Low + High-stakes Assessments

Low-stakes (or “formative”) assessments provide opportunities for students to practice, make mistakes, and get feedback on their learning without those mistakes greatly affecting their ultimate grade in the course.  Frequent, low-stakes assessments are more effective for long term retention than high-stakes (or “summative”) assessments (Roediger III, & Karpicke, 2006). Low-stakes assessments can be structured to help students prepare for high-stakes assessments, like exams or projects. 

The table below and its accompanying infographic summarizes the differences between the goals and characteristics of low and high-stakes assessments, and provide a few typical examples of each in a university setting.

  Low-stakes (Formative) High-stakes (Summative)
Point value low or no point value high point value


  • Gives students a realistic idea of their performance frequently throughout the term.

  • Opens up lines of communication between students and instructors.  
  • Allows instructors to direct students to more resources.

  • Increases the likelihood that students will be active and engaged in the class.

  • Encourages synthesis across an entire course.

  • Requires students to create of discipline-specific products (research papers, projects, presentations).

  • Usually represents a larger percentage of the course grade.

  • Monitor student learning throughout the term.

  • Improve the depth and quality of student learning with frequent opportunities for checking knowledge or skills. 

  • Provide ongoing feedback to instructors about how teaching affects learning.

  • Evaluate student learning at a point in time.

  • Compare student performance against a benchmark or standard of achievement


  • Short weekly quiz 

  • Homework problem sets

  • Weekly reflective journal

  • An outline of a paper

  • Online discussion forums 

  • Case studies, debates, small presentations or performances

  • Peer review of paper components/drafts
  • A midterm or final exam

  • A final paper

  • A large project 

  • A presentation or performance

  • Websites

  • Portfolios


Low-stakes assessments support High-stakes assessments

When deciding on what types of assessments to include in your course, think of low-stakes assessments as “keys” that help them to succeed on, or “unlock,” complex parts of high-stakes assessments, as described in the video and infographic below. Using low-stakes assessments to build the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in more complex and challenging parts of the course is called “scaffolding” instruction (this is a construction metaphor where the teacher sets up a “support structure” for students).

The links in the table feature creative, rich low-stakes assessments that are typically done early or mid-way through the quarter, along with high-stakes assessments that typically occur at the end of the quarter. You’ll find ideas from colleagues here at UCSB and beyond.

Quick and Efficient Low-stakes assessments: CATs

Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) are designed to give you rapid, immediate feedback from the whole class (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Ask questions that will help you to adjust your instruction to suit the students’ real-time learning, like reviewing specific topics to clarify misunderstanings. Below are seven different types of classroom assessments that can be used in a wide range of courses.

CAT Description How to implement
Knowledge probe Start class by asking students to respond to a question that reveals their background knowledge of a topic that pertains to the unit of study. Simple polling questions (answered via i>clicker, online forum or quiz). Skim through answers or resulting histogram to reveal important misconceptions or concepts that need review.
One sentence summary/paraphrase Ask students to re-explain or summarize an important concept in their own words.  Have students write responses on paper, share with a neighbor, then refine their answers. Or, have small groups of students select the best summary to report back to the class.
Application ideas Ask students to think of a real-world application of a theory, principle or idea that you’ve discussed. Use a polling app, backchannel chat, or online forum; or ask students to tell their neighbors and call on a few people to share answers so that students can see the range of applications.
Categorizing Grid Ask which of the teaching and learning techniques that you’ve used were helpful.  Provide a list of techniques and ask them to categorize each as “Helpful” or “Not helpful” on a piece of paper, or using an online form. Report back to students about trends and how you will adjust.
Minute paper What did you learn from today’s class that you think is most important? Collect open-ended responses and skim for common answers, along with looking for “what’s missing. Begin the next class with students’ recap, filling in any missing pieces.
Muddiest point What (concept) was least clear from today’s class? Collect open-ended responses and skim for common answers. Follow-up to clarify confusing aspects of the lecture either in email, on a discussion forum, or at the start of the next class.
Unasked questions Ask: What question would you have liked to ask in class today?  Why didn’t you ask it? Make responses anonymous to encourage honesty. Discuss important questions at the next class meeting and thank the students for asking them.



Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological science, 17(3), 249-255.


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