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!

Social Media for Teaching and Learning

Nearly 8,000 professors were surveyed about their own social media habits, their use of social media as an instructional tool, and their perceptions about the way their students use social media. Pearson* and the Babson Survey Research Group conducted the survey, and Edudemic has posted the results and the infographic below.

Looking the results and thinking about my own experiences, I have a couple of questions.

First, I’d love to know more about how professors are using social media, not just which forms of social media are being used most frequently. In particular, I’m wondering about the intensity of use. Sure, Facebook can be a teaching tool if you accept friend requests from your students; but if you’re holding Facebook chat hours and supervising a class Facebook page where your students are also posting, well, then, you’re really using Facebook as a teaching tool.

As an aside, I’ll share that I recently ran into a professor who joined LinkedIn primarily to connect with alumni of her current institution. Her goal was to find participants for a career panel in order to demonstrate how her department’s major can lead to a variety of exciting careers. Social media: it’s not just for teaching, it’s also for mentoring.

Second, regarding students and social media, this survey hits on something that I’ve been mulling over lately: the tension between the benefit of having students write for a larger audience and the cost in terms of a loss of privacy for the students. It does strike me as reasonable that if we are asking students to wrestle with big ideas, we ought to also allow for the protections that privacy affords as students refine their thoughts. And yet, research demonstrates that writing for an audience beyond the classroom has clear advantages. I’m interested in hearing what others think about this issue.

(click to enlarge)

social media statistics - faculty us climbing, conerns about privacy remain.Source: http://www.edudemic.com/social-media-in-education/

*While Pearson is the company behind LearningStudio (which we use here at TCU), there’s no larger connection between Pearson and this blog post.

Easy Scheduling with Doodle

We’ve reached the point in the semester where it’s time for review sessions, discussions of in-progress projects, and other small-group meetings with students. Suddenly, office hours are getting a lot busier!

Perhaps you’re considering adding extra office hours. But which times? And how will you know that students really intend to come and see you?

Introducing Doodle, an easy, free, online scheduling tool. Best, no account set-up is required for the organizer or the attendees. An organizer simply enters the days and times available for meetings. Additional settings allow for if-need-be dates, confidential replies, limiting the number of time-slot selections attendees can make, and limiting the number of attendees per time slot.

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Schedule availability is then published on the web as an interactive form.

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You can send the link to the Doodle through your own email, or create an account and enter the email addresses of potential attendees to have Doodle send the link automatically. As an aside, if you do create a free account, Doodle will sync with calendars on Outlook, Yahoo, Google, and iCal.

As the organizer, you have a separate link that permits you to edit the Doodle.

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Free accounts have advertising, but the ads are pretty unobtrusive. The premium account allows you to collect email addresses and phone numbers of potential attendees, send reminders, sync with iCloud, and use themed designs.

Of course, there are always those students whose schedules render them unable to attend your office hours. With Doodle, you’ll be able to see that – thanks to the “Cannot make it” button – so you can reach out to those students individually.

Students working on group projects or forming study groups can also use Doodle for their own scheduling purposes. This is a great tool to share with them as you introduce resources to help them with their group projects.

Likewise, Doodle can help you coordinate faculty schedules, making it easy to schedule committee meetings or even meals and meetings on the sidelines of professional conferences.

(h/t NorthStarNerd)

Online Exams in Pearson LearningStudio

First, a secret: although this task goes by the moniker “exam,” you can use a exam content item to give much lower-stakes assessments like weekly quizzes or reading checks. (Hey, I didn’t promise you it would be a juicy secret, did I?)

I’m addressing online exams today as a result of reading a very informative post about online quizzes from the Academic Technology blog at the College of William and Mary. They are a Blackboard school, so the post discusses quizzes in Blackboard – but all of their wise words are equally true for Pearson LearningStudio users here at TCU.

In particular, they list five reasons to use online quizzes: 1) Flipping the classroom’s low-hanging fruit; 2) Easier than clickers; 3) Students do a lot for a few points; 4) Instant gratification; and 5) Self-scoring. I’d encourage you to go and read their supporting points for each reason.

I’d like to address points 1 & 5, however. Using class time efficiently and in a manner that honors each student’s current abilities is always challenging; this is doubly true for prep time. Online quizzes / exams / reading checks give you the opportunity to move the less interactive pieces of instruction out of the classroom, meaning that you can devote your time with the students to more robust and individualized active learning experiences. After all, waiting for that last handful of students to finish their quizzes means that the rest of the class is, well, waiting.

But if I move items online, will students cheat? They key is asking some questions that go beyond rehashing the reading. What would another scholar say about the reading? What piece of evidence did the authors use? What piece of evidence – had it been found – would have falsified or strongly supported the argument? Why did the authors say they did x, y, z? What will happen if a, b, c are not present? Perhaps, in conjunction with your question design, you decide to let students consult course materials in some instances. In this case, you might stress that, while the exam is open book / note, your questions really require students to have read and thought about the content in advance. Of course, no one wants students to treat an exam or quiz as a scavenger hunt through the text. Yet, if students are consulting the reading in order to engage with your well-written, high-quality question, that seems like a reasonable scholarly pursuit.

The LearningStudio exam set-up also has the ability to pull from a question pool (so not all students will see the same questions), to randomize questions (so not all students will see the questions in the same order), to display one question per page, to prevent students from navigating back to earlier questions, to prevent / allow re-takes, and to set a time limit on the exam.

You can, indeed, have LearningStudio auto-grade the exams and auto-post the scores in the gradebook (on that last topic, this is one of our most commonly asked questions regarding exams and the gradebook). Note that you can also have LearningStudio grade the multiple-choice, true / false, and matching questions on an exam and then you can go in and grade the short answer or essay questions. Thus, you might have a two-part question in which the first part requires an answer that can be auto-graded, and the second part asks students to explain why they selected that answer. Bam! Two question reading quiz: done! The larger point, though, is that online exams need not be a fully auto-pilot enterprise: there are options for students to explain their reasoning and for professors to score those elements individually.

Intrigued? Check out our how-to documentation on LearningStudio exams. We also have video guidance on all aspects of LearningStudio exam use. For example, here’s the video on creating exams:

Mistakes and Feedforward

Recently, I’ve come across two interesting perspectives on making mistakes.

First, from the TED Radio Hour, this is a great radio show about making mistakes. In addition to being a really captivating human interest story, the radio broadcast also has a lot to say about learning. Views on mistakes come from a physician (“most of the greatest successes in medicine come from failures”), a noted psychology researcher (“if failure is not an option, then we just have a bunch of scared people hanging around loitering on the outside of the arena”), a jazz musician (“a mistake is an opportunity that was missed”), and a corporate coach (“a mistake offers the greatest amount of insight and the largest room for improvement”). This one is really worth a listen.

Second, I found this video in the course of researching something else, and the snippet below caught my attention.

Although the golf example may not be applicable to you, I suspect that many of us are guilty of folding up too quickly in the face of failure. It’s easy to shut down and turn away. When you know your efforts have gone awry, what do you do? What should you do? Letting the scenario play out with a dispassionate eye, observing what happens, and then reflecting on events and devising a new plan are all challenging skills on their own, never mind in the face of your own mistakes.

How can we help students turn their mistakes into valuable learning opportunities? Feedback is key, of course. I’m assuming that timely and individualized feedback is already part of your teaching practice. But what about the content of this feedback? When instructors give feedback, many naturally focus on the assignment in question. While valuable, reviewing the work the student has done is retrospective feedback. Students may be at a loss about how to translate your analysis into actionable steps for the next assignment. Using your feedback becomes more complicated if the next assignment has a different topic or format. What about offering prospective feedback? That is, feedback with specific attention to the work the student will do in the future? I’d like to share with you the idea of feedforward:

Feedforward is another interesting way to think about the feedback offered students. This more future-oriented feedback responds to what the student did, but in light of what needs to be done on the next assignment. Rather than isolated comments, it distills the feedback into three or four specific suggestions that target what the student should work on to improve the next assignment. . . .

Perhaps students would make better use of our feedback if they used that feedback to develop an action plan for the next assignment. “Based on the teacher’s feedback and my own assessment of this work, here’s the three things I plan to improve in the next assignment.” Maybe students don’t get the grade for the first assignment until the action plan has been submitted. And maybe that action plan then gets submitted along with the next assignment. 

Turning past performances into future successes is tricky. Recognizing mistakes and devising a plan for improving upon them requires both meta-cognitive skills and content-specific knowledge. This is the real work of learning and teaching – and where feedback and coaching can play such a crucial role.

How have you helped students to constructively use your feedback? Do you have any strategies that help students draw lessons from their own (or their classmates’) mistakes?