Assessment Case Study - Low Stakes Assessments in History

Ashley Weleschuk, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning 

July 27, 2017


“Students need to have the ability to make mistakes and get things wrong…and not have it affect their grades. It’s a learning process.” – Dr. Ken MacMillan


It can be difficult to give students instant feedback in large classes. Dr. Ken MacMillan, a professor who teaches HTST 201: Early Modern Europe, has found ways to ensure that his students are getting feedback on how well they are learning throughout the course. He has many different assessment methods that he uses in the course, which typically enrolls 150-250 students per section. Some assessment methods are standard essays and exams, while others are smaller and not worth as much of their grades.  These low-stakes assessments are important for ensuring that students are learning and staying engaged with the course material throughout the semester.



2-Minute Pop Quizzes

Pop quizzes occur in the class every few weeks. The quizzes make up only 10% of the course grade and students are allowed to miss one without penalty. Each quiz has five multiple-choice questions based on course material from the previous week. They are designed to be straightforward for students who regularly attend class and engage with the material. These quizzes are taken up immediately after they are written, which means that students get instant feedback on how well they are understanding the content and keeping up with the material. Students who do poorly on the quizzes get a gentle reminder to put more effort into the course, so that they do not struggle on their larger, higher-stakes assessments.

Group Activities

Approximately once per week, Dr. MacMillan gives a group assignment to work on during class. Three or four students work together, guided by a worksheet with three questions. The first question is focused on a concept, the second is broader and requires some student interpretation, and the third makes connections between different concepts and events. The graduate teaching assistants (TAs), as well as senior undergraduate classroom assistants (CAs) walk around the room with Dr. MacMillan to answer questions and help guide the group discussions when students need support.

After 20-30 minutes, the material is discussed in a plenary session with the whole class. This is another opportunity for instant feedback for the students. They see what their peers are thinking and how they approach the questions, as well as how their instructor answers them. They can assess their level of understanding compared to that of their peers and the instructors' expectations. Dr. MacMillan reviews the worksheets after class to determine whether some concepts need to be reinforced, but otherwise, the group work is graded for participation only. This means that students can make mistakes in understanding or interpretation without it negatively affecting their grades.



Students have very positive feedback about both the quizzes and the group assignments. Multiple choice quizzes are a familiar assessment format for those who are not used to written essays and exams. Group activities help them immediately figure out what concepts they are missing, and they provide opportunities to be collaborative during class, which students enjoy.  They also like how the smaller assessments are not worth a large portion of the grade, so they have room to make mistakes.

Low-stakes assessments are important for ensuring a continuous process of assessment throughout a course. Students need the motivation of assessments to stay on top of course material, as well as ways to determine how well they are understanding the content. Without frequent assessment, students may feel like they have a good understanding of the course material, but when presented with a high-stakes exam or essay question, they feel lost and overwhelmed. Smaller assessments such as quizzes and group activities give students real-time feedback about their learning.

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