Tip: Many Low-Stakes Assignments
A flexible design strategy that reinforces new content knowledge and skills, offers opportunities for practice, lowers stress & reduces the incentive to cheat.
Last week I shared thoughts on planning for flexibility by designing for online delivery of content and activities. The next flexible design strategy is creating more low-stakes assignments so that students have many opportunities to test their content knowledge or skills development before getting to higher-stakes exams or projects. As with any other course design strategy, I balance what I think is most effective in helping students master the content and skills against what I can realistically manage over the semester. This means some trade-offs: more quizzes, but not all of them get feedback beyond what is set up in the automatic scoring. More choice within each week or unit, but those choices repeat over the semester.
What I do…
I combine offering many low-stakes assignments with a couple of other strategies:
Offer choice in activities: complete 5 out of 8 low-stakes assignments.
Set up auto-graded formative assessments (weekly quizzes) to provide quick feedback and encourage students to keep trying.
Allow students multiple attempts on low-point assignments - they learn more by repeating an assessment than by failing it.
Use low-stakes assignments to build skills so students are prepared to tackle higher-stakes assignments.
What it could look like…
I set up collections of activities (tasks) in which students have choice over what tasks they complete - holding students accountable while allowing them to move forward independently. To help students with completing a reading assignment, I might offer a choice of six different lower-stakes tasks, and ask them to complete four.
Task 1: Complete a note-taking guide while reading.
Task 2: Write a reading summary and peer review with a classmate.
Task 3: Complete an online quiz - repeat until target score is achieved.
Task 4: Submit a reading reflection.
Task 5: Draft a chapter outline and share it with a study group.
Task 6: Work with a small group to plan a mini-lesson for class.
High-Stakes Task: Apply knowledge - written response, lab report, exam…
While it’s more work to create six different assignments rather than just 2-3, once created the assignments can be relatively easily duplicated from week to week - I don’t have to really change the instructions for “complete a note-taking guide” even if the guide itself is different for each week. As with most course design decisions, this gets easier the more times you teach the course and can build on what you’ve created in past semesters.
Why I think it works…
Reinforces new content. I use short quizzes immediately after a reading assignment or after a class session to offer a quick comprehension check on what was just covered. This helps students understand what were the key points from a class activity or reading, and helps me see where students “got it” or where I need to provide more practice or explanation.
Opportunities for practice. Providing frequent low-stakes assignments gives students more opportunities to practice skills, which is important both to get better and to increase their confidence.
Lowers stress. By giving students many small-points (or, zero points) activities, whether they do well on any one individual activity doesn’t matter quite so much. It’s a less stressful environment because they know that either there are many more opportunities coming later in the semester, or they have the opportunity to redo the quiz they’ve just taken.
Reduces incentive to cheat. Because there are many assignments, with lots of choices, and each individual assignment is only a small part of the final grade, there’s less reward for cheating on an assignment. If a student does copy or share work, because there are many assignments their overall learning is less impacted by “skipping” an assignment.
In the end, I think it’s important to be honest about what offering students more opportunities means for an instructor. Not all of us have the freedom to implement some of these course design decisions, and it is not a small amount of work to set up a new course with this much flexibility. However, even small steps towards more flexible, student-centered design choices can help students be more successful. Next week I plan to share some ideas about allowing students multiple ways of demonstrating mastery of course content & skills.