Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Concrete Strategies for Frequent, Low-Stakes Assessments/Practice

Give frequent multiple-choice/short knowledge checks

  • Department: Statistics and Social & Decision Sciences
  • Course format: lecture
  • Strategy: In order to help students check their own understanding of the course material, after each lecture, one instructor created a brief multiple-choice quiz (3-5 questions) that students took via Canvas. The questions were relatively straightforward and designed to measure whether students understood the main ideas/concepts presented. Quizzes were auto-graded in Canvas, so the instructor did not have to grade them. In another course, the instructor assigned students to write a single sentence summarizing the key point of the previous class or just-completed class.
  • Advantages: Helped the instructor as well as the student identify what areas they needed to work on. Instructor found that these quiz scores were an effective assessment of students’ knowledge (based on comparison with midterm scores before the transition to remote). 
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Another instructor used the same strategy except they deployed the quiz before lecture to see how much of the assigned readings the students had understood. So, the strategy could be employed either before or after lecture, so instructors should consider which option best helps accomplish the goal they are trying to achieve. 
  • Tools: Canvas (potentially with auto-scoring, esp if multiple choice)

Assign milestone, component tasks before final deliverable

  • Department: Biological Sciences and MSE
  • Course format: Lab and lecture
  • Strategy: Instead of assigning a full lab report to students after completing an experiment, one instructor split the final report into its component sections (i.e., introduction, methods, results and discussion, conclusions) and had students work in groups on one part at a time synchronously. Another instructor took a final design project and assigned interim deliverables as the milestones. In both cases, students simply needed to integrate the pieces into the final “whole”.
  • Advantages: Students’ tasks were spaced out over time which prevented them from procrastinating and trying to complete the full report all at once. Students got more formative feedback on each section. The quality of the final reports was much higher than in past years and was easier to grade.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Shorter interim assignments can be graded strictly (for quality of responses) or more based on effort (for submitting milestone/interim deliverables). Students can receive points for effort (e.g., submitting milestones for working on the deliverables) or for quality of responses. Regardless of grading approach, formative feedback can be given during synchronous sessions to avoid later/great grading load.
  • Tools: (1) Canvas for assignments; (2) Google Docs for collaborative writing, editing

Re-allocate final exam questions into multiple shorter assessments

  • Department: Psychology and Physics
  • Course format: Lecture
  • Strategy: Instead of giving a high-stakes exam during finals period, subsets of questions intended for the final exam were pulled into shorter assessments that were administered every few weeks throughout the semester (keeping in mind which questions students could reasonably answer at different points in the semester). In one case, these assessments were completed outside of class; in another, they were completed during class time.
  • Advantages: No need to write “extra” assessment questions; just re-allocate questions from final exam. Grading load was equal or better, given this strategy removed time-pressured final exam grading from the end of the semester, spreading grading over multiple weeks. Students got more frequent feedback, and their performance on shorter assessments was better than final exam performance seen in previous years.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Shorter assessments can still be graded relatively strictly to assess student learning. Each shorter assessment is worth a smaller portion of the final course grade compared to the final exam, but not so little points each that the incentive gets too low… Note: questions on the shorter assessments can still require students to synthesize or integrate the material they have learned.
  • Tools: (1) Canvas, with students downloading the exam document and uploading a document with their responses, and TAs/instructor grading within Canvas (e.g., with a rubric or speedgrader). (2) Gradescope plug-in to Canvas for students to submit their responses and for TAs/instructor to do grading. (3) Canvas quiz tool for building the shorter assessment questions directly into the system (offers possibility of automatic grading for multiple choice and some other question formats)

Assign students short (written) analysis of reading 

  • Department: Philosophy
  • Course format: lecture or discussion
  • Strategy: Instructor assigns students to reconstruct primary argument (e.g., of a reading) to practice key skills that they will need for final project/paper.
  • Advantages: Good way for students to get regular practice on key skill(s).
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Helpful to explicitly explain to students why you’re using this strategy and that it will help them in the final deliverable. 
  • Tools: Canvas assignment functions

Assign weekly reflection questions 

  • Department: History
  • Course format: lecture
  • Strategy: Assign students to complete brief weekly reflections on the course readings. Each reflection assignment is worth a small number of points (so any one mis-step does not incur a big penalty), but altogether the points add up, showing the importance of consistent reading and reflection.
  • Advantages: Reflection questions give students a concrete reason to do the reading! Every week these questions gave students (and TAs!) a guide to what the instructor thought were the key points.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Writing reflection questions can take some time, but this instructor thought it was a worthwhile investment. Weekly reading reflection questions can be written and set up in advance, so there is little overhead once the semester is underway. 
  • Tools: Canvas assignment (allowing type into text box or file upload)

Assign rough draft (and other key milestones) for final papers 

  • Department: Chemistry
  • Course format: seminar
  • Strategy: Instructor assigns students to submit rough draft of their final papers. When grading and providing feedback, the instructor gives a grade based mostly on effort, and then the feedback takes the form of information on how the draft would be scored based on the final draft’s rubric. 
  • Advantages: Students’ final work was much better with than without this strategy.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: The rough draft can be optional (“0 stakes”) or required (but for “low” points). Time grading and providing feedback on the rough draft is a consideration, but it did reduce grading time for final draft. Instructor could consider peer-review as a way to reduce rough draft grading time to almost nothing (being sure to instructor students in how to use the rubric to review their peers’ work).
  • Tools: Canvas, TurnItIn plug-in, or possibly Gradescope

Incorporate repeated-attempts “mastery exams” 

  • Department: Statistics and INI
  • Course format: lecture
  • Strategy: Instead of a midterm + final, the instructors created multiple exams that were administered in a mastery-based format – i.e., students can re-take the exam (or different versions of the exam) multiple times in order to demonstrate mastery. Earlier attempts do not negatively affect students’ grades. In one course, the instructor created three mastery-based take-home exams. For each, students had two attempts to achieve 90% correct: for the first attempt, students had two days to complete the exam. If they did not achieve 90%, they had a week to resubmit their corrected exam (and get additional help if needed). In another course, students were given mastery exam opportunities each week for the last N weeks of the semester. Exams were short (e.g., 1-2 problems, so more like a quiz) and yet designed to test conceptual understanding. For each, students had to score at least a “check” (within a “check”, “check-plus”, “check-minus” grading scheme), and over the course of the semester, students had to earn a certain number of “check” or “check-plus” scores to get an A, B, .... Given the N opportunities, most students simply kept taking the tests until they achieved the target number fo letter grade A. Getting a “check-minus” did not incur a penalty as long as the student could Final course grades depende
  • Advantages: The goal was for the students to self correct and ultimately arrive at the correct knowledge. This focus on mastery over memorization allowed students to demonstrate their knowledge more fully, and lowered their stress. While cheating was technically possible, the instructor noted that students understood that there was little advantage to doing so given the type of questions and format. 
  • Implementation considerations/questions: These kinds of exams can take more upfront work to generate (esp multiple versions), if you aren’t used to them.
  • Tools: Canvas, Gradescope.

Create scenario-based assessments 

  • Department: INI
  • Course format: Any
  • Strategy: The instructor created scenario-based assessments that focused on students generating and synthesizing information, rather than simply reproducing it. For example, a prompt could be “Here are two different options for building a prototype, compare and contrast them, and say which is better. Then, describe a third option that is superior to both.”  
  • Advantages: This type of exam is less conducive to cheating, and gives students a wider range of options for demonstrating their knowledge. 
  • Implementation considerations/questions: This type of exam can take more upfront planning if you aren’t used to it. It is recommended that you have a rubric that articulates the criteria you will be evaluating. These criteria for evaluation should be communicated to students in advance (even better: give students a chance to practice these kinds of problems in class in a lower-stakes way!).
  • Tools: Canvas, TurnItIn, Gradescope

Weekly quizzes to assess key skills 

  • Department: Philosophy
  • Course format: any
  • Strategy: Incorporate short quizzes (every week or two) that isolate key skills to provide students practice (assessment also supports learning!). Quizzes may be weekly and may focus on isolating key skills.
  • Advantages: Results on quizzes help inform instructor on possible adjustment, but they arguably are even more important to provide diagnostic info to students (e.g., before a higher-stakes assessment)
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Instructor can/should tell students that these quizzes are 
  • Tools: Canvas

Provide a simulated (game-based) practice environment 

  • Department: INI
  • Course format: any (esp project-based)
  • Strategy: Set up a game where students progressively get more information and have the opportunity to practice their skills by taking actions in the game. Students’ participation is not worth many points, so this is yet another example of frequent, low-stakes assessment.
  • Advantages: Results on quizzes help inform instructor on possible adjustment, but they arguably are even more important to provide diagnostic info to students (e.g., before a higher-stakes assessment)
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Instructor can/should tell students that these quizzes are 
  • Tools: Canvas