Low Stakes Writing Activities

Alex Motut, PhD Candidate, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, Acting WIT

Coordinator Courses: LIN 232: Syntactic Patterns, LIN204: English Grammar
Class Size: 75-100 students
Duration of Class: Half-year
Class Style: Lecture with tutorials

Alex is a PhD candidate in Linguistics. She has worked at TATP and as Lead Writing TA in Arts and Science’s WIT (Writing Instruction for TAs) program. As Acting WIT Coordinator, she works with TAs and faculty to incorporate discipline-specific writing instruction and assessment into courses.

Alex incorporates low-stakes writing activities into her classroom because they make writing more accessible for students, decreases anxiety around writing, and increases student engagement in the course. The core of any low-stakes writing activity is that they are small, can be completed in or outside of class, and aren’t evaluated other than for participation.

Low-stakes writing activities are also useful for many other reasons. They:

  • diversify the ways in which students can participate
  • allow students to explore writing as a way of learning
  • help students build up the skills they need to work on course assignments
  • encourage students to think about what they are learning and what they are struggling to learn
  • help instructors check-in with their students

Here are some activities you might consider incorporating in your tutorials or classrooms:

One-minute paper: Ask the class to write for one minute in response to a question (or prompt) provided. The prompt should be focused and specific, but open-ended enough to encourage thoughtful

Write-pair-share: Give students two minutes to write down their response to a question, or reflect on material presented. Have students turn to a partner and share their thoughts. After an announced time limit, call on a few students to share their ideas with the class.

Write a headline or tweet: Ask the class to summarize their thoughts by writing them out as the sort of headline that they might see in a newspaper, or to capture the theme of a lecture or discussion as a 280-character tweet. The headline should be focused, clear, and informative: these headlines should aim to communicate the author’s position, idea, or approach.

Clearest point/muddiest point: After a lecture or a tutorial, ask students to write down the idea that they think they understand the best and the idea that they are struggling with the most. They can give it to you as they leave the class.

Ticket-out-the-door or Ticket-in-the-door: Ask students to respond to a prompt at the end of class (possibly summarizing a key concept or responding to a question from class), or use a brief writing activity at the beginning to focus everyone on the day’s topic.

There are many different ways to approach lowstakes writing. The main point is to get students to write things down, which makes this approach so flexible and adaptable. Here is some general advice:

Set expectations at the beginning of the term: Tell students that lowstakes writing activities will
be happening throughout the term.

Tell students why: Discuss the benefits of “writing to learn” with your students.

Do it regularly: make it a part of every class.

Don’t grade it: Tell students that these activities are about learning, not evaluation.

Writing as participation: Use low stakes writing activities to measure engagement.