What do low-stakes writing assignments look like?

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low-stakes writingLast week I proposed the idea of using low-stakes writing to give students writing practice and the opportunity to engage in high-level reflection and engagement while not burying instructors under an avalanche of grading. This week I intend to share what low-stakes writing looks like in my classes as well as some other ideas for low-stakes writing assignments.

I have three low-stakes writing assignments which span the semester: self-assessment journal, class blog posts, and class blog comments. In addition, I have a community-building assignment which involves a fair amount of low-stakes writing during the first weeks of my online class and I regularly use six-word stories.

reflectionOne of my primary goals for my students is to help them become more reflective and self-regulating so they can continue to grow and develop as writers and learners after they leave my class. I have always used reflection as part of teaching toolbox, but the current incarnation is the self-assessment journal. Students post a reflection each week that includes discussion about their activities that week as well as questions and concerns about the class and upcoming assignments. I always respond to these posts. Most often it is simply encouragement or I address the questions and concerns. Sometimes it is a gentle reminder about class procedure or deadlines. Sometimes I ask about their plans for an upcoming assignment. It only takes a few minutes of my time to respond to each student and yet it is an incredibly valuable tool for staying in touch with students I rarely or never get to see in person. My class size and goals (it is a writing class after all) make it important for me to engage in this weekly asynchronous conference, but a larger class with different goals could do this less often (quarterly?).

I primarily teach online and so I need to set up a format to take the place of class discussion. My current incarnation is the class blog. I begin the discussion with the first post in which I do a bit of instruction and/or sharing and then wrap it up with a question or prompt. Each class member is then expected to contribute a weekly post in response to that question or prompt. The assignment is low-stakes as there is not a grade for individual posts, but it is challenging as I tell them that I will not read each post. They must compete for my attention and that of their classmates just like writers in the real world. A simple ditto or fluff-without-substance post isn’t going to attract a comment from me – and probably not from a classmate.

Slide4However, one post does not a discussion make and so students are additionally expected to comment on the blog posts – but they can choose which posts to engage. This process also have the added incentive as they quickly grasp the rhetorical situation and continue to raise the stakes to gain readers in successive weeks. I often find that my comments fall within a conversation and are not the first or last on a blog post. I like that position. Most weeks my time commitment for these assignment is fairly low once I’ve posted my initial prompt. I will check in a couple of times during the week and at some point need to spend some time score keeping but that is it.

I won’t spend a lot of time focusing on how I use six-word stories as I have written about them a lot in the past but these are wonderfully versatile and can be used for many purposes. Students do have to spend some time thinking and crafting but they love that the assignment will only be six words. Of course, I usually ask them to reflect and/or explain their choices in writing (because I am online) but you could easily have them do that verbally in class or in small groups.

Slide2Some other low-stakes writing assignments that I really like (although don’t currently use) include the one-minute paper and collaborative class notes. I often used the one-minute paper as a check for reading and/or to jumpstart class discussion as well as to jumpstart writing assignments when I taught face-to-face. I like it as a concluding activity as well. I’ve never successfully pulled off the collaborative class notes assignment (as a teacher) but I love the idea and think it could be a really great assignment for a large class.

I am sharing my tips and strategies for low-stakes writing assignments with my colleagues at Morehead State University this week. See links for more information about low-stakes writing assignments, one-minute papers, and collaborative class notes (High- vs. Low-Stakes Writing).