Low-Stakes Testing: How Teachers Can Do It Right in the Classroom

As our understanding of cognitive science has grown in recent years, so has its application in the classroom.

An example of this is how the “test effect” has influenced classroom practice. In 2007, American researcher Mark McDaniel and his colleagues discovered that “taking a test on the material studied promotes later learning and retention of this material during a final test”.

In other words, the more tests you do before an exam, the better.

In the years that followed, we saw that low-stakes testing was increasingly used in classrooms across the country. This change in practice gave students the opportunity to apply their knowledge, develop their long-term memory and thus become better learners.

However, after two years of teacher-assessed (TAG) scores, I noticed a problem with this practice: I saw students of all age groups convinced that each test or quiz will have a monumental impact on their final results.

This problem is further exacerbated by the incessant talk of catch-up. Students feel behind in their studies, despite having worked consistently this academic year, and are losing faith in the low-stakes quiz and assessment process.

So what can we do about it?

Restoring trust in low-stakes testing

It’s time to get back to basics: explain the benefits of regular quizzes to students, show them the supporting evidence, and restore their confidence in the process.

A one-hour lesson now on understanding the science behind the process could pay dividends in the future and help reduce fears about valuations.

Set clear expectations for quizzes, explaining how students should answer questions and what they should do with their quizzes after they complete them.


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Take the time to train students in effective self-assessment and make sure they know what to do with the result – whether they keep it to themselves or share it with you. All of this will help reduce cognitive load as well as test anxiety.

think about the purpose

When a student is expected to share their score, it increases the stakes and comes with a sense of judgment. However, it helps us as teachers. Knowing how a student performed can guide our planning and how we come up with a concept and for whom.

Consider using a combination of approaches and train students to reflect on themselves and take ownership of their own results. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What quizzes or tests do you really need to know the results for?
  • Which questionnaires can students self-assess and take ownership of?

Can you use a structured “quiz wrapper,” which asks students to reflect on their readiness, confidence, and areas of development moving forward?

To rent out

Praise and its connection to self-motivation are integral to effective classroom testing. We know from research published by John Hattie and others in 2007 that, in general, praise in classrooms can be quite low. Exploiting its potential and increasing its frequency are fruits within reach.

How is praise best delivered?

In 2010, Australian researchers Paul Burnett and Valerie Mandel found that praise is most effective when students are praised for specific accomplishments and behaviors, praised for their efforts, and praised quietly and individually.

They also found that while non-specific and general praise is popular with teachers, it is often ineffective. Similarly, they concluded that when we praise students’ individual characteristics, but not their performance on a task, it “rarely results in increased engagement, commitment to learning, improved self-perception, or deeper understanding.” depth of the task.

Parental support

We know how important parents are in education, and in 2018 the Education Endowment Foundation concluded that “parents play a crucial role in supporting their children’s learning, and levels of engagement parenting are consistently associated with better academic achievement”.

Along with our students feeling the ramifications of TAG and remediation, parents are understandably worried about the impact on their children and their future. Are they late? Can they do X well enough? The list is endless.

Investing in parental engagement and support can really help change the culture and perception of screening.

There are several things you could do in this area:

  • Over-communicate what you do with testing.
  • As with students, go back to basics and explain the benefits of regular quizzes.
  • Encourage a common language around quizzes and tests, moving away from “how did you do it?” (focused on results) to “how did you find the quiz?” (process-oriented). This provides an opportunity for more thoughtful dialogue.
  • Offer support as needed to enable positive dialogue and preparation for quizzes at home.

Louise Lewis is Senior Research Officer and Head of Education Evidence at Beverley High School, East Yorkshire

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