Assigning Low-Stakes Writing

When we think of writing assignments in our courses, we typically think of long, thorough, professionalized works: memos, briefs, or even term papers. Such assignments are known as “high stakes,” due to the level of work involved for the student, the degree of expectations of the professor, and the percentage of the final grade that these pieces represent. High-stakes assignments have obvious benefits; they help students to learn to write professionally. They also have clear drawbacks; they are time-consuming to read and grade.

However, high-stakes assignments are not the only way to use writing in your courses. Even in mid- to large-size classes, low-stakes writing offers a number of benefits. If you're interested in different ways to incorporate writing into your courses, read on.

What is low-stakes writing?
Low-stakes assignments are brief, informal writing tasks, usually ungraded. If you have ever asked your students in the midst of a class lecture or discussion to “Take a few minutes to write down an issue statement,” then you have assigned low-stakes writing. Generally, these assignments are intended to help students clarify their own knowledge of the course material, and/or to help you see how well students understand new facts and concepts presented during class. One common form is the “minute paper,” written at the beginning of class to start discussion or at the end of class to clarify what the students have learned and what questions still remain. Another is the journal, in which students might write reflectively about their own learning processes. Low- stakes writing may also take place online, on the message board of a TWEN site. The possibilities are numerous and broad-ranging.

Why should I incorporate low-stakes writing into my courses?
Smaller writing assignments can help build up to larger, high-stakes assignments, and give students a chance to get comfortable expressing new concepts and ideas. They can be a place for collaborative work, and a stimulus for class discussion. Collecting assignments such as “minute papers” gives you a perspective on how well new course material is being absorbed. Some variety among lecture, discussion, group work, and writing can help keep class meetings out of a rut and benefit students with different learning styles.

When am I going to find time to do all the grading?
The beauty of low-stakes assignments is that they can do their job without adding much responsibility onto yours. One reason is that their scope tends not to demand much comment; a one-paragraph student response paper can probably be dealt with in check, check-plus, check-minus form. Another is that the goals of low-stakes writing can be different. When you say, “Take a minute to write down an issue statement,” it's an opportunity for students to crystallize their thoughts for themselves. Such writing offers another way for students to process the course material. Miniature in-class writing moments can help stimulate class discussion in the short term and lead to visibly improved comprehension on graded assignments in the long term. Low-stakes assignments allow students to check their own comprehension, and you to check the progress of the class as a whole. If this is your goal, one way to respond to the writing is to take a few minutes to address everyone: “Many people were unsure about …” “The best responses to this question …” Your detailed professorial responses to student writing are valuable, but learning can also take place in other ways that you add to the mix.

Doesn't this cause students to develop sloppy, unprofessional habits?
Not necessarily. Low-stakes writing helps students grow more comfortable with writing on legal issues in general; this is especially important for 1Ls. If they do a series of low-stakes tasks, they may be less likely to struggle with “legal language” when they sit down to write the first memo. Furthermore, some informal writing assignments, such as reflective (journal) writing, may give students a context to think meta-analytically about their tasks as law students and future lawyers. Analyzing their own learning processes in “writer's memos” may help them to tackle high-stakes assignments more effectively. Writing about their personal experiences the law can help them to think about the larger purposes of their chosen career and their own place in it, thus aiding in professionalization. (For an example of such writing, visit the Writers Forum, where students reflect on a visit to Family Court .) Other low-stakes assignments may emphasize collaboration, another important aspect of legal practice. In other words, low-stakes writing may ultimately lead not to carelessness but to a variety of skills.

Won't this take too much time away from teaching subject material?
It doesn't need to. A simple writing task, such as having students write a few questions they have about a reading or the five main points they took from a class discussion, can literally be done in one minute at the beginning or end of class. Another alternative, for slightly longer tasks, would be to have students write outside of class and post their paragraphs, questions, or comments to a TWEN site for discussion. You may well find, though, that in many cases you can teach content through writing — it doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. You might ask students (perhaps in groups) to read a case, identify the law or rule and report it to the rest of the class, or to paraphrase the court's language, then compare as a class the different paraphrases written by the students. Brainstorming lists (“What are the reasons for and against the enforcement of a contract?”) can be effective. Some topics can be illuminated by asking students to fill in a chart, categorizing areas covered during the class.

Where can I get more information?
A brief bibliography follows. All of these pieces are available from the Writing Center.

  • John C. Bean, “Informal, Exploratory Writing Activities,” in Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (2001).

  • Peter Elbow, “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing,” in Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing . New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 351-359.

  • Janet Emig, “Writing as a Mode of Learning,” in The Web of Meaning: Essays on Writing, Teaching, Learning and Thinking (Dixie Goswami and Maureen Butler, eds.)

  • Judith A. Langer, “Speaking of Knowing: Conceptions of Understanding in Academic Disciplines,” in Writing, Teaching, and Learning in the Disciplines (Anne Herrington and Charles Moran, eds.) (1992).

  • Laurel Currie Oates, “Beyond Communication: Writing as a Means of Learning,” Journal of the Legal Writing Institute 6:1 (2000).

  • Martha Townsend, “Writing Across the Curriculum,” in Encyclopedia of English Studies and Language Arts , Vol. II (1994).