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.”

Visual Thinking, Branching Scenarios, and Mind Mapping

What’s the best way to demonstrate the relationship among concepts, key terms, events, significant characters, themes, and other pieces of course content?

Visual representations of your topic can really help students see which items work together and which items are in tension with one another. The tools outlined in this post tilt a little more toward the concept-mapping and diagramming end of things, although they certainly could be used to illustrate digital story elements like branching scenarios and diminishing choices.

I’ve covered a few products below, and Chris Clark at the University of Notre Dame’s Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning offers a nice discussion of the myriad ways to use graphic organizers and mind maps.

Lucidchart is more of a whiteboard diagramming tool, but it supports Venn diagrams, flowcharts, and site maps, and org charts. Templates (including those for software, network, and systems design), objects, shapes and fonts are provided; you can also upload your own photos and embed documents. LucidChart offers free educational licenses (equivalent to the Team-level premium option in terms of features).

LucidChart is a pretty powerful collaborative option. With this tool, all content is created online and stored in the cloud. This certainly makes collaboration easier, whether your students are working together to build a scenario or whether you are working with colleagues to connect content from various disciplines. All changes appear in real-time and there is no limit to the number of users who can collaborate on a document; conveniently, there is an embedded group chat feature. Revision history is also available. When your work is complete, you can publish to the web or PDF.

Below is a brief Lucidchart demo:

Creately is similar to Lucidchart in that it is also a mapping whiteboard with a variety of export/import, template, and privacy options. Creately also offers desktop software that you can use on your computer if you happen to be offline; the next time you connect to the internet, the software will automatically sync with your content in the cloud. Alas, Creately isn’t free: the cloud-based version costs $5 per month for a single user and $25 for up to 5 users, though the price is reduced for charity or open-source projects. The desktop software bills separately.

Below is a brief Creately demo:

Spicynodes is another diagramming / concept map tool. The emphasis here is more on organization and brevity, quickly displaying relevant information so that a reader scanning the content can locate exactly what she needs. I like that you can integrate images, links, videos, and audio files. Spicynodes also has previous / next arrows in several foreign languages. Alas, it is flash-based, so you’ll want to think about that and device compatibility, depending on how / when you will use spicynodes; Spicynodes is primarily designed to be published online, on a website or blog. The free version allows you to create an unlimited number of node maps, although some of the nice features (in terms of design, privacy controls, and collaboration) are reserved for the paid subscriptions. As other reviewers have noted, the American Association of School Librarians selected SpicyNodes as one of its 2011 Best Websites for Teaching and Learning.

Here is a sample spicynode (click on the image to be taken to a new page where you can experience the interactive features).

sample spicynode image showing center topic question and related questions

Last, we’ve talked about Prezi before on this blog, but Prezi is also a great tool for allowing learners some choice in how they relate pieces of content to each other. Focusing the branching scenarios and content clusters around topics, themes, characters, situations, diagnoses, etc. lets students actively engage with course content. Here is an example from Ian Beatty showing how a prezi concept map can help introduce students to key course concepts (this was published on Derek Bruff’s blog).


Better yet, Derek’s blog post includes examples of how concept maps can be used at the beginning, middle, and end of a course. This really does seem like great way to share a road map for the course, transition between topics, or synthesize knowledge at the conclusion of the class.

Do you have a favorite digital visualization tool? Or favorite way to use such tools in your course? We’d love to hear about it!

Knowledge Acquisition

In thinking about the ways in which we can ask our students to do more with course content, I recently ran across the graphic below. The image illustrates the different ways in which knowledge can be acquired and subsequently processed (PKM in this context stands for personal knowledge management).

Flowchart graphic showing three main routes of knowledge acquisition: seek, share, sense.

Image credit: http://www.jarche.com/2013/05/sense-making-in-practice/
Based on content from the book You Can Do Anything by James Mangan.

My favorite method above is “walk around it.” While this may work in an experimental setting or with physical artifacts, this is a trickier approach for abstract concepts. I like to think “walk around it” in this context might mean something like “How can I think about this theory or problem differently?” or “Coming at this issue from another perspective, I find that. . .”

Seeing the options for knowledge acquisition laid out like this illustrates the wide variety of learning experiences. Student interaction with course content is richer than scribbling notes during lecture and then writing a paper or taking an exam. Of course, well-crafted writing prompts and exam questions may ask students to do some of the things in the graphic above. However, if the first time all students are being asked to actively draw upon their course knowledge is the paper or the exam, well, that may have predictable results for some of them.

The trick is to incorporate active learning experiences that reach all students long before the major paper, exams, or other grading milestones. In the abstract, we all know this: student engagement and success in the course are both likely to be higher if all students are asked to evaluate and apply course concepts along the way. In the trenches of the day-to-day class sessions, though, it’s easy to lose sight of this – especially in the context of the amount of material that has to be covered throughout the term.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be exploring active learning opportunities and showcasing some ways to mix up your content presentation, boost student engagement, and help you and your students get the most from peer- and small-group learning.

Free Group Video Calling on Skype

Last month, Skype announced a great deal for educational users: free group video calling for a year.

The freebie is associated with Skype’s educational arm, Skype in the classroom. Skype in the classroom skews more to a K-12 audience, but there’s nothing to stop you from joining the Skype in the classroom site and then using those features (such as the group video calling) that work for you. After all, group video calling is an excellent way to chat with far-flung collaborators about research, check-in with  groups of students working together off-campus, or invite a remote panel of experts and practitioners into your classroom.

Previously, users had to pay for group video calling as part of Skype Premium; Now, instructors can video chat with up to nine other users at a time (although quality may decline with more than five users on the call). Directions and screenshots on the Skype blog explain how to get started.

A word to the wise: The process requires you to create a Skype in the classroom account (you’ll need to enter your email address), but you should also take the opportunity to check that the email addresses associated with your primary Skype account are correct and current. This is crucial since once Skype verifies you as an educational user, they’ll send an email with a voucher code for the free group video calling and other Skype premium services.

Once you’re all ready to go – or while your educational user verification is pending – you might want to review our past post all about Skype resources.

Motivation & Your Students

Markers of spring: the trees have flowered and are now sporting baby-green leaves, the daffodils have come and gone, and some of your students may have already started to check out.

Summer is upon us! But not just yet. How do you keep your content delivery interesting and your students motivated during these last few weeks of the semester? From Edudemic, here is a short run-down of four ways to increase engagement in the classroom. With the exception of moving around the classroom, the other three suggestions (high expectations, real-world applications, and technological engagement to build connections) would work equally well in an online course. And, if you interpret “moving around the classroom” as part of a larger strategy of mixing up your presentation and student participation styles, even this piece of advice becomes applicable to the online classroom. For example, if you’ve always had students respond to your discussion prompts, you might ask them to submit discussion questions based on the week’s content.

If you prefer your information in visual form, this is a lovely infographic about reaching distracted students. I especially like that two of their suggestions (cooperative learning and peer instruction) focus on the students as communicators and meaning-makers. After all, at this point in the semester, your students should have a decent understanding of the larger course themes and be able to work together to situate new knowledge in that context. This could be done in pairs, small-groups, online in threaded discussions, or in some other format appropriate for your subject, such as a role-play or case-study.

If nothing you’ve read so far seems like it will work for your group of students, your classroom, or your content, this is a laundry list of 21 simple ways to motivate students. Sometimes, sharing control of and responsibility for the learning experience can go a long way toward keeping students interested. Giving students a choice – of which texts to read, which prompts to answer, how to demonstrate their skills, or with whom to work – may be just the trick. Likewise, a clear (and clearly articulated) learning objective can help students focus on what they need to be doing in order to succeed. Changes like this can be made to one lesson or one activity without needing to re-vamp your entire syllabus at this late date.

Best, if you find that some of these strategies work for you and your students, you can add them to your toolkit and pull them out as needed to keep motivation high throughout the next course you teach.

We’d love to hear from you about what you’ve found works well to keep students going in these final weeks of the semester. Comment away!

How to Find the Right Digital Tool

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a . . . well, you’ve heard that one, and it doesn’t end well when you’re using a computer or a tablet!

For those moments when you start to wonder if there’s an easier or better digital tool out there for your needs, check out Bamboo DiRT. Bamboo DiRT is a website listing digital resources that help you organize, analyze, search, and share digital content. The site has a scholarly research focus and is curated by a board of volunteer editors. Although it has a humanities focus, the site is actively seeking input for new tools from diverse disciplines.

Especially useful for teaching and scholarship, Bamboo DiRT’s function-based organization makes it easy to quickly find an the tool that you or your students might use for a particular phase of a project. Best, as a curated listing, the tools provided are ones actually in use by other scholars; there’s no need to ask others what tools they use, track down reviews of a potential tool on multiple sites, or lose time as a result of choosing an outdated or weak tool.

The main page of the Bamboo DiRT site invites users to complete the sentence “I need a digital research tool to . . .” with options like “Author an interactive  work,” “Collect Data,” “Transcribe handwritten or spoken texts,” or “Visualize Data,” for example. Clicking on your need takes you to a page with a short summary of each tool (reviews are forthcoming, according to the site). The tool listing is sortable by device/platform type, cost, and external reviews. Once you’ve selected your optimal tool, you click through to access or purchase it.