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Balancing Low Stakes vs. High Stakes Assessments

The Breakdown

Studies have shown that balancing the use of low stakes and high stakes assignments and assessments in determining a course grade tends to improve the performance of all students while also specifically promoting the success of historically under-represented/under-served students in such a way as to reduce course-level equity gaps. The particular positive impact on these student populations may be based on reductions to Stereotype Threat.
Determining what qualifies as a low stakes assessment or assignment is usually straightforward. Quizzes, weekly homework assignments, one-page reflection papers, credit based on measures of student engagement, and other formative assignments would typically be considered low-stakes. Midterm exams, final exams, and major end-of-semester papers or projects and other summative assignments.

Comparing Low and High Stakes Assessments

Explanations Low Stakes High Stakes
Basic definition An assignment or assessment that will  not , by itself, have a “major” impact on the overall course grade. An assignment/assessment that is explicitly described to students as more about process and determining a measure of their progress (i.e. formative) rather than something used to determine final course mastery. Typically regarded as significantly less rigorous than high stakes assessments. An assignment or assessment that does have a major impact on the overall course grade. These are more typically summative assessments designed to assess mastery of the course materials or some portion of the course materials, and are often described in those terms to students. Typically regarded as significantly more rigorous than low states assessments.
Give me the numbers! A rough guide is that no single low stakes assessment should represent more than 5% of the overall course grade. It is not unusual for a single high stakes assessment or assignment to represent 25% or more of the course final grade.
What’s a good balance? Research indicates that allocating total points such that low stakes assessments represent at least 50% of the overall course grade improves the performance of students overall, while also helping to reduce equity gaps. Research indicates that allocating total points such that high stakes assessments represent no more than 50% of the overall course grade improves student performance overall, while also helping to reduce equity gaps.
Typical examples Short quizzes, weekly homework assignments, points based on measures of engagement/ attendance, in-class, short reflection/reaction assignments Midterm exams, final exams, final course papers or projects


Aiming for a 50/50 split between low stakes and high stakes assessments is a good starting point, although the structure of a particular class or department-wide course standardization may need to be considered.  Nevertheless any effort to increase the number of low-stakes assignments relative high-stakes ones may be beneficial.

Supporting Literature

Ertmer, P.A. and Newby, T.J. (2013), Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features From an Instructional Design Perspective. Perf. Improvement Qrtly, 26: 43-71.