Tes Maths: Pedagogy place - Low stakes testing

Are tests simply tools of assessment used to measure pupil progress, or are they beneficial in other ways? Tes Maths finds out

Craig Barton

Tes Maths: Pedagogy Place - Low Stakes Testing

In this series, we dive into the realm of educational research to help you best formulate effective classroom practice

Tests are staple of teaching life, but are they simply tools of assessment used to rank students and measure progress, or are they beneficial in other ways? Let’s find out.

What does the research say?

As Roediger III et al (2011a) explain, the 'testing effect' is the finding that long-term memory and the retention of knowledge is improved by active retrieval through testing, rather than passive reading. This means, therefore, that regularly testing pupils’ knowledge in class may contribute positively to their learning.

However, the content and format of in-class tests is vital. Bjork’s theory of disuse (2011) states that allowing students time to reflect on topics before testing helps to increase the storage strength of their memories. Assessments that include a variety of topics taught previously throughout the year will be most beneficial to learners.

Furthermore, in-class quizzes do not need to match the format of critical tests in order for pupils to benefit from the testing effect (McDermott et al, 2014). Rather than being filled with multi-mark exam exercises, assessments can contain a selection of multiple-choice or short-answer questions - which are far easier to mark!

It’s been proven that there are multiple benefits to testing pupils, including a better organisation of knowledge and the highlighting of gaps in their understanding. However, it’s also important to acknowledge the disadvantages. Not only do tests take a lot of time to make and mark, but many students have negative associations with high-stakes testing, resulting in maths anxiety (Ashcraft, 2002).

That said, the power of the testing effect is due to retrieval, not from grades, ranks or reams of detailed feedback; testing does not have to be high stakes. Regularly presenting students with no-fuss short quizzes may be the best way to get all of the aforementioned benefits with fewer of the associated costs. Some pupils may even come to enjoy them!

So should we have any stakes at all when testing pupils? Well, according to TeachFirst researcher Nick Rose, some stakes are better than none. In order to learn from testing, students need to put in the required effort. If there are no consequences, there’s a very real danger that not all pupils will fully apply themselves. Occasionally engaging in activities such as peer-marking is an effective way of marginally increasing the stakes without adding to learners’ maths anxiety.

In summary

Tests are not only tools of assessment, but tools of learning, and the finding that active retrieval improves the storage strength of knowledge is argument enough for making tests a regular part of lessons. 

However, assessments do not always have to be high stakes in nature. Instead, regularly checking pupils’ understanding with low-stakes tests might actually be beneficial in reducing their maths anxiety, as well as helping to save lesson time and lighten your marking load. A steady diet of ten-minute quizzes throughout the week may have a significant effect on learning!

How can Tes help?

There are plenty of ways to assess your students through low-stakes testing.  From multiple-choice quizzes to five-a-day question sheets, cover a range of key numeracy skills with these easy-to-mark activities.  

Brockington College Maths homework booklets
Peter Mattock

Brockington College Maths homework booklets

All of the homework booklets I design for my Maths department, free and in one place. Obviously cannot post answers here, but happy for people to email me for them - a DM on twitter with your email address is the best way to get them. Note there are a few images borrowed from different pla...
Multiple Choice quizzes - GCSE maths higher

Multiple Choice quizzes - GCSE maths higher

Multiple choice quizzes to help recall knowledge through low stakes testing. Answers included. Powerpoint included for those who would like to edit any questions \*\*updated 04.06\*\* Two more multiple choice quizzes put on. Re uploaded 150517 edition due to wrong answer. Hope they are s...


  • Ashcraft, Mark H. "Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences." Current directions in psychological science 11.5 (2002): 181-185
  • Barton, Craig. “Mr Barton Maths Podcast: Nick Rose” (2017)
  • Barton, Craig. “Mr Barton Maths Podcast: Robert and Elizabeth Bjork” (2017)
  • Bjork, Robert A., and A. S. Benjamin. "On the symbiosis of remembering, forgetting, and learning." Successful remembering and successful forgetting: A Festschrift in honor of Robert A. Bjork (2011): 1-22
  • Karpicke, Jeffrey D., and Janell R. Blunt. "Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping." Science 331.6018 (2011): 772-775
  • McDermott, Kathleen B., et al. "Both multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes enhance later exam performance in middle and high school classes." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 20.1 (2014): 3
  • Roediger III, Henry L., et al. "Test-enhanced learning in the classroom: long-term improvements from quizzing." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 17.4 (2011a): 382
  • Roediger III, Henry L., Adam L. Putnam, and Megan A. Smith. "Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice." Psychology of Learning and Motivation-Advances in Research and Theory 55 (2011b): 1