Low Stakes Writing: In Action

In this post, we follow up our previous introduction to low-stakes writing with a look at some of those strategies in action here at Georgetown. Three members of the Writing Program have shared a brief peek into their most successful tools and practices for low-stakes writing, and how students respond to it in their classrooms. If you’re curious about adding this type of writing to your own classroom, check out these tried-and-true approaches for working with Georgetown students, especially those in the thick of developing more formal written assignments:


Video Diary – Phil Sandick

A number of my students have talked to me about the importance of “productive procrastination.” They describe their best college writing experiences as involving a lot of revision “on the page” and also away from the page: playing sports, eating meals, going to a concert. Creativity scientists speak of this generative simmering of ideas too, but in order to maximize the value of this slow-cooker approach, we have to start the timer early.

Once a semester, after I’ve assigned a “zero draft,” I request that students make a short, unedited video diary for homework, where they freespeak (rather than freewrite) where they are in their approach to the assignment. In small groups, students share their videos and compose lists of next steps. This can be uncomfortable for writers who are used to giving themselves much more time and intellectual space to carefully think through a prompt before sharing their work. Additionally, students may not want to risk sharing an early idea because it might get criticized, so I frame these sessions as something more akin to “flexible open studio time,” rather than as a criteria-based peer review activity. My hope is that students are left with an iconic memory of having started the process early.

WordPress Posting – David Lipscombe

At the beginning of each writing class, I ask Georgetown University Commons to create WordPress blog sites for each of my enrolled students. Then, during the term, students customize their sites and write weekly blog posts (each 100 to 300 words), addressed to their classmates and posted a day before the last class of the week. At the beginning of the term, I give them guidelines for their posts — asking them to respond to our readings or offer quick ideas about upcoming essays; toward the end of term, they decide what to write about, with most falling back on our SIP format (discuss something in the reading that Surprised you, something that Impressed you as important, and something that Perplexed you). I also require them to post responses to at least three of their classmates’ posts each week.

As for grading, I give them a mid-semester blog grade with about a paragraph of comments (including comments about the responses they’ve been leaving on others’ posts) and then a final blog grade, which usually counts for 20% of their overall final grade. While I read every post and draw on their blog posts in every class discussion (this makes class prep easier, frankly), I don’t post my own responses to their individual blog posts; that’s the job of their fellow students. So, they end up doing a lot of low-stakes writing, addressed to (and frankly motivated by a desire to please) their classmates, not me. Their blog writing feeds into class discussions and into longer writing assignments. And I spend very little time providing formal feedback.

Framing Documents – Sherry Linkon

The most productive low-stakes writing assignment in my courses has been the framing document, a 500-word text focused on a particular day’s readings. Students sign up to produce 4 of these during the semester. In the framing document, they answer 3 questions:
How does this text deepen, contradict, complicate, or extend the discussions we’ve been having about cities and representations?
What do you think we should focus on when we discuss this text?
How do you suggest we begin the discussion? What specific moments or aspects, ways of reading, comparisons with other texts will help us dig into the issues you want us to explore?

Students send these to me 24 hours before class, so I can incorporate the best of their insights and questions into our class discussion.

I use a simple 5-point checklist for grading. Students earn 1 point for each answer, 1 point for accuracy, and 1 for offering especially thoughtful or insightful comments. In course evaluations and follow-up discussions, students have consistently identified the framing document as the most useful element of the course. It ensures that at least a few students come to class every day very well prepared for discussion, and the questions help students develop the ability to focus on big ideas, to make connections among texts, and to frame and approach substantive, generative questions.

Sebastiaan ter Burg via Flickr

Low Stakes Writing

Are you interested in incorporating more writing into your class but not sure where to begin? Are you worried about having the time to assess additional writing assignments?

Low stakes, or informal writing, can be a quick way to increase the amount of writing students do in your class. Low stakes writing refers to any writing activity that is short, typically ungraded, and focused on thinking through a problem or question. When integrated regularly into class sessions or homework activities, low stakes writing can improve students’ understanding of course content, boost student participation in class discussion, and help students prepare to write or revise higher stakes writing assignments.

In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, James M. Lang suggests four fast techniques instructors can use to engage students at the beginning of class. As he describes, writing is one of the most reliable strategies:

“Frequent, low-stakes writing assignments constitute one of the best methods you can use to solicit engagement and thinking in class. You don’t have to grade the responses very carefully — or at all. Count them for participation, or make them worth a tiny fraction of a student’s grade. If you don’t want to collect the papers, have students write in their notebooks or on laptops and walk around the classroom just to keep everyone honest and ensure they are doing the work. Limit writing time to three to five minutes and ask everyone to write until you call time — at which point discussion begins.”

Read more from Lang: “Small Changes in Teaching: The First Five Minutes of Class”

Here are some more terrific resources on low stakes writing:

Informal Writing Assignments and Formal Writing Assignments (Hobart and Smith Colleges)
If you’re interested in learning more about the differences between high stakes and low stakes writing, this resource is a great place to start. This site describes specific activities for setting up low stakes writing.

In-Class Exercises (University of North Carolina)
A long list of in-class writing ideas that covers a range of specific goals (brainstorming, organizing, etc).

Integrating Low-Stakes Writing Into Large Classes (University of Michigan)
In-Class Activities (Yale University)
Teaching a lecture course to a lot of students? These two sources provide tips and exercises for using low stakes writing in lecture-based courses.

Group Writing and Revision Exercise (HASTAC)
This isn’t low-stakes writing in a traditional sense, but it’s an activity that has students write in-class and share that writing with each other, with a bonus revision activity tacked on.

A student guide to proofreading and writing in science

Congratulations to Human Science professor Jason Tilan, who together with former GU colleagues J.P. Hyatt and Elisa Bienenstock, has just published an article based on their work on a core Integrated Writing course, Physiological Adaptations. Their essay appears in Advanced in Physiological Education. Check it out!

Here’s the abstract of the essay:

Scientific writing requires a distinct style and tone, whether the writing is intended for an undergraduate assignment or publication in a peer-reviewed journal. From the first to the final draft, scientific writing is an iterative process requiring practice, substantial feedback from peers and instructors, and comprehensive proofreading on the part of the writer. Teaching writing or proofreading is not common in university settings. Here, we present a collection of common undergraduate student writing mistakes and put forth suggestions for corrections as a first step toward proofreading and enhancing readability in subsequent draft versions. Additionally, we propose specific strategies pertaining to word choice, structure, and approach to make products more fluid and focused for an appropriate target audience.

Writing Program Reading Group Meeting

The Writing Program’s reading group will meet on Monday, January 23 from 2:00 – 3:00 pm in the Lannan Center (New North 408). All are welcome.

We’ll be discussing two texts: the Elon Statement on Writing Transfer and Heidi Estrem’s “Threshold Concepts and Student Learning Outcomes” (linked here, or available in Naming What We Know pages 89-104).

Please contact Dr. Karen L. Shaup (karen.shaup@georgetown.edu) if you have any questions.

Peer Review at Georgetown

In this video, created by our colleagues at CNDLS, Professor Matt Pavesich explains the role of review in writing instruction at Georgetown.

The Rhetoric of DC Flag Adaptations

Matt Pavesich alongside one adaptation of the DC flag.

Matt Pavesich poses alongside one adaptation of the DC flag. Photo by Chris Borales.

Congratulations to Matt Pavesich, Assistant Teaching Professor in the English Department and Associate Director of the Writing Program! On Sunday, John Kelly’s daily column for The Washington Post featured Matt’s research on rhetorical adaptations of the DC flag: The red stars and stripes of D.C.’s flag lend themselves to all sorts of creativity.

There are flags where the stars are transformed into baseballs, hearts or shamrocks. There are flags where the stars are replaced by the bold X’s of the hard-core movement, the symbol that was Magic Markered onto the hands of straight-edge punks. There are flags where the bars are rendered as waves or as chevrons.

“The thing that really gets me is the scale at which it’s happening and the materials and all the different subsystems,” Matt said.

After you read the article, be sure to check out Matt’s website for the project, at dcadapters.org.

Integrated Writing Online:
Tools for Faculty and Students

In envisioning different models for the future of the university, Randy Bass has suggested a “push/pull” model in which we not only “push” some learning experiences by incorporating them into courses but also “pull” students into experiences by making resources available for independent use. This model seems especially relevant to learning in areas like writing that cuts across disciplines. As Georgetown establishes the new Integrated Writing requirement, faculty will “push” writing in courses that emphasize disciplinary content and practices. Faculty need resources to support this work, including guidance on implementing best practices in the teaching of writing and materials to which they can direct students.

At the same time, students would benefit from independent support for some of the challenges of writing, like revision and editing, and for some specific writing genres, like proposals and scientific papers. The Georgetown University Writing Program will experiment with online modules to address these needs, creating four online resources:

  • A guide for faculty on incorporating online peer review in their courses, with examples and templates for use with recommended online tools
  • An online video tutorial on revising and editing
  • An online video tutorial on writing proposals, with options for specific guidance on writing business proposals and grant proposals
  • An interactive online tutorial on reading and writing scientific papers, with emphasis on the structure and style of academic writing in the sciences

Many faculty want to help their students develop as writers, but they lack expertise in writing pedagogy and don’t have time to invest in creating writing-specific resources. In discussions of the Integrated Writing requirement, faculty regularly note their frustration with students’ revising and editing abilities, and they have expressed concern about their preparation to help students with these aspects of writing. In addition, as they move through their Georgetown careers, and once they graduate, students and alumni often find themselves writing in genres whose conventions and forms are unfamiliar. Two of those genres, proposals and scientific reports, are central to multiple academic and professional fields, so a single tutorial could be useful to users in a wide range of situations, or tutorials could be adapted for use in specific courses or programs. Faculty could integrate these resources into courses, and they will be available via a new “writing portal” to any Georgetown student (or graduate) at any time.

Integrated Writing: Myths and Realities

Myth: Teaching writing takes time away from teaching content
Reality: You can teach writing by using course readings to examine how people in your field produce and share knowledge, make arguments, and use specialized language, formulas, or evidence

Myth: Teaching writing means assigning more papers
Reality: Teaching writing is about quality, not quantity; the focus is on preparing students to write better papers

Myth: Teaching writing means much more grading time
Reality: Providing clear assignments and guidance for writing can make grading more manageable, and students’ papers are likely to be better

Myth: Teaching writing means I have to assign long, formal papers
Reality: Teaching writing can involve short, low-stakes writing assignments, presentations, and multimedia projects

Myth: Teaching writing means I have to read and comment on everything my students write
Reality: You can help students learn about writing is by asking them to review and comment on each other’s work

Myth: Teaching writing means teaching editing and grammar
Reality: Teaching writing means letting students know when their form, style, or approach to argument doesn’t meet the expectations and standards of their audiences

Myth: Our students would write well if only they could get the grammar and mechanics right
Reality: Writers struggle to get the language right when they’re unsure about the content

Interview with Professor Jennifer Woolard

In a recent interview for the Georgetown Writing Program, Professor Jennifer Woolard sat down with us to discuss some of the recent writing integrations occurring within the Psychology Department.