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!

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.

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!

Paper Submissions and Student Reflection

Do you have students complete a post-writing refection as they submit assignments? Having students reflect on the assignment builds their own meta-cognitive skills and awareness of the writing process, lets you know where they struggled and succeeded with the assignment so that you can give specific feedback, and can provide you with valuable information about students’ understanding of the writing prompt and their preparation. Of course, much of this information you can gleam from the student work itself, but why not have students take a critical look at their work as a concluding element to your valuable assignments?

In the blog post Cover Memos as Reflective Writing, Stephen Bernhardt of the University of Delaware describes how he collects post-writing reflections from his students. Bernhardt’s method caught my eye since it is a perfect use of an overlooked feature within many learning management systems. In particular, he takes advantage of the fact that when students upload documents to the dropbox, they are also offered the ability to type comments in a textbox. This textbox – presented just as students submit their papers – is a perfect spot for their reflections. Note that while Bernhardt’s post references the learning management system Sakai, students uploading papers to the dropbox in Pearson LearningStudio have an identical set-up:

screenshot of student view of Pearson LearningStudio dropbox submission

Using the textbox for student reflections is such an elegant solution because it nicely sidesteps the tricky timing issues associated with having students complete a reflection. Ideally, you’d like students to have some critical distance from the written product itself, but not let so much time elapse that students forget the actions, struggles, questions, and triumphs that characterized their writing process. Likewise, you also may not be able to take limited class time away from new business to dwell on past topics.

If you’re not using Pearson LearningStudio, you can still have students complete a reflection. If you’re loathe to use any class time at all for post-writing reflections, they can be done at home. Alternately, you can use the first few minutes of class to have students write, and then they can turn in their printed papers and handwritten reflections together. Students can write on the back of the last page of their paper or on a separate sheet of paper that is then stapled to the final draft. If your schedule allows, you might even build in a transition day between topics where students can write their reflections, discuss them, and then, with your guidance, shift to the next topic as a continuation of their prior work.

Bernhardt provides some sample questions that he asks students to address in their reflections:

  • What have you done well? Where do you need help?
  •  If you had more time, what would you work on?
  • Was this a valuable assignment, a good use of your time? What did you learn?
  • Did anyone help you? Was peer review useful? Did you take advantage of the Writing Center? Should you acknowledge sources of help?

I love that last question. Asking students to take a step back and think about the sources for key ideas in their papers helps build awareness that scholarly endeavors rely on properly crediting others. To that end, I might even ask students to focus on the print and internet sources they used in the hopes that this pointed reminder might prompt them to pause and review whether they’ve cited all the works they consulted.

Depending on the topic, you might add in some more specific questions beyond “What did you learn?” I’m a fan of the following questions:

  • How did your thinking about x evolve as you researched and wrote this paper?
  •  Do you think one argument had an easier case to make? Why?
  • What helped your writing process for this paper? What hindered your writing process?

You can also target your questions to particular requirements of the paper, giving you some insight on how students approach primary documents, make use of the library liaison for the course, consult multimedia sources, integrate interview data, apply your lecture content, etc. With each question, your goal is to draw out actionable information that will either help the students learn something about themselves as writers and thinkers or help you learn something about the ways in which your students understand the topic, write their papers, or apply new knowledge.

A post-writing reflection only needs a few questions, and only need take a few minutes to complete. This isn’t an onerous task; it’s an easy way to gather valuable data.

Cool Tools (On the TCU Campus)

If you’re here at TCU, I recommend checking out the monthly brown bag sessions offered by the TCU New Media Writing Studio on free digital tools. I attended the first one of these last week; you can find upcoming dates listed on the New Media Writing Studio workshop schedule.

In the hour-long session, three presenters shared how they each use a different tool to improve their teaching and research. Discussion was informal, with plenty of time for questions, clarification, and examples.

The tools covered were:

Join.me: A simple, quick screen-sharing tool. The individual sharing his/her screen downloads some basic free software, while viewers need only navigate to the join.me webpage and enter a designated nine-digit code to see the shared screen. Clearly useful when viewers are not in the same physical location, this tool also has broad applicability for face-to-face classes. For example, the instructor or student presenter can bypass plugging a personal machine or thumb drive into the projector by navigating to join.me on the classroom computer’s web browser, entering the code, and then projecting the shared screen – progression through the presentation or other content is actually controlled from a personal laptop or tablet elsewhere in the classroom. The ability to manipulate content on the classroom projector while not standing at the podium allows for greater flexibility regarding how classroom space can be used: students and the instructor can sit together in a circle or around a seminar table. Likewise, students who bring their own devices to class can enter the designated screen sharing code and then view the speaker’s content on their own screens – no need to face the front of the classroom at all! Last, screen sharing, instead of directly attempting to load files on the classroom computer, can also help to avoid version or software compatibility issues that might arise from attempting to open content created on a different machine.

Diigo: A link aggregating and organizing tool, complete with sharing and social networking features.  In order to use Diigo, you place a small toolbar on your browser, and then save and tag websites that catch your eye. You also have the ability to share your links with groups you create or preexisting Diigo groups you can join. Likewise, you can see other links saved by individuals who also saved your initial link, allowing you to perhaps discover relevant, related content. The ability to search your links by tag (or keyword) is what makes Diigo so versatile; a saved bookmark can generally exist in only one folder, but a given Diigo link can have multiple tags. You can then search your all your links for a specific tag or search all user-saved Diigo links for a specific tag. Additionally, since your Diigo bookmarks live in the cloud, they are available to you no matter your location or device. Basic Diigo membership is free and comes with unlimited bookmarking and some advertising; upgraded plans with no advertising and increased highlighting, note-taking, and searching powers cost $20-$40 per year (note that there are also educator upgrades available).

PBworks: We’ve written about wikis on this blog already, but a good tool bears repeating! PbWorks is a wiki hosting service that allows you to create a free, basic wiki for educational / non-commercial use. Wikis are great tools for organizing your teaching and professional materials. Instead of collecting items in folders or sub-folders by class or year, you can put up a wiki page with your notes or upload and link to relevant files. A wiki organized topically like this means that if you cover the same topic in multiple courses over a period of years, there’s no need to go hunting for content – it’s all linked together, based on relationships you establish among the files and wiki pages. Likewise, as you gather materials for research or professional projects of your own, a wiki can help you store and organize files, web links, and your own typed notes. While the wiki grows over time, you never need to worry about losing your notes or files, as these are no longer stored on your local machine; you can access your files from home, work, or using your mobile / tablet device. Complete with tagging features, the ability to search the contents of the entire wiki, and privacy controls (including allowing comments and sharing editing rights), wikis have some real advantages over simply storing files or taking notes on your local machine.

If cool tools like this have piqued your interest, you might be interested in the multimedia and teaching tools collected by the Koehler Center team. We’ve broken these tools down into audio, video, collaboration, digital storytelling, graphics, presentations and slidecasts, social networking, mobile and tablet apps, and an exciting grab bag of other web 2.0 tools (maps, calculators, study aids, etc.) that defy neat classification. You’re sure to find something interesting!