Incorporating 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.

Low Stakes Writing in Action

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 Lipscomb

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.