Guest Post: High Stakes vs. Low Stakes Writing

This post is the fourth in our series of guest blog posts by graduate instructors Kassia Waggoner and Christopher Foreé about the ways they use blogs in their classes (first post; second post; third post). Kassia is an English PhD student who studies rhetorical approaches to 20th Century American Literature. Christopher is an English PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition researching civic literacy in the classroom and the civic mission of the university. His blog and links to his students’ blogs can be found at tcucivicliteracy.wordpress.com.

The majority of students who file into our writing classrooms often approach the subject with apprehension and/or dread. The fear of being required to write a college essay generates a palpable anxiety for many students. Our students have been trained to see writing as a “high stakes” activity. In fact the moment the essay is assigned, many students want to know what’s it worth or how much does it count towards my final grade? Students have been conditioned to assess the stakes of the writing they have been asked to complete for class. The real question they are asking is does this writing matter?

The conventional wisdom dictates that high stakes writing—like the college essay—matters, while low stakes writing—possibly observation memos, lab reports, or journal entries—don’t matter as much by both student definitions and the ways we choose to grade or respond to the work. We believe blogging assignments bridge the divide between low and high stakes writing. Blogging assignments often matter because they are both public and personal. Our students have a vested interest in saying something about the subjects they have chosen to blog about. However, students often feel this type of writing mirrors other forms of low stakes writing. Many times students view low stakes writing assignments as less concerned with the actual writing (focused on grammar, form, or style) and more invested in the information or ideas communicated. The result often represents thoughtful and engaged writing achieved without the typical anxiety or hand wringing that accompanies more formal assignments.

Peter Elbow suggests we should “assign lots of low stakes writing, students are much less liable to be held back by fear or inability to put what they know on paper when they come to high stakes writing.”[1] Elbow sees low stakes writing as a way to for students to work out ideas or concepts without the worry of getting the answer wrong. We would contend that blogging achieves these goals, but also provides the opportunity for the low stakes writing to generate a dialogue between the writer and reader. Students get to put their ideas on paper, but also possibly see how the reader reacts or responds to the writing.

In Chris’s class, students are actively encouraged to rewrite and revise their blog posts and many students generate a series of blogs that are in conversation with the other writers in the class. This low stakes writing becomes a collaborative exercise and students often find themselves teaching one another. In Kassia’s class, students blog about topics that may not be considered “formal” essay questions in favor of topics valuing personal experience and real-world examples. For instance, in her literature class, students are asked to find links to news reports or articles that pertain to the subject being discussed in class and explain how these outside readings are making connections to class readings. At other times, they may be asked to explain how they personally relate to the literature. In either case, students feel more comfortable expressing their opinions in a “safe” space rather than having to write for a test.

Elbow clearly sees a role for both low stakes and high stakes writing in the classroom environment. However there are clear benefits to incorporating low stakes projects in your syllabus, including:

  • Students can become more invested in the subject matter of a course through low stakes writing and find their own language to discuss issues. While we might not assign a paper for every unit or topic, we can assign a short, low stakes assignment to gauge student comprehension.
  • Because low stakes writing is often condensed or more focused, students produce writing with a more clear and lively voice.
  • Frequent low stakes writing assignments can improve high stakes writing assignments proving the old adage “practice makes perfect.” Students become more comfortable with the writing process.
  • Low stakes writing can help educators understand how students understand the course material and use the information we are presenting. Low stakes writing assignments can serve as a mirror to our teaching.
  • Consistently assigned low stakes writing assignments can be used to encourage students to keep up with reading.
  • Finally, Elbow believes some low stakes writing should be “zero response” assignments. These projects do not require or call for instructors to respond to the writing, but only noting the completion. Students need to understand they’re being read but don’t have to navigate a response from a teacher.

While these benefits are not solely designed for blog assignments, we clearly see how having our students blog can achieve these goals easily. Blogging becomes low stakes writing when designed with these outcomes in mind. In our classes …

  • Students control the topics of the blogs, but they must demonstrate some subject mastery in how these topics are discussed or how they formulate the post.
  • Students write very clearly within a narrowly defined topic—often defined by their own passion or interests. We have students effectively develop an authentic sense of voice through these projects.
  • Students don’t seem to dread blog writing and often evaluate these projects as their favorite type of writing. We have both had students comment that blogging helped them produce better essays.
  • Finally, we enjoy reading their blog posts and participating in the conversation. Their passion makes assessing the assignment more enjoyable and both of us find we often limit the way we respond to these exercises. Too often instructors feel compelled to over-respond to students, but the inherent nature of the blog has helped us be more concise and targeted when commenting on our students’ work.

We hope everyone has enjoyed our thoughts on blogging as an alternative to the traditional writing assignment, and we hope you’ll consider assigning a blog in the future.

To see other perspectives on low stakes and high stakes writing, watch…


[1] “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing” by Peter Elbow. New Directions For Teaching And Learning, No. 69, Spring 1997