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Teaching & Learning Tip #20: Learning as a Journey: Early, Low-stakes Assignments

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Tip #20: Learning as a Journey: Early, Low-Stakes Assignments

Contributed by Kim Vincent-Layton, Center for Teaching and Learning

Should we be giving students more tests? Well, yes, and no.  In order for assessments of learning to be effective, they must be “frequent, early, and formative” (Tinto, 2012). Offering opportunities for students to practice and receive critical feedback right from the start helps to guide their learning. Given that early, low-stakes assignments influence future performance, rather than past, we can understand where our students are before and during their learning. This in turn helps us in creating opportunities to further grow their self-efficacy by identifying misconceptions and gaps. This approach has many benefits to both instructor and student.

Benefits for Students

  • Motivates and increases class attendance
  • Opportunity for active and reflective evaluation and control of their own learning (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006)
  • Opportunity to translate prior knowledge/experiences to course topics (Kift, 2009)
  • Increases engagement, specifically for those who might be at risk for failure or withdrawal
  • Builds skills and confidence with specific, timely, feedback that empower them to make adjustments (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2010)
  • Increases opportunity for practice, recall, and retention of information
  • Increases self-efficacy
  • Opens communication with the instructor that can lead to more meaningful conversations and connections
  • Fosters deep learning (Bain, 2014; Nilsen, 2010)

Benefits for Faculty

  • Personalizes the learning experience by modifying instruction based on students’ learning
  • Opens communication with your students that can lead to more meaningful conversations and connections
  • Connects to bigger course concepts to help student scaffold their learning
  • Identifies students who may need additional support, e.g., students on academic probation, students not attending class, students who would benefit from other support such as writing, etc.
  • Referral support using our early alert system, Skyfactor MapWorks
  • Knowing when to direct students to additional resources if needed
  • Contributes toward helping students not only be successful in their courses, but also make significant progress toward their degrees

Examples of Low-stakes Assignments

  • Drafts
  • Peer review
  • Group work
  • Quiz
  • Discussion
  • Self-assessment
  • Quick Write
  • Muddiest Point
  • Journal/reflection

Examples at HSU

  • Initial map quiz (assesses prior knowledge and provides practice) - Brittany Sheldon, Art. “On the first day, when I asked my 42 students in 104K if any of them knew anything about Africa or African art, one person raised their hand. This is nothing against them - it's the usual response. So today they are going to get a blank map of Africa and they are going to fill in all the countries they know. (they won't be graded, but will receive attendance/participation credit). Then they will have map labeling components on their midterm and final so they can see the progress they've made.”
  • Clicker Quizzes (regular, ongoing practice with feedback) - Chris Harmon, Chemistry. “I do a clicker quiz every Friday that consists of five multiple choice questions. Students get two minutes per question (timed) and the quiz is open discussion/open notes. We do this for the last 20 minutes of class and discuss the results afterwards.
  • Practice and Reflection - Whitney Ogle, Kinesiology. “I have two assignments due in the first week of class for KINS 484: Motor Learning and Development.  The first assignment is a baseline handwriting assignment where students test their ability to write with their non-dominant hand.  This is part of an ongoing assignment throughout the semester where the students receive a 1 for turning in the assignment or a 0 if they do not turn in the assignment.  This semester, I gave the students time in class to complete the assignment so they all received a 1/1 for the assignment, starting the semester with a 100%.  The other assignment is a one-page reflection where they find a picture of themselves and describe the senses they were using to complete the task and classify the task and environment.  I enjoy this assignment because I get to learn more about the students, the students typically do well on the assignment, and it helps the students feel embodied in the course content.”



Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Kift, S., (2009), First year curriculum principles: Program coordinator checklist, Articulating a transition pedagogy.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.S., and Whitt, E.J. (2010). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nicol, David J., & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2).

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, V. (2012). Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Humboldt State University