Quizzing and other “low-stakes” formative assessment strategies

It’s not unusual to hear of a faculty member who’s experimented with, but since given up on using  pre-quizzes to measure students’ existing understanding of a specific topic or to assess whether or not they’ve completed assigned readings prior to coming to class. Why do students often complain or view this practice negatively and instructors decide that it’s too time consuming with no apparent benefit?


To be able to answer the question above, one must be clear on the differences between formative and summative assessments. Carneigie Mellon makes the following differentiations between these two different instructional strategies:

  • The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning.
  • The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark.

Students frequently have negative views of quizzing because this type of assessment has most often been used as a high-stake tool for summative purposes. With this approach, students often experience test anxiety, complain that questions are not clear, argue over incorrect answers, or are tempted to cheat in order to achieve high grades (Shingles, 2015).

Students may need to be re-educated to the idea of quizzing or other formative assessment methods as an instructional strategy to help them take more control of their own learning by getting an better understanding of where they should focus their effort. For students to fully embrace this concept, the instructional activities will be “low stakes” with minimal or no point value.

In addition, the quiz or other assessment should be closely related to clearly defined learning goals and should provide students with helpful feedback to suggest how they can clarify any misunderstandings about the course content. Useful feedback from formative assessment and thoughtful self-reflection by students help both help to reinforce the idea that one’s intelligence can be increased as opposed to it being a fixed entity (Wilson, 2014).

Effective implementation of formative assessment to improve learning and teaching

In a recent CIRTLCast webinar, Dr. Richard Shingles of Johns Hopkins University presented a webinar where he discussed effective implementation of quizzing as a formative assessment strategy for faculty who teach large enrollment courses. Here are some of his recommendations:

When to administer quizzing or other formative assessments

Quizzes should not be limited to use at the end of an instructional unit, but as a resource to guide the learning process. Make sure that students receive timely (if not instant) results and that the quizzes provide not just a numerical score, but also useful feedback. Feedback can be in the form of references in the textbook, a lecture to review, or additional problems to try. Ideally, the instructor will review aggregated results prior to the next class meeting so that he/she can address concepts that are unclear.

Getting students to complete quizzes even if they’re “low stakes” with no point value

  • If you’re using a learning management system, you can make the release of critical lesson content contingent upon taking a quiz or even achieving a minimal score.
  • You can consider giving minimal credit for simply attempting all questions, but consider awarding a small amount of additional credit for cumulative scores over a certain level.
  • Promise students that X% of questions on these quizzes will appear on the final exam. Therefore, completing/reviewing the quizzes will help them prepare for exams.
  • Provide students with information on the need to take responsibility for being self-directed learners, where they are aware of what they need to learn, assess what they currently know, and develop a strategy for acquiring the additional knowledge.

Getting started with formative assessments

YFCS faculty have access to LMS tools that can automate quizzing, grading, feedback and conditional release of subsequent course content. To discuss options for your particular course, contact Instructional designer dede_nelson@ncsu.edu for assistance.


Shingles, R. (February 17, 2015). Conducting assessments during your STEM course. Educational Innovation and the Active Classroom CIRTLCast series. Webcast recording at http://www.cirtl.net/index.php?q=events.

Wilson, S. (February 13, 2014). The Characteristics of High-Quality Formative Assessments. The Innovative Instructor Blog. http://ii.library.jhu.edu/2014/02/13/the-characteristics-of-high-quality-formative-assessments/

CIRTL, the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning, is an organization committed to advancing the teaching of STEM disciplines in higher education. You can review recordings of various CIRTL presentations with practical ideas to improve both teaching and learning.

The one-hour session on Conducting Assessments During Your STEM Class was initially presented 2/17/2015 as a Blackboard Collaborate webinar, and the recording is in native Collaborate file format. https://sas.elluminate.com/site/external/jwsdetect/playback.jnlp?psid=2015-02-17.0712.M.91F8BDB9C9ED5FC374879ACB77BD35.vcr&sid=1304

NC State University faculty can go to http://go.ncsu.com/configuration to do a one time download of the Blackboard Collaborate launcher application to play this recording.


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