Low Stakes: High Impact

With the term low stakes testing being used so frequently, I thought it would be helpful to focus on what this really means, why we do it and (most importantly!) how we go about it in the classroom.

What is it?

Low stakes testing simply means any activity that gets pupils to recall what they have learnt from memory. Sometimes you will hear people use the term interchangeably with recall practice, and I think this is a helpful description of what we mean when we talk about low-stakes testing.

Why do it?

There has been a huge amount of research into the effects of testing on learning, but essentially the gist of this is that testing has a hugely positive effect on the process of learning information and being able to recall it later. I highly recommend the book “Make it Stick” (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel, 2014), which examines all of this in a lot of detail. There is also an interesting paper summarising some of the same information here by Roediger et al (2011): Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice . Very briefly though, these are some of the benefits of testing which stand out to me:

  • Promotes ‘deep learning’ – transferring shallow understanding to abstract/conceptual
  • Facilitates later retrieval and transferability
  • Encourages metacognition
  • Improves organisation of knowledge
  • Highlights gaps in knowledge – “we don’t know what we don’t know”
  • Improves future learning
  • Improves recall of material not even tested!

There is further research into learning patterns and testing, which supports the idea of regular lTesting Effectsow stakes tests. This also exemplifies the distinction between learning and performance beautifully. In the graph (right), the different shades of grey represent different study patterns that precede a test. The two sets of bars show pupils’ results when asked to recall the taught information after either 5 minutes or 1 week. The darkest bars in each set represent the study pattern “Study, study, study, study” and the lightest show the effects of “Study, test, test, test”.

As you can see, lots of study right before a test and repeatedly going over material works in the short term. This would be a handy revision strategy on the morning of an exam for example. But for longer term recall, the STTT pattern is the most effective. This is the problem of performance: it is alluring because the teacher sees an immediate impact when they over teach material, but then wonders what happened when it comes time to mark the mocks. And of course, it is this long-term recall that we are aiming for in the new landscape of linear examinations and knowledge-packed specifications.

How do I implement this?

This section is just a selection of ideas which I’ve put together to exemplify low stakes testing. As with any teaching method, some sort of variety is important, so it’s good to use a range of different strategies as appropriate to context.

  • Use online quizzing systems: Plickers, Kahoot etc.
  • Ask your class to create questions and test each other (also a really effective flipped learning task).
  • Cheat cards – tell pupils they’re having a test, but allow them to bring one index card (up their sleeves) with anything they think might help.
  • Creative testing – write down everything they know about a topic as a poem or song.
  • Rate the test – make the last question in a test to give it a rating.
  • Correction task – give pupils an explanation which they have to correct.
  • Targeted questioning which is planned in advance and systematic.
  • Mark the test – give them a completed test or quiz and the test is to mark it accurately and make corrections.
  • Brain dump – “Write down as many facts as you can about…” one mark for each. Or “How many facts about……………… can you fit on a post-it note?”

I would be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments section, particularly if you have further ideas for recall practice and low-stakes testing.

What to read next…

Blogs/Online (hyperlinked)

Didau D, The Value of testing – on the back of a postage stamp, (2016) [Accessed Dec 17]

Didau D, Testing, testing…why one test can’t do everything, (2016) [Accessed Dec 17]

Didau D, Tests don’t kill people, (2015) [Accessed Dec 17]

Didau D, Testing and Assessment: have we been doing the right things for the wrong reasons?, (2013) [Accessed Dec 17]

Roediger et al, Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice, in Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Volume 55, (2011). [Accessed Dec 17]

Soderstrom, N & Bjork, R. Learning vs Performance. [Accessed Dec 17]


Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., McDaniel, M. A (2014). Make it Stick. London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Didau, D (2015). What if everything you knew about Education was wrong?. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing. 215-241.


Rob Coe on teacher assessment (2015), CEM: https://vimeo.com/125186095


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