Fostering Confidence and Competence with Low-Stakes Assessment

PIDP 3240 – Media Enhanced Learning
Vancouver Community College
Kathryn Truant
October 15, 2017


Learning equals change: a change in knowledge, a change in behaviour and a change in attitude. For many students, learning and change create anxiety in formal learning environments, which affects motivation and interferes with learning. In Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning (2012), educator and e-learning[1] proponent José Antonio Bowen argues that “[educators] can reduce anxiety and increase opportunities for change by combining clear learning outcomes with lots of low-stakes assessment[2]” (2012, p.94). Bowen believes that student motivation will increase if exams are worth less marks, but are more frequent, and students will receive the formative feedback that they require to practice and master skills (2012).


I worry that low-stakes assessment will lower anxiety, but also lower motivation to learn potentially important aspects of a curriculum if less value is placed on assessment. How can low-stakes assessment prepare learners for professional practice? How can low-stakes assessment build confidence in learners? Does it motivate them? My initial concern is that students will not have the adequate knowledge, skills and attitude for their vocation if assessment does not reflect strict learning outcomes.

Informally assessing learners benefits the teaching process because it allows instructors to spend more time on material that learners are struggling with, or to continue with course content once lessons have been mastered by the students. The focus of this philosophy is to improve learning (Angelo & Cross, 1993). I am beginning to realize that Bowen’s reason for suggesting low-stakes assessment is not just to make anxious students more comfortable, his approach is intended to improve their learning potential as well.


Now that I have had a chance to reflect on the idea of low-stakes assessment, I am giving credibility to the idea that learners will have more opportunity for mastery, BUT the assessment must match the objectives. The assessment must be “specific to circumstance” (Fenwick & Parsons, 2009, p. 6). I admit that motivation is obstructed by a student’s negative self-perception. In my opinion, loss of confidence and competence occur when:

– the assessment does not reflect the required knowledge, skills, and attitude

– the assessment measures outcomes before a student has mastered prerequisites

– the assessment criteria are not clearly explained

– the assessment is not valid; it must measure what was taught

– the assessment is not reliable; it must be consistent with the subject taught while reflecting learning outcomes

– the assessment is not ongoing to allow students to learn from mistakes

(Fenwick & Parsons, 2009).

I think that students build confidence when assessment focuses on accountability in relation to how well they learn the course material, and are competent in completing the objectives.


Students must be accountable for learning outcomes. Instructors must be accountable to students, institutions, professional associations (licensing body), employers, and the public. By using low-stakes assessment as a tool to improve confidence, I want to ensure that my assessments match learning objectives so that my students are completely competent. For example, an activity called “UH-OH!” can be used to assess student collaboration, and communication with the instructor, while at the same time clarifying course content. At the end of a unit or demonstration, the instructor asks the students if there are items that require further explanation. The students are asked to share their “UH-OHS!” with a partner to see if they can explain them to each other, and then to e-mail one to three “UH-OHS!” to the instructor (Conrad & Donaldson, 2012). I think it would be better to post the “UH-OHS!” to a class forum, because it is likely that students will share common unclear content; this will further enhance the objective of clarification. In this assessment, the students are told that even though the activity is not worth a lot of marks (e.g. 5% per unit), it is still a formal and summative assessment, and that they need to take it seriously. Bowen has convinced me that low-stakes assessment does not mean low quality assessment. “If we can lower anxiety and increase motivation at the same time, we will create optimal conditions for learning” (Bowen, 2012, p. 95).

[1] e-learning: learning conducted via electronic media, typically on the Internet

[2] low-stakes assessment: assessment with reduced summative consequences

@ Please refer to my Resources page for works cited