Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

How do I incorporate writing into my course without being overwhelmed?

In order for students to learn to write well, we must increase the amount and frequency of writing they do, vary the types of writing, and provide feedback on their performance so they can continue to develop as writers. At the same time, we cannot significantly increase the workloads of either the faculty or students. One way to address this tension is to think about assigning a combination of low-stakes and high-stakes writing (adapted from Elbow, P. (1997) "High stakes and Low stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing," in New Directions for Teaching and Learning, vol. 69, 5-13; San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers).

Low-stakes writing assignments are often written informally and graded informally as well. Examples include journal entries, synopses of readings, and argument summaries. The goal is not as much the piece of writing itself but getting students to think, reflect, and understand more of the course material. One way to accomplish this is by asking students to relate the course material to their world, e.g., write a letter attempting to persuade a friend about a particular issue, or explain a reading’s significance in their own lives. This type of writing can help students involve themselves more in the ideas or subject matter of the course. It helps them find their own language to talk about those ideas. And it reduces writing anxiety because students get to hone their skill without serious consequences for their grade. When grading low-stakes assignments, it often makes sense to focus on a single, high-level aspect of the work rather than running the gamut by assessing multiple dimensions, from details like syntax and grammar all the way up to effective organization and argument structure.

Moreover, low-stakes assignments tend to be short, allowing time for more of them. With multiple low-stakes assignments, students can use the feedback they receive on one piece of writing to inform their approach to the next piece. Low-stakes assignments can also serve as helpful stepping-stones to more formal or longer written work. Finally, the frequency afforded by brief, low-stakes assignments allows us to monitor students’ understanding of the material on a more regular basis, and it encourages students to keep up with assigned readings (e.g., when they write a one-paragraph synopsis or response to each reading). In particular, this approach makes it easier to identify students who are having difficulty early on in your course.

At the other end of the spectrum is high-stakes writing, which is more formal; in these assignments students are accountable for all aspects of writing, from clearly articulating a position/argument to spelling and punctuation to style. The goals of these types of assignments are often to assess students’ understanding of the material, evaluate how they convey their understanding, and give them practice in professional writing as defined by their discipline. Assignments such as these are typically graded formally, perhaps even by using rubrics.

If you decide to use both low and high-stakes assignments, keep in mind that students sometimes have a hard time transitioning from one to the other. So it is especially important to be explicit about your goals and expectations for each assignment. Moreover, cautioning students at the transition points can help them adjust accordingly.