Low-Stakes Writing Activities

PURPOSE: Low stakes writing exercises can be used to get the class thinking, to open the class, as here, and to make connections between previous learning and the new day’s activity. Low-stakes writing exercises are not graded – rather, they’re focused on helping students overcome anxiety about writing, getting students focused; the point is to teach them that they can think by writing.

PLEASE NOTE: Any of these activities can be facilitated in class (or out of class) as small-group or individual activities. These can be instructor-assessed, self-assessed or peer-assessed.


Write-pair-share: Give students two minutes to write down their response to a question, or reflect on material. 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.

Clearest Point/Muddiest Point: After a lecture or tutorial, ask students to identify either the clearest (i.e., most important) or muddiest (i.e., most confusing) point/argument/section of the lesson.

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 writing.

Writing Out of the Day: Students are asked at the end of a class to summarize what was learned that day. You can write along with the students. The class will read their summaries to each other and rewrite anything they might have missed in their summary as a “homework” assignment.

Make a list: Ask the class to respond to a question (or prompt) by making a list of possible answers. The list can be as long or as short as each participant would like, and you can ask students to complete the activity by collaborating in small groups of (3-4) or by working out their lists individually.

Chalk Talk: A silent conversation using post-it paper and different parts of the room. Students move back and forth responding to a written prompt and each other’s responses.

Modeling & Labeling: Provide students with a model of what you would like them to produce, for example an essay. Identify the key parts of the model (intro, thesis, citations, etc.), and explain the function of each part. Give your students a blank version of the model you have provided, and ask them to label, define, or practice drafting their own version of each of its key parts.

Freewriting: Ask the class to “freewrite” – or write without stopping: without taking the pen from the page, or their fingers from the keys – for a set period of time. You can give them a specific question or prompt, ask them to make connections between the course material and an upcoming assignment, or give them an opportunity to start writing their introduction or drafting their thesis statement.

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

Takeaway Time-Out (or Changing Topic): If you want to change topics, or if the discussion is going in undesirable directions, having students write a quick summary of what just happened in the tutorial can be useful. Or you can have them write about the next item on the agenda, introducing it in advance. Either way, the shift to writing creates a “time-out” in which students can reflect, gather their thoughts, and prepare to move on.

Pause and Write: Stopping during an interesting discussion and having everyone, including you, write down what they would say next focuses an argument.

Blog Post Peer Feedback Exercise: A student reads his/her blog post/draft (and maybe passes it around if there are images in it). After the post has been read, take a few minutes for everyone else to note their answers to the questions below. Tell students not to be mean—their goal is to note what’s good and suggest improvements, not to criticize! The group discusses their responses to each of the questions. The person who reads the post does not take part in this discussion, aside from small clarifications if necessary. The point here is not to defend their blog/draft: the point is to sit back and hear how his/her peers perceive it. Their job is to take notes. Once all the questions have been discussed, the person who read collects the feedback sheets and the next person reads. Potential questions: If you had to sum up the point of this post in one sentence, what would you say? What parts of the blog post/draft come from personal experience? Which of the concepts discussed in the course or in the readings did this blog post/draft refer to or connect with? Are there any other course concepts that you think could have worked for this particular blog post/draft? If so, why would they have been appropriate? How could the author have used them? What does the author do to bring the personal things together with the course concepts? How were they integrated in the post/draft? What did you like best about the writing style? Can you remember specific examples of things you liked? Did the writing seem clear? Could you follow what the author was saying? If not, can you think of a helpful suggestion to increase the clarity? Was the writing suitably academic? If not, why not?

Problem Generating: Have students generate “problems” or “real-life scenarios” from the reading or class discussions. Generating problems is often harder than solving them, and so this activity forces students to articulate key issues or questions. One way to do this might be to have math or physics students take a formula or theorem and create a scenario or word problem which would require using the formula. In a history class, students might write journal entries that consist simply of lists of questions from the outside reading that they would pose to the author of the piece or offer up for class discussion.

Believing and Doubting: This activity is a good way to get students to move beyond simple “either/or” binaries in their reading. Ask students as an individual informal writing activity to identify the main thesis of a course reading and to outline 3 reasons they believe it and 3 reasons they doubt it. In this way, you can jumpstart discussion and encourage students to think more analytically and complexly (rather than just going with their gut reaction).
“Dumb” Question Activity: Stop after an involved presentation and ask students to imagine that the person next to them was unfamiliar with the material and just walked in. Have the students write down one “dumb” question that this person might ask. (Students often avoid asking questions which appear “dumb”).

Three Column Organizers: On a particular issue, show students how to list in three columns what is interesting, positive, and negative about the idea. You can do this as a group or individual exercise.

Dialectical/double entry notebooks: Ask students to create two columns on a sheet of notebook paper. One column can be used to summarize the reading while the other column can be used to note questions or reactions to the text.

Word Journal: The Word Journal prompts a two-part response. First, the student summarizes a short text in a single word. Second, the student writes a paragraph or two explaining why he or she chose that particular word to summarize the text. The completed response to the Word Journal is an abstract or a synopsis of the focus text. Have students discuss and compare their responses.

Ten or Twenty Questions: Get students to generate ten or twenty specific questions about a reading or passage. Get them to post these ahead of tutorial or bring them to the tutorial.

Passing Notes in Class: This activity offers an informal writing opportunity for students to identify, interrogate, and develop things they did and did not understand about the content (e.g., lecture, readings, etc.). Before the beginning of class, ask every student to post a question or write a note asking about some aspect of the content about which they are unclear. You can pair students up to answer questions, use the questions as a jumping off point for class discussions, or post supplemental materials based on questions students raise.

Microthemes: A brief essay limited to one side of a 5” x 8” index card, is an ideal instrument for increasing the written content of a course. There are four main formats, each of which challenges and cultivates writing and cognitive skills in a different way. The Summary-Writing Microtheme: The student must read an excerpt, discuss its structure (main idea, supportive points, connections among its parts), condense it while retaining its hierarchy. It targets “egocentrism,” that is the tendency of the “maturing” student thinker to impose personal opinion on data, veer from the topic, and distort an author’s perspective. The Thesis-Support Microtheme: The student must take a stand and defend it. This exercise strengthens the ability to discover, state, and defend an issue, using clear evidence and logical reasoning. The Data-Provided Microtheme: Data is provided in the form of tables or factual statements. The student must comment on its significance. Selecting, arranging, connecting, and generalizing about data develops inductive reasoning. Students thus progress from merely listing facts to making assertions. The Quandary-Posing Microtheme: A practical occurrence or puzzling situation is presented. The student must explain the underlying scientific principles in clear terms and pose a solution. This exercise moves students from rote learning to application, thereby strengthening concept comprehension and abstract reasoning.

The 25-word Abstract: Ask students to write a 25-word abstract on a major point, theme or thesis of an excerpt. Why that number? Because they can say a great deal in 25 well-chosen words. If they use more words, get them to examine their abstract for repetition, clarity and succinctness. Get them to consider combining or changing focus, to play with the words.

$2 Summary: Students must write a summary of a topic covered in class and they get 10 cents per word—totaling $2 (but you can vary the amounts, $1-$4)—to write an informative and concise synopsis.

Directed Paraphrasing: Students are asked to write about a particular concept taught in class in their own words. A variation of this would be to have students paraphrase as if they were explaining concepts to a particular audience (e.g., an industry leader; an elected government official, etc.). This can also be done in the context of a reverse outline when examining a course reading.

Definitions: Students must develop a definition for a course-related word (dictionary format) or must write a comprehensive but precise paragraph or a set of paragraphs on a particular courserelated concept (akin to an encyclopaedia entry).

Application cards: Distribute 3×5 cards to your students. Have them write a real-world application for a theory, principle or procedure they have learned about in class on the card and either submit them to you or share them with one another. The small card is optional – using lined paper is fine too – but the card indicates to the students that they should be concise.

Editorial: Have students select a particular course topic, identify major issues, take a position, and write an editorial for the local newspaper defending their position.

The Question Box: Having students write anonymous questions about the content of lectures encourages them to think more critically about what they are hearing. Students can be asked to write these questions before, during, and after lectures. They can deposit their questions in a cardboard box near the exit of the lecture hall. During subsequent classes, you actually incorporate these student questions and insights into the presentation material.
Scaffolded Preparation for Research Papers: Many submitted writing assignment would benefict from significant editing and revisions. Various kinds of low-stakes writing, not necessarily graded, can help students to learn the process of writing in stages. Remember that you can check these quickly with checkmarks or as part of peer review exercise:

  • Thesis Statement Writing: Students can be asked to write and hand in just their thesis statement—a one- or two-sentence summary of an essay’s argument.
  • Making an outline: This can be done in more or less detail; students may be required to come up with focused ideas and supporting data to flesh out the outline. Citations may also be required, which give you the opportunity to respond to the research that has been done and recommend consulting other or further sources.
  • Turning in a draft: The class can turn in a rough draft of a paper that you will not necessarily correct or grade, but that you can evaluate in general terms to guide the student in the revision process. This requires the students to do at least two versions of the paper, which will virtually guarantee a better result than turning in a single paper at the end of the term.