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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.