How to Use Low-Stakes Assignments to Bring Fun to the Online Classroom

using low-stakes assignments to engage students online
Online LearningStudent Success
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Elyse Adler is an Assistant Professor of Information Technology


In the online learning environment, it’s tempting to get right to the point and only give students the meat and potatoes, so to speak, of the material. Because online learning is so different from in-person instruction, we need to get creative in how we engage our students and how we structure assignments and activities. Keeping students engaged in the material is necessary to help them be successful in their course. Low-stakes assignments refers to those assignments that are completed for few to no points. How can we use these in the online classroom?


Low-Stakes Assignments Spur Student Engagement

It helps to give low-stakes assignments (such as discussions, quizzes, or small group activities) to engage students in active learning and application of the material. By getting students to interact with the material, you encourage them to use higher-level thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and communication skills within your topic. Often these activities do not come with high point values. The objective isn’t to get all the answers correct or present facts. Rather, it’s more important for the students to interact and engage with the lesson.


Utilizing the Discussion Board

I always enjoy having introductory discussion board threads during the first week of class. These are not worth any points. Instead they allow the students to introduce themselves to their peers and instructor in a conversational tone. I provide a few prompts and ask them to share a bit about their family, their interests/hobbies, and their major. This helps start conversation among students and helps them connect with their peers. Once classmates do not seem like strangers, class discussions and communication become more personal and make the class less intimidating. When the class becomes less intimidating and people in the class feel more real, students tend to want to work harder to be a part of the class and participate. This leads to stronger learning outcomes!


Using Discussions & Activities as Low-Stakes Assignments

When meeting live online with students, you can use many of the same participation-type discussions that you might use in person. Utilizing breakout rooms for small group discussions or activity completion helps to promote interaction. At the same time, the instructor can monitor the class and ensure that all students are participating. I use this style of low-stakes assignment to award either extra credit or participation points to my students, just like I would in the classroom. A key with this form of online interaction is to make sure the topic or activity is one that can be engaged in by all students. One of my favorites is to give a real-world scenario and ask students to use what we have learned in the course to solve a problem.


Using Creative Assignments

In my LMS, I provide three different opportunities for students to earn extra credit points for each module. Many students lack the motivation to complete reading assignments. Or maybe they struggle with concepts we might be studying on any given week. I use these low-stakes assignments to help students earn back some points and to explore the textbook on a deeper level. One of the assignments is always taken directly from the book (to encourage reading it). One is always creative. One is always a peer/group option. By allowing students to “choose their own activity” I have found that they are more likely to work on an extra assignment. This results in a greater and deeper understanding of the topic being studied. Plus, I can award some points to reward their efforts!


Additional Ideas for Low-Stakes Assignments

Most assignments in your course will probably be individual assignments that students complete on their own. This is necessary for assessment and evaluation of individual student learning. However, it is important to incorporate activities and discussions amongst students to foster collaboration and engagement. Both of these are necessary for successful student achievement. Some other examples of low-stakes assignments that you may want to use are:

  • Group work
  • Comprehension checks/quizzes
  • Class discussion—either live or in a discussion forum thread
  • Journal or reflection writing
  • Peer review of work


Whatever activities you choose for your low-stakes assignments, work to ensure they reinforce the course material. They should provide students the opportunity to use or reflect on what they have learned in a creative way or to a group of peers. Make sure students understand how many points the work is worth, but also be sure to explain how these assignments worth few or no points are benefiting their learning and reinforcing the higher-weighted work.


To get even more ideas for your online course, explore the recordings from our Empowered Educator sessions on Online Learning.