How Low-Stakes Assessment Leads to Better Learning

September 17, 2014 Kristen Hicks

Few students enjoy the high-stakes exams they regularly have to face to get through high school and college. They prepare for them, sit through them, and wait anxiously for the scores that may or may not play an important role in their future—but every step of that process is tied more to necessity than a sense that the tests provide significant learning benefits. This paradigm often leads to the following question: How can assessment be better used to help students?

The Difference with Low-Stakes Assessment

Low-stakes assessment is nothing new—every pop quiz and graded homework assignment falls into that category. Nonetheless, it provides a valuable and often underused opportunity to help students learn better.

While high-stakes tests can provide valuable information with respect to measurement at an institutional level, low-stakes assessment puts similarly valuable information into the hands of the students themselves on a regular basis. The quizzes and graded homework assignments students complete can be easily turned into rich, specific feedback on their learning progress.

Use Assessment as a Learning Tool

Grades aren’t about passing judgment on a student or ranking the abilities and knowledge of one student against another. In practice, they sometimes take on that role, but that’s not the value they provide. Their real value is in helping students understand where they may need to improve.

The best way to help students is to provide them with specific feedback on their individual academic performances at regular intervals. A student that knows she’s falling behind by the third week of the semester can do something about it. A student that doesn’t know there’s a problem until receiving a grade at the end of the year loses out on the opportunity to adjust her approach and improve.

Better Than a Grade

A score of 85% on a test tells a student something about his performance, but it doesn’t give the level of detail that can help shape his study habits to bring that score up to 95% the next time. The more specific the feedback a student receives, the more meaningful and helpful it is.

Therein lies a new challenge: providing specific, detailed feedback on low-stakes assignments regularly throughout the year is work intensive – or at least would have been several years ago. Right now, there’s a better alternative. Technology can automate most of the process for you.

Embedded assessment makes it possible to provide visually compelling and easy-to-understand reports on how students are performing individually as soon as each assignment is graded. And it is not just for tests ¬and quizzes; you can use assessment software to grade presentations, essays, and other types of assignments as well.

These reports go beyond telling students they’ve done well or badly; they provide specifics. As a result, students discover which subject areas or skill sets they’re having the hardest time with. That knowledge can help them develop better study habits and better results over time.


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