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

Guest Post: What to Consider when Grading Blogs

This post is the third 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). 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.

One of the biggest challenges of assigning blogs or any other form of new media composition is how to grade the writing or the project. Blogs can be graded in multiple ways depending upon what you want to emphasize in your classroom, what goals you want students to meet, or what skills you want students to acquire throughout the process. Below are merely a few suggestions for how you might grade a blog based on our experiences.

Individual posts (Kassia’s method):
I grade student blogs based on individual postings to a class blogsite. All students submit to the site, but each blog is graded on the individual’s ability to meet the following criteria.

1. Word Count:
Decide up front how long you want the blogs to be. This may vary depending on what the purpose of the assignment. I use blogs as a type of reading response, so I typically ask my students to write 300-500 words in a literature class or 500-700 words in a writing course. Students know that if they fail to meet the word count, points will be deducted.

2. Use of New Media:
Take advantage of the new media elements that blogging can provide. Blogs should look and feel different than a traditional paper visually. Students in my classes are required to include at least one new media component to the blog, whether that’s a picture, a hyperlink, a video, or a gif. I let them choose where to place it, depending on what makes the most sense to them. I am often surprised that students go above and beyond with these elements often electing to include multiple new media components in one post.

3. Adherence to a prompt:
Create a blogging prompt if you are weary of letting the students go too far off the grid. You can do this by posing a question to the class and having them respond in blog form or you can have ready made blogging assignments. Again, these may vary depending on the course and purpose of the blog. In my rhetoric and the cinema class we had five prompts each dealing with a different aspect of the film industry: special effects, trailers, sound, message, and location. You can choose how specific you want the prompt to be, but I try to leave mine as open to interpretation as possible so that students feel they have some creative license over their writing.

4. Use of secondary sources (hyperlinks or text-based material):
Ask students to use secondary sources to compliment their writing. These sources could be links to other sites talking about similar issues or they could be traditional text based sources that they are reading in class. Because I use blogging as a form of reading response, I often mix the two of these. You decide how formal or informal you want the citations to be and the minimum amount of citations you will require students to use.

5. Cohesion to the site:
Create and cultivate an online classroom ethos and ask students to maintain the image with their posts. Because my classes use blogging as a means of creating classroom community, the students help me design the site by choosing the fonts, colors, and background. In my Rhetoric of the Cinema course, we treated our blogsite like Rottentomatoes, crafting our own rating system for the movies. Each class chose their own logo with which to rate the movies, and every student used the same image in each of their posts, which helped establish a class brand. There are many ways to brand the class while still maintaining the individuality of each post/ writer.

6. Audience Response:
Tell students to comment on each others’ posts thus generating an audience for their writing. In the past, Chris Foree and I have asked our individual classes to comment on each other’s blogsites in order to help generate more traffic to the site and broaden the writing community even further. Of course, because the site is online, outside readers are always welcome to comment on the posts, but asking the students to do this for each other ensures audience participation. I typically ask my students to comment on at least three of their peers’ posts whether that be something they found interesting or something they would like to hear more about. I grade on whether or not they completed the comment not on the response itself. However, I do discourage one word responses such as “cool,” hoping they will be a bit more specific about what was “cool” in the blog.

Collective Posts (Chris’ method):
My assignment tends to be a little different, because my students write in blog groups. Three or four students manage the blog site together and post during the course of the semester. Here are some additional aspects about blogging to consider should you decide to use blog groups within your classroom.

1. Aesthetics:
The aesthetics of the site become much more important when students write in blog groups. The group must decide on a theme that fits their topic and platform that will present their subject matter using visual rhetoric. Elements of visual rhetoric include the background, color scheme, fonts, headings, and images. All of these elements must be working together to form a cohesive blog that communicates its argument visually.

2. Revision:
I allow students to revise the entire blog up until the final day of class. That provides enough time for each member of the blogging community to read each others’ posts and discuss how each one fits into the group’s narrative or image. Students are encouraged to offer advice and feedback within their blogging groups on a regular basis.

3. Collaboration:
I want the blog posts to work together, and each student must work to build a cohesive “narrative” for the blog website. Thus, much of their grade is based upon ideas of collaboration and how well they perform the task of both author and editor.While I do grade the individual performance following the criteria that Kassia has outlined above,  I also grade the group effort—how well the authors work together to create a blog site that works in harmony to generate an authentic conversation.

For more information about how to grade blogs, check out this article: “Evaluating Classroom Blogs.”

Why we use Blogs in the Classroom

This post kicks off a series of guest blog posts by graduate instructors Kassia Waggoner and Christopher Foreé about the ways they use blogs in their classes. 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.

Why we choose to blog

As a writing instructor, I ultimately want my students to leave my class with a lifelong love of writing. It is my hope that students will find writing enjoyable rather than burdensome or tedious. I find that assigning blogs in the classroom along with more traditional writing assignments, like a research paper, helps students to see how they can take the writing skills they have acquired in my class beyond college. The truth is students may not think of themselves as writers, but they are writing everyday on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. They may never see themselves as novelists or journalists, but they can easily see themselves as bloggers. It is our responsibility to expose students to multiple modes of writing, and incorporating blogging into the curriculum is one way to push students to think about writing both inside and outside the classroom.

–Kassia Waggoner

I believe students often view writing as both a solitary activity and a private one. I use blogging in the classroom to disrupt this view of writing. I contend that all written communication is a dialogic—there is always an intended reader (even if it is author him- or herself) and we use writing to make our ideas clear. Blogging makes the dialogical process very real and tangible for students. The ability to write something and allow others to read it and possibly comment on their writing awakens a more nuanced understanding of audience. I would also suggest blogging has the potential to demonstrate the power of writing to students who often see the production of texts as a task or chore. In my previous life in “Corporate America,” I often experienced writing as collaborative exercise—putting together a presentation or co-authoring a report with a team. I want my students to acquire skills in the writing classroom that I think could be transferable, therefore I construct blog assignments that are collaborative in nature. My students work in teams to create a blog and must work together to make sure all the individual postings represent a cohesive theme and tone for the reader. They must read, edit, and contribute to each other’s postings to achieve this goal. I hope these experiences will help redefine their concept of writing outside the classroom.

–Christopher Foreé

Stay tuned for more of their blogging insights in the coming weeks!

Presenting the new TCU Koehler Center Sites

As mentioned in our blog, last week, we have the new and improved TCU Koehler Center blog, the “Teaching Toolbox.”   Along with this new name and goals, we are unifying our department’s online presence.  We realize that name changing in social media is a little taboo, but we hope it won’t be too disruptive for the user experience and that you will benefit from our expanded coverage of teaching topics!

Why the change, y’all?

Our social media accounts had been set up just for the elearning side of the house, but the reality is that we are one team.  We are the Koehler Center.

As our mission statement says, “We support teaching and learning and help faculty implement meaningful learning opportunities for their students.”  We wanted to better represent ourselves as the Koehler Center, involved with fostering professional development, active learning, teaching strategies, and educational technology, among other great topics!

Out with the old…

All of this being said, we are trading in our old blog url, twitter name, and facebook URL, and moving to a new simple name for all.

Connect with us

Please bookmark, subscribe, like and follow to our new sites!  Click the icons below to connect with us.

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Our best to you – –

The TCU Koehler Center team

Meet Teaching Toolbox!

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

–Maslow, 1966

You may have noticed that our blog has a new title: Teaching Toolbox. We decided to rebrand our blog to showcase all the services and development opportunities we provide at the Koehler Center. Our mission is to facilitate ongoing, reflective discourse about teaching and learning, and the future postings you’ll find on this blog will be dedicated to helping TCU faculty create meaningful learning opportunities for students.

All Koehler Center staff members (and blog contributors) are here to promote student engagement and support teaching excellence, which is why Teaching Toolbox will explore active learning strategies, developing teaching trends, and professional development opportunities. We’ll still discuss educational technologies, of course, but technology is simply one tool in a large collection of pedagogical methods and resources. We aim to support your goals in the classroom, and we hope this blog will provide you with a wide variety of tools you can use to meet those goals.

So, stay tuned for lots of exciting strategies and practices. And if you have any favorite classroom activities, student assignments, or just general fun teaching ideas, leave them in the comment section!

Teaching with blogs

In the age of Twitter, is the blog obsolete? Well, I hope not – we’re obviously rather partial to blogs around here!

There is something to be said for the longer form of the blog, especially as a teaching tool. Blogs are great spaces for reflection (on the course, an assignment, a site visit), for experimentation (to try writing in the voice of a character, to showcase work in progress), and for collaboration (comments, the ability to easily add and share links). Additionally, blogs can be stand-alone assignments or used as part of the preparatory writing process for other course items, like term papers. Of course, blogs aren’t the only places to do any of these things, but – depending on your course, your objectives, and your learners – they might be a place that makes sense.

This is a nice article about how to get the most out of student blogs and instructional blogging. As the article points out, getting comments on blog posts is what elevates them from web pages to interactive discussions. In order to get discussion going, some professors make commenting a requirement (similar to the discussion board commenting requirements may online courses have). Why use a blog, then? According to the article, students report that “blogs facilitated learning from one another, and helped them learn new electronic media skills that could be applied in other settings.”

Here is a more concrete step-by-step guide to getting started with blogging with students. This list outlines the basic steps, but leaves it up to you to chose the best platform and set the appropriate parameters.

Last, these are some resources for evaluating blogs. We’ve written about rubrics before, but this page has great links to rubrics for blogs and for peer commenting.

Google Education On Air FREE conference

Google Education is hosting a free conference on May 2, 2012 via Google+ Hangout on various topics Education related!

Conference information

There are some great session topics on various tools.  A few that caught my attention are:

  • Managing Digital Portfolios
  • Using Google Docs to Organize the Classroom
  • Google Docs for Writing Instructors
  • Using Google Sketchup In the classroom
  • The Play, The Playwright, and Your Scene: Using Google Docs, Sites and YouTube
  • Google Sites for your Classroom (Basics)
  • The Paperless Classroom with Google Docs
  • Becoming a Google Search Ninja
  • Google Forms for Everything
  • I think, Therefore I blog

The price is right (FREE) and the topics sound pretty interesting. I hope to attend a few sessions, time permitting.  What about you?  Are you going to attend?  Which sessions interest you?