We all know what traditional writing assignments look like in college – the report, the term paper, the essay – these can be as short as 1,000 words or run dozens of pages. The expectation is that these assignments are the result of hours of work by the student and typically represent a major percentage of the students’ final grade in the course and as such the stakes are high for the student – which is why these assignments are known as high-stakes writing.
We need high-stakes writing assignments in college. First and foremost, because this is an important academic skill and we know that most professions will also require high-stakes writing (although it will most likely look nothing like the academic form but that is another blog post), but also because we know that thoughtful, complex writing can demonstrate understanding better than most other forms of assessment regardless of the discipline. So what stops us from assigning lots of high-stakes writing?
FEAR! We know that assigning high-stakes writing comes with a high price. High-stakes writing assignments are huge consumers of class and instructor time. If we do this the right way it requires a great deal of time to prepare the class to tackle the assignment, even more class and instructor time must be spent to support the production of the assignment, and then comes the horror of actually grading it. We need to assess the content, the form, the use of sources, and worst of all – we need to assess the writing – its effectiveness as well as its correctness. This is not fun. This is an incredibly time-consuming and angst-ridden process. It is so stressful we have to wonder why anyone assigns high-stakes writing at all.
But it doesn’t need to be that way. One way to reduce the risk of a grading avalanche is to employ the same strategy you see in many mountain regions – to prevent a large avalanche we are going to trigger several small ones. My solution? Low-stakes writing assignments.
Low-stakes writing traditionally means frequent informal writing assignments. Cumulatively this assignment might be worth as much as a more traditional assignment but individually the writings are not a major part of the students’ grade for a course although they can play a very central role in student learning.
This type of assignment is sometimes referred to as writing to learn. The idea is to write without focusing on creating polished writing, but rather to explore ideas and think on paper. This is not about teaching or grading writing, but giving students a tool and opportunity for engagement and active learning.
There are many types of low-stakes writing assignments, but the instructor should set the goals for low-stakes writing according to the larger course goals. Perhaps you want to focus on content mastery or warm students up for class discussion or some other activity. Low-stakes writing can require students to reflect on what they’ve learned and/or read, make use of those lessons, and/or draw connections between the current lessons and past lessons (or lessons outside of class).
These assignments are intended to be low-stakes for the instructor as well as the student. While students should expect feedback that feedback does not need to come all from the instructor and instructor feedback does not need to be evaluative in nature – no need to respond to the writing or even the level of thinking or ideas – simply respond to the idea if you respond at all…You have the opportunity to make all members of the class writers and readers/responders. Give your students a broader audience than just the teacher and cut down on your participation at the same time. Some options include:
- You can tell students their writing will be read by you but you will not in fact post any feedback
- You can have students respond to each other
- You can respond to only selected writings or assignments
- You can read everything and just give out + or – or whatever simple fast formula you want to devise
If the time and sanity savings are not enough incentive, there are a number of pedagogical benefits to low-stakes writing. You can gain some real insight into what students are thinking about the reading, class discussion, or other activities through low-stakes reflective writing activities – similarly students can discover things as they write if they are given the space, time, and encouragement to do so
These assignments also offer purposeful writing practice. No one likes practice just for the sake of practice (especially when it comes to writing). Low-stakes writing requires a lot of writing by students over time but they don’t think about that because the purpose of the assignment is not writing – that is just an added benefit. Although my class blog is low-stakes writing they also know they are writing for an audience and so they take some care with it.
Low-stakes writing can also help students prepare for or jumpstart high-stakes assignments. You can create a set of prompts that guide students toward a high-stakes writing assignment – making assignment prep part of class work rather than a separate activity – by the time my students are ready to draft their final project they already have a fully-formed idea and thesis as well as the beginning of an argument. They know what they need to write and they are prepared to write it.
You can also use a warm-up writing prompt to help students organize their thoughts before beginning a class discussion or activity – sometimes there is a lot of time/space between class reading and actual class and sometimes there has just been a lot of life since they last thought about the ideas you are discussing – give them a chance to get their head back in the game.
Finally, low-stakes assignments give students frequent feedback from a variety of sources. One of the problems with high-stakes writing is that if a student fails to meet expectations they have little or no opportunity to correct the problem – low stakes writing offers the opportunity for regular feedback.
My next blog post will include more specifics about how I use low-stakes writing in my own classes including preparing for high-stakes writing assignments. I will also share links to a number of other resources and assignments. If you have links to some good examples please send them to me and I will include them.