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.”

Evaluating Individual Contributions to Group Assignments

Instructional designer Debbie Morrison has an interesting piece discussing different strategies for how your students might evaluate one another upon the conclusion of a group project. While the article focuses on peer evaluation strategies for online learning, everything in the discussion is equally applicable to face-to-face teaching.

The author concludes that the existence of a peer evaluation is rarely a motivating factor for quality participation. However, peer evaluations do a serve a purpose in providing an opportunity for group members to express their dissatisfaction with other students in the group. The piece then addresses how instructors might handle the negative comments that students might make about other group members.

Her preferred strategy for assessing individual contributions to group projects? Self-evaluations:

I believe the learner will benefit far more by completing a self evaluation (that is well crafted to include focused self reflection questions) that forces him or her, to examine how he or she contributed [or did not] to the group process. The tool also encourages the student to consider actions that he or she demonstrated to support the team and to estimate what percentage of the work he or she contributed to the project.  ‘Forcing’ the individual student to assess their own behaviour, as opposed to others is more constructive – it supports the aim of developing collaboration skills, along with the knowledge component.

What do you think? Did you use peer- or self-evaluations for group assignments this semester? Were you happy with the feedback your students provided?

Grading

I’ve rounded up some helpful grading links. These should come in handy just in case you find yourself with a pile of grading to do now. Or next week. Or both.

Enjoy a better grading experience. I like the author’s optimism! The link has basic information about how to use your TAs and how to respond to complaints, points worth thinking about if you haven’t yet developed a strategy for either situation. The author also discusses rubrics; note that rubrics have been the topic of several earlier posts here on our blog.

From Profhacker, how to grade with voice on an iPad. This method relies upon the iAnnotate PDF app ($9.99) and having your students submit their papers and receive your comments as PDFs. The blog post has a detailed how-to video. Additionally, several commenters share alternative methods for adding audio comments to student work. Other Profhacker posts detail providing voice feedback using Jing and audio comments using Audacity.

If you find yourself grading something other than traditional papers or exams, this very thoughtful piece on evaluating multi-modal work may help to crystallize your approach.

In closing, a reminder that we have Teacher-Scholar labs on May 7th and 10th. We can help you wrap up this semester or get ready for next semester.

See What’s New in Teaching at TCU: Koehler Center Insights Magazine

The new issue of the Koehler Center magazine about teaching and learning is available.

View/download the PDF (iPad friendly) or interactive flipbook

Featured Articles

Beata Jones

Beata Jones

Mark Dennis

Mark Dennis

Gina Hill

Gina Hill

Empowering Students To Thrive In The 21st Century
Read the article
Reflections on “Reacting to the Past” in the Classroom
Read the article
Cultivate an Imminent Essential Skill Set: New Media Writing
Read the article

Link

A Closer Look at Multiple Choice Tests

The new semester is officially underway–students are back, campus is bustling, and classrooms are full. Of course, faculty have been preparing for classes for quite some time now–so it feels like we’ve been “back” for much longer than a few days–and the educational corner of the Internet has been full of assignment and classroom management suggestions.

The folks over at ProfHacker always have great ideas, but this guest post by Jonathan Sterne, an Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, contains some strategies that may be of particular interest to TCU faculty teaching large sections and/or using iClickers.

Sterne offers a solid strategy for developing multiple choice exams, and while he pitches the quizzes as an alternative to using clickers in large sections, I think the two methods could be easily combined. One could adopt Sterne’s test-writing methods to generate clicker polling activities for students, including the “semi-open book” technique.

What are your thoughts? If you use clickers on TCU’s campus, have you ever tried a method like the one Sterne describes? If not, what are some strategies you’ve found particularly successful?

Rubrics Redux

As the Fall semester draws to a close, now is a good time to revisit our earlier post on rubrics.

Handing out the rubric as you hand out the assignment is often the most expedient way to get students thinking about all the components of a successful assignment. However, if your students have on-going projects, but are now moving into a new phase (say, the write-up of a field experience, or the presentation of a semester’s worth of research), a rubric targeted to this new portion of the overall assignment can still be helpful.

It’s possible that rubrics are something you’d like to use in the future, but the timing isn’t quite right for you or students this semester. In this case, you might consider taking notes on the Fall 2012 work you’re about to grade and using those observations to drive a rubric that you share with your Spring 2013 classes.

For both students and instructors, the most useful rubric is one that contains a range of performance levels. The goal is to make the rubric less like a checklist and more like a detailed teaching tool. For example, reading that a thesis statement should be specific, clear, contestable, and on-topic is one thing; being able to see robust descriptions related to full credit, degrees of partial credit, and no credit can really help one to focus on the elements that set excellent work apart from work that is merely good or adequate.

Are you a rubric user? Share your tips (or links to your rubrics!) in the comments.