Low-Stakes Assignments

Words of Wisdom

The best ideas come to you when you're sitting down, working. That's when most of the breakthroughs occur--simply by doing the work. If someone wanted to be a runner, you don't tell them to think about running, you tell them to run. And the same simple idea applies to writing, I hope.

— Markus Zusak

Low-stakes assignments are ungraded or carry little weight in grading. For example, you might average grades for all low-stakes assignments into one homework grade; or you might grade using a simple P/F or +/- scale. Low-stakes assignments fulfill four goals:

  1. They provide students with ample practice and fluency in preparation for higher-stakes assignments. Often, low-stakes work serves as a form of prewriting, that is, a method for developing a topic or for thinking up a topic.
  2. They help students engage in and learn the course content. Some studies show students feel more deeply engaged in their learning when they are required to write or speak to others about it.
  3. They give students the opportunity to reflect, both on the course content and on the composing process itself. Reflection aids in thinking through a topic or an argument and leads to growth in critical thinking skills and, in turn, writing or speaking skills.
  4. They can soothe the anxious student or motivate the reluctant student.

Although low-stakes assignments are often not graded, or graded minimally, they are most meaningful if accompanied by feedback. The reader/responder does not have to be the instructor; graders, peers, or writing center consultants can be helpful, or students can self-assess.

Types of Assignments

Any assignment can be low stakes—an ungraded rough draft or speech outline, for example. However, some assignments are more commonly used in providing practice and helping students achieve fluency. These include field notes, reading logs, journals, discussion list responses, two-minutes papers or speeches, and mini essays.

Many techniques used to develop content for papers or speeches can also be used for low-stakes speaking and writing assignments. For example, freewriting, brainstorming, and answering heuristic questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) can be the basis for effective writing and small group discussion activities.

Keep in mind that low-states assignments should specify a rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, genre), just as any other assignment would. However, since the purpose of low-stakes writing often is to promote writing-to-learn, the audience and purpose sometimes are simply to display knowledge. Still, you might want to clarify, when you are the specified audience, the assignment's learning outcomes. If you want students to show critical thinking in their journals, explain that as a reader, you will be looking for examples of critical thinking. Showing them what you mean by critical thinking through concrete examples will help even more. Likewise, if you want them to demonstrate they retained the gist of a reading, explain that is what you will look for when you review their reading log.

Responding to Low-Stakes Assignments

No matter who responds, the most useful feedback is (1) specific and detailed; (2) honest; and (3) tactful. Responses to low-stakes assignments can come in a number of forms, including: (1) marginal comments or questions that respond to content or evidence; (2) check marks next to errors that interfere with comprehension; and (3) rubrics designed to guide reading and response.

It is a good idea to make a distinction for students between how you respond to low-stakes assignments and how you grade high-stakes assignments. Students need to understand that ungraded responses are not comprehensive reviews of everything that needs to be done to improve a draft or a performance. They hold ultimate responsibility for changes. Some things a reviewer (including an instructor) suggests might be inadequate or even wrong, or one change they make because of a reviewer's suggestion might make further changes necessary.

Never center responses on errors in the early stages of the composing process. If students are to feel that revision should be deep and meaningful, they should concentrate on ideas, content, and argument first. Rather than point out specific errors in logic or punctuation, the responder can let the student know he/she needs to concentrate on those areas. Pointing out one or two errors as examples should be sufficient.

Additional Resources

"Low-Stakes Writing and Critical Thinking," Edutopia


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