Low-Stakes Writing as a Pathway to Critical-Thinking

One of the central beliefs of WAC pedagogy is “writing-to-learn” and that there are many different ways to introduce writing into the classroom whether your field is writing-based or not: even the most complicated mathematical equation still needs to be put into words to help explain its logic and function to someone new. Our first faculty workshop which was held last Thursday on Effective Assignment Design discusses several methods for incorporating writing into our students’ learning process, and you can review this presentation and others on our WI certification page. Perhaps the most useful writing-to-learn method, and one which may sometimes get overlooked because it doesn’t hold the same prestige of a paper or term-project, is low-stakes or informal writing.

In simple terms, low-stakes writing is any writing related to your course that does not have an official grade attached to its production. In fact, WAC practices often encourage the instructor to not have a pen in-hand at all when reading low-stakes assignments to avoid the temptations one might have to line-edit or overwhelm the student with feedback. This is because the primary function of low-stakes assignments is not for the instructor to assess, but for the student to explore. Exploratory writing allows students to tap into their own ideas and reactions to course content in a safe and private space on the page first.

Low-stakes writing is usually shorter in length, and consists of an informal response that encourages students to use and develop their critical thinking skills by focusing on big-picture ideas and themes rather than getting stuck in the logistics of structure and presentation. Concerns such as grammar, spelling, and formatting (spacing, citations) are not the focus here. Instead, students are stimulated to focus on higher-order concerns that form the basis for any great paper: do they have a clear argument? Have they provided any evidence to back up their view? Is it obvious that the student understands the course material, and that they can adapt it to suit the question at hand? When students are given the opportunity to practice these skills in an informal way, they often respond with the kind of flair and confidence that can be difficult to tap into under stressful conditions such as approaching a paper draft for the first time, or responding to an exam question.

So, what do low-stakes assignments look like? Brief periods of 2-5 minutes of silent, uninterrupted writing can happen at several points throughout class-time or at home, and they can be given with or without a prompt. At the start of class it can double-up as a means to take attendance; I know several instructors who have their students come in and write a 5-minute response straight away to that day’s reading assignment. This is a great way of making sure students are actually doing the reading, as well as providing them with the space to work through questions or difficulties they might be having without fear of judgment. It can also serve as a way of reviewing material from the previous session (especially helpful in STEM subjects e.g. describe the logic of this particular theorem and give an example…) or as a way of encouraging speculation on a new topic that is introduced.

In the middle of a class period, a break for low-stakes writing can be a great way of cementing a new piece of knowledge for the student – getting them to rephrase a theory or method in their own words – or it can serve to redirect attention elsewhere if discussion has become heated or is lagging. Alternatively, at the end of class a brief writing session can allow students to sum up in their own words what they have learned that day, or what questions they may want to follow up on at home or before the next class. Essentially, any kind of low-stakes assignment should ultimately be urging the student to engage in a conversation with themselves on the page in order to get as comfortable as possible with course content as well as their personal approach to that content. These exercises can often help students to form meaningful ideas for more significant projects like a final paper.

At home, these low-stakes responses might take a slightly longer form with students writing for a set period of time (10 – 15 minutes) to answer a course-related question. These questions can ask students to pose an opinion for or against a topic; to analyze or interpret materials; or to relate their topic to current affairs. Low-stakes assignments can also form the basis for class discussions in which students are invited to share their responses. They have already had the opportunity to think about their position and present this on the page before responding to their peers verbally, which stimulates deeper conversations around course content. This kind of “padding” for their ideas can be especially helpful for students who need a little more time and space to think through difficult concepts, or for ESL students who may struggle to find the right wording the first time around.

Remember that the purpose of low-stakes writing is primarily to get students thinking and responding originally to course content – not to grade them in these efforts. Think of low-stakes assignments as their rehearsal space. Naturally, the more we provide opportunities for practicing writing in a relaxed, informal way, the more all of our students will feel prepared to tackle the demands of good writing on their own when the stakes are higher.

(For other ways to assign writing in your classroom, take a look at this handout: https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/files/2016/01/Assignment-Scaffolding-CityCollege.pdf)