I have been teaching in a higher education graduate school for more than fourteen years and until my fall 2017 semester, I had been calculating my students' grades based on an 80% paper and a 20% multiple choice exam. This was tradition. This was simply the way things had always been done. Sure, one paper being worth 80% of a student's final grade was a high stake (when I was in school, this paper was worth 100% - that's progress!), but I figured that was simply what students needed to take the assignment seriously and put in the time and effort needed to earn a good grade. Were there problems from year to year? Yes. Other faculty members would notice and often complain that the students who were so consumed with the high-stakes paper were unprepared in their other classes - or worse - were absent from their other classes. The concentration on my high-stakes paper was having a negative impact on the students' learning in their other classes. Also, the students themselves often complained about the stress they felt from feeling overwhelmed by having their grade ride almost entirely on this one assignment.
This past fall, I decided to try a new approach. Instead of two, I had five graded assessments. The assessments ranged in value from 5% to 40%. I found that the students took each assignment and my feedback seriously under this new assessment strategy, as they knew each assessment would impact their grade to some degree. I also found that they were eager to ask questions to be sure they understood the material. The 40% assessment was for the final paper. While this was much less than 80%, I found that students were still feeling some anxiety from the weight given. I will be tweaking my value system next semester so that no assessment will have a value greater than 25% and I am hopeful that this will reduce even more stress. In addition, I will be using Canvas for the first time this semester (I am part of the initial pilot program at my institution) and I am thankful for its organization and clarity - another stress reducer. If anyone has any similar experiences or has used Canvas effectively for a class with multiple, low-stakes assessments, please feel free to share.