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Low-Stakes Writing Assignments

Young woman writing with a friend

As a learning tool, writing can help students achieve a number of learning goals. Critical thinking is often supported with writing assignments, as writing converts students from passive to active learners by encouraging them to take concepts learned in class and confront problems, gather and analyze data, prepare hypotheses, and formulate arguments. Writing can also help students practice knowledge translation, and as students work to make concepts clear and accessible to others, they often come to understand those concepts better themselves. In addition, through writing, students can explore, refine, and reflect on how they think and feel about course concepts and issues, and make abstract course concepts more meaningful by connecting them to their own experience. Finally, writing is an excellent tool for retaining course concepts: when asked to write about concepts discussed in class or described in course readings, students retain the concepts better.

So what’s the difference between high-stakes and low-stakes writing? And why might an instructor choose to include low-stakes writing activities in their courses?

The benefits of low-stakes writing

High-stakes writing involves formal, structured writing where a formal grade is assigned, such as an essay or report. This grade is usually worth a large portion of a student’s overall mark. High-stakes writing encourages students to explore ideas outside of the course and to learn outside of class, helps teachers to see if students can integrate course material with other sources, and improves students’ formal writing skills. However, high-stakes writing can create stress for students who are concerned over how much it counts towards their final grade, as well as for faculty members and teaching assistants who have to grade the assignments. In addition, high-stakes writing assignments are often unfeasible for larger classes because of the amount of marking.

Low-stakes writing assignments and activities, on the other hand, involve informal writing and grading. Low-stakes writing encourages student involvement in course ideas, helps students keep up with readings and put content in their own words, helps instructors to see whether or not students are understanding the material as a course progresses, and prepares students for high-stakes assignments. Low-stakes writing also creates less stress for students and instructors, because it usually counts for a small portion (if any) of the total grade and tends to be quicker to mark than essays, lab reports, and writing portfolios. 

Assessing low-stakes writing

Low-stakes writing assignments do not have to be labour intensive for instructors. To manage the time involved in marking or giving feedback on these assignments, consider the following strategies:

  • Do not collect the low-stakes writing activity, but give a small participation mark for its completion in class.
  • Collect the low-stakes writing activity and provide brief feedback.
  • Collect the low-stakes writing activity and give a small participation mark.
  • Collect five low-stakes writing activities at the end of the semester for marking.
  • Use the following rubric:
    • ✔+ Your insights are strong and you developed a compelling argument and/or the information is correct and detailed.
    • ✔   You highlighted important issues but your argument could be more persuasive and/or some information is incorrect or there is not enough detail.
    • ✔-  You summarized the articles but did not answer the assigned question and/or all or most of the information is incorrect.

Low-stakes writing activities

Before implementing any of the activities below, consider your students and your course teaching objectives. Just because a writing assignment idea looks like a fun or worthwhile activity does not mean that it will help you reach your teaching goals. You might also find related CTE teaching tips on writing helpful as you plan to integrate writing into your course: Responding to Writing Assignments: Managing the Paper Load and Writing as a Learning Tool.

Abstract writing

Purpose: To focus thoughts and summarize ideas; to reinforce course readings; to develop critical thinking skills

Procedure: Remove any identifying marks from a paper (e.g., title, author’s name, abstract, journal reference, reference list) and have students read the paper and write an abstract.

Example: Read the following journal article and write an abstract for it, summarizing the main points of the author(s) in your own words. Remember to identify the main thesis, the data collecting procedure, the findings, and the conclusions in your abstract.

One-sentence summaries

Purpose: To reinforce class concepts; to gauge students’ comprehension of the lecture; to involve students in summarizing material; to highlight defining features of a concept

Procedure: At the end of class, identify a particular concept discussed in class and have students summarize it in one sentence. Alternatively, do not give them a particular concept; simply ask them to summarize the lecture in one sentence, picking the most salient points. Tell students that a one-sentence summary should answer the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, why).

Example: Write a one-sentence summary (using the 5 Ws) about Fink’s Model of Active Learning, which we discussed in class today.

Headlines

Purpose: To retain and explain concepts; to summarize key concepts

Procedure: After discussing a concept or event, have students write newspaper-style headlines summarizing it. This activity may be particularly appropriate in a discussion on research, controversial issues, or historical developments.

Example: Write a headline that summarizes our class on high-stakes versus low-stakes writing.

Finish the list

Purpose: To explore ideas; to personalize ideas

Procedure: Students are asked to briefly respond to a prompt by writing 2-3 answers in bullet point format.

Example: Based on your knowledge of the field, fill in the following bullet points.

In a first-year course in my discipline, the most common core concepts include:

  •  
  •  
  •  

Directed paraphrasing

Purpose: To personalize ideas; to explain concepts; to develop critical thinking

Procedure: Students are asked to write about a particular concept taught in class in their own words. A variation of this would be to have students paraphrase as if they were explaining concepts to a particular audience (e.g., an industry leader; an elected government official, etc.).

Example: In your own words, write what the difference is between high-stakes and low-stakes writing as if you were explaining it to a first-year undergraduate student.

Application cards

Purpose: To develop critical thinking; to explain and apply concepts; to retain concepts

Procedure: Distribute 3x5 cards to your students. Have them write a real-world application for a theory, principle or procedure they have learned about in class on the card and either submit them to you or share them with one another. The small card is optional – using lined paper is fine too — but the card indicates to the students that they should be concise.

Example: A colleague in your field is interested in learning more about using writing as an effective learning tool. Explain to this colleague how to run a writing exercise that you plan to use in your classroom.

Explain a concept

Purpose: To explain concepts; to retain concepts

Procedure: Have students explain a concept recently introduced by the reading or lecture. You can change the audience to someone who would be more or less familiar with the field, depending on your goals for student articulation of knowledge.

Example: Explain “Newtonian fluid” to a peer who was absent, or in a letter to your parents.

Online discussion groups

Purpose: To personalize ideas; to focus thoughts; to explore ideas

Procedure: Divide the class into small groups of 4-6 students. Set up an online discussion board and have each group discuss course issues online. Each group then selects a member to summarize its discussion. The summaries are posted to the main class list, where you and the entire class can read them. You will want to monitor the group discussion, especially toward the beginning of term. See the CTE teaching tip, Online Discussions: Tips for Instructors.

Example: On the course discussion board, discuss with your group experiences you have had with high- and low-stakes writing assignments, and together identify the pros and cons about each. Have one member of your group post the pros and cons to the course email list.

Personal response exercise

Purpose: To retain concepts; to personalize ideas; to explore concepts

Procedure: Students write about concepts taught in class through sharing personal opinions/ experiences that relate in some way to those concepts.

Example: Write about the most memorable or interesting experience you have had in an Engineering course.

Journals

Purpose: To personalize ideas; to retain concepts; to explore concepts

Procedure: Students write in a journal on a regular basis about particular concepts learned in class. The writing can be open-ended (write about a certain aspect of a course for a certain length of time) or guided (students respond to content-specific questions developed by you).

Example: Identify and discuss your ideas on three significant concepts that stood out to you from this week’s readings.

Email the author

Purpose: To clarify concepts; to retain concepts; to explore concepts; to personalize ideas

Procedure: Tell students to draft a short email asking the author for clarification or further information on a concept in the article or essay. This will encourage students to think critically about which aspects of the article or essay confuse them, and will personalize the material. You can encourage students to actually send the email – they may actually receive a reply!

Example: Choose an article from this week’s readings and draft an email to the author with a brief, specific question.

Memory matrix

Purpose: To retain concepts; to personalize ideas; to explain concepts.

Procedure: Students complete a two-dimensional diagram for which the instructor has provided labels. Having information laid out visually can help students to prepare for a test or see how different concepts fit together.

Example: Based on the readings for today, fill in the following matrix:

Course concept Description Examples from the readings
     
     

Resources

CTE teaching tips

Other resources

  • Angelo, T. A. and Cross, P. K. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.
  • Anson, C. (2015). Crossing thresholds: What’s to know about writing across the curriculum. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Eds. Adler-Kassner, V. and Wardle, E. 203-219. Utah State University Press.
  • Bean, J. (2001). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Dyment, J., and O’Connell, T. (2010). The quality of reflection in student journals: A review of limiting and enabling factors. Innovative Higher Education, 35(4), 233-244.
  • Enns, C., Cho, M., & Karimidorabati, S. (2014). Using writing as a learning tool in engineering courses. Teaching Innovation Projects, 4(2).
  • Herteis, E. M. and Wright, W. A., Eds. (1992). Learning through writing: A compendium of assignments and techniques. Halifax: Office of Instructional Development and Learning.
  • Hudd, S. S., Smart, R. A., and Delohery, A. W. (2011). My understanding has grown, my perspective has switched: Linking informal writing to learning goals. Teaching Sociology, 39(2), 179-189.
  • Reynolds, J. A., Thaiss, C., Katkin, W., & Thompson, R. J. (2012). Writing-to-learn in undergraduate science education: A community-based, conceptually driven approach. CBE - Life Sciences Education, 11(1), 17-25.
  • Sorcinelli, M. D. and Elbow, P., Eds. (1997). Writing to learn: Strategies for assigning and responding to writing across the disciplines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.