-stakes / high-stakes, let’s be a scholar for the semester, works. If not, they are busy resisting or not paying attention or resenting, or something like that, and a complex course structure of this type only serves to further alienate. So I have to have little units that do not exhaust attention spans, and make most assignments and types of assignments count. Most things do not count too, too much but everything counts in more than a low-stakes / informal way. Otherwise I do not have their attention.

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  4. My low stakes assignments are about 12 quizzes during the semester (most online). They count as 20% of the grade, and two can be dropped. I find that most students complete most of them because they see the 20%, not realizing that each quiz is only a small fraction of their grade. In response to LB, I agree that, as a society, we have gone a bit too far in the direction of de-intimidating students. Some level of anxiety actually kicks our lazy “thinking brain” into action. (See “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.) I want my students to realize that I am truly on their side. But my job is to make sure that they are working hard and being challenged which includes some high-stakes exams (25-30% for freshmen).

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    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Johanna!

      One thing I am doing different this semester in the 1302 class is having quizzes just once a week, instead of twice a week like in the 2301 that meets twice. This is still effective at keeping everyone on top of everything, but I see through this discussion that they are slightly higher risk. I’ll have to see how the results compare and work out in the end. Originally, I decided to do once a week quizzes in 1302 because I have only previously taught this class in 3 and 4 hour time blocks and had material structured in terms of weekly lessons.

      I just ordered a copy of Thinking Fast and Slow – it looks like an outstanding book with great reviews on Amazon.

      So far I have counted the Midterm and Final usually just 10 or 15%, sometimes 20%. I know this is lower than usual, but so far I have had students generally really rise to the challenge for the exams. I think the words “Midterm” and “Final” are powerful enough.

      Still, I’m thinking next semester I might try something like 20% Midterm, 20% Final, 15% Paper #1, 15% Paper #2, 30% Quizzes (and a few “quizzes” would be online discussions). For me, it’s always tricky setting the exact percentages – I want it to be fair and reflective of the nature of the assignment but also want to have a variety of assignment types. I usually like to have the grade be something like 30-40% out-of-class assignments and 40-70% in-class assignments.

      This has given me much to think about!

      Thank you and to the other commenters here! 🙂


    • I change my grading percentages every couple of years, and after 25 years, I can’t stop tweaking the system. This year, my face-to-face classes have 18.3% for each of three major exams. I used to have 20-25% exams, but this year I’m counting their supplemental books as a bigger percentage. It’s my internet classes that have the 30% midterm, 20% final. That midterm really is a killer for them, but it’s the only proctored exam I have. Still working on the PERFECT classroom! Haven’t found it yet. It sounds like you’ve got some good ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The “perfect” classroom, it seems, is an on-going, challenging process…what is “perfect” and not one hour or one semester really changes quickly! 🙂


    • Amen. A career both rewarding and exhausting!

      Liked by 1 person

    • And that’s the perfect kind of career! 🙂


  5. Getting students to participate in online discussions is a subject of much discussion. Structuring the discussion is definitely key. 5 or 10 marks for posting an answer to a question – I can completely understand why a procrastinating, fun-loving, somewhat nervous even when hiding it with bravado student would not post an answer.
    My first thought comes from consumer psychology – it turns out that people find it hard to make purchasing decisions when there are more choices because they worry about the increased options they missed out on. Perhaps in this case a student who needs the practice might feel that posting online presents just one more opportunity to get an answer wrong – and in public! At least a test or term paper they can keep private. If they think they can get away without doing it, of course that’s exactly what they’ll do.

    Some ideas for structure include:
    a) Students work in pairs to create a single response – one argues for something and one against.
    b) Students are allocated to a discussion group across the semester (8-10 per group). A new discussion question (relevant to a high stakes task) is posted every two weeks, and one student is assigned the task of opening the discussion and one to close. Students are only graded on their opening or closing statement, but are of course asked to participate in the discussion. Confident students can go first to illustrate the style of response required.
    c) Students allocated to a discussion group based on their term paper topic selection. Each student must provide three annotated references, noting how and why they are pertinent to the situation (individual mark). The group then has to decide which of each student’s three annotated references are the best and provide a group report (group mark). Each student then works on their term paper and can use any of the references annotated by the group. See:
    Parkes, M., Hawkes, G., & Landrigan, B. (2013). Collaborative Annotated Bibliographies: An Online Strategy to Foster Student Collaboration and Understanding. In World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications (Vol. 2013, No. 1, pp. 2205-2211).

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