Principles For Developing High-Stakes Writing

High-stakes writing—final projects, term papers—can be a stress-inducing endeavor for students. They will likely have preconceived notions about what constitutes “good writing,” and they may have received some less-than-generous feedback on their writing from their pre-college teachers. These are all reasons that you should approach high-stakes writing intentionally and with clearly thought-out learning objectives, methods of assessment, and instructions for students.

When most or all of your course is taught online and students have less face-to-face time with you and their classmates, their connections to others may suffer. In an online writing environment, students may be too overwhelmed or disconnected to reach out to you. We want to offer here a few principles for developing and assigning high-stakes writing online that can relieve some of your students’ concerns, which will make both their and your life easier.

Principles for Assigning High-Stakes Writing

Good writing assignments promote critical thinking and encourage students’ engagement with course material. They help students learn characteristic ways of asking questions, analyzing data, and making arguments in your discipline. No matter what type of writing you assign, how you present the assignments to your students can affect their success. This is especially true with limited or no face-to-face time with your students. Your assignments should be designed to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. Universal Design Learning (UDL) is a framework for accessible pedagogy that we encourage you to become familiar with; it recognizes that students who are considered to have disabilities are interfacing with curricula that often is not designed to address their learning needs. A UDL approach means that you might consider offering multiple formats that high-stakes writing assignments can take (for example, offering audio/video/website final projects in addition to written/text-based) or offering flexible deadlines in completing assignment tasks.

The transition to online instruction means that adapting writing assignments into multimodal projects has never been more timely. By multimodal, we refer to writing that exists outside of the traditional writing-on-paper format—formats like audio, video, and other digital means. Multimodal projects center accessibility and inclusivity by expanding the possible options that students have to complete assignments in a satisfactory manner.

For example, you might ask students to adapt their research reports into virtual presentations with Kaltura and a narrated PowerPoint or Google Slide presentation. Or you might have them turn their research papers into a This American Life-styled story that compellingly delivers their information using storytelling and audio transitions. Consider the value, too, in joining traditional writing with images or video, and how the use of multiple mediums can improve students’ meaning-making capacities.

As you think about what you want your students to be able to do (or write) by the end of the semester, consider developing a sequence of shorter assignments to help your students develop and acquire the knowledge and the skills they need to succeed as writers. Sequencing assignments allows you to move from simple tasks to more complex ones. A carefully developed sequence of writing prompts can teach students the process of learning to think and write in ways that are valued in your discipline. In an online format, you have many options to build your assignments beyond just text on the page, including low-stakes writing activities that we offer resources for elsewhere on this site. Additionally, consider using the full breadth of technology—audio, video, PowerPoint, speech-to-text software, and more—to help students develop ideas for their larger projects.  As just one example, an end-of-semester research paper could be scaffolded by having students:
    • workshop a working research question in Padlet, 
    • produce an annotated bibliography in PowerPoint, 
    • write a draft of a larger paper in Google Docs, and 
    • do a peer review
all before writing the final paper. As with sequencing, scaffolding can help students learn the ways writing is practiced in your discipline.
Producing cogent writing that expresses new ideas rarely ever just happens. Writing goes through multiple drafts both in our head and on paper, and this is true whether it happens online or in-person. With online writing that has little face-to-face instruction, students may be more inclined to rush their writing, and a focus on the writing process can ensure that they slow down and take their time. Offering opportunities for peer and instructor feedback and putting an emphasis on brainstorming and outlining are ways that you can encourage attention to the writing process. Even better, there are many online interfaces (like Padlet) that can make outlining and brainstorming more interactive and engaging.

Anatomy of a Well-Designed Writing Assignment

Good student writing doesn’t just begin when students first put pen to paper or open up their Google Doc. It begins long before that, with the writing assignment sheet itself. There are near-universal principles for well-designed writing assignments, as we demonstrate with the annotated assignment sheet below. Read the sample assignment below, and then continue scrolling as we identify the effective moves that Professor Young makes in his assignment.

Professor Stephen Young

International Studies 402

The World Bank Letter


The World Bank is a very important institution when it comes to measuring and addressing poverty around the globe. Every year the Bank updates its estimates of how many people live below its poverty thresholds of $2 and $1.25 a day. Yet, many scholars have argued that this measure reflects a rather arbitrary conceptualization of poverty. You are going to write a 1200 word [3-4 double-spaced pages] letter to the President and Governors of the World Bank in which you address some of the shortcomings of their poverty measures and advocate for a different approach. What that alternative looks like is up to you but be sure to justify your decision.

Learning Outcomes:

Students (i) learn how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different ways of conceptualizing and measuring poverty and (ii) improve their ability to communicate ideas in a clear, concise fashion.



    • Write the date at the top of the page and open your letter by formally addressing the WB President and Governors.
    • In the opening paragraph, explain the purpose of the letter. Then, in 1-2 paragraphs, outline what you think is problematic about the way that the WB measures poverty.
    • Drawing on readings and other material covered in class, construct an alternative way of conceptualizing and measuring poverty. You can draw on data and develop your arguments by using examples and material from other theorists. You should acknowledge your sources where appropriate [e.g. “according to Branko Milanovic,” or “the WB’s own data from 2011 suggests that…”]. However, you do not need to provide a bibliography. Also, remember to try and keep the tone of the writing in tune with a letter, rather than an academic essay.
In the “Overview” section, Professor Young identifies the central task of the assignment (writing a 1200-word letter to the President and Governors of the World Bank addressing some of the shortcomings of their poverty measures and advocate for a different approach) and repeats it throughout the assignment description to reinforce key learning goals.
For an online audience, consider offering alternate types of assignment submissions: in this example, you could students the option to record a Zoom video to the World Bank President.
The “Learning Outcomes” section explicitly highlights the key goals of the assignment, which helps students understand why this assignment is relevant to the course while also giving a framework for how their work will be evaluated.
In his “Instructions” section, Professor Young gives clear guidelines about the structure/organization of the letter, which is important when students have little experience writing in a particular genre.
In his third “Instructions” bullet point, Professor Young provides models helps students meet assignment expectations. By showing a sample of an appropriate in-text citation, Young is helping students visualize responsibly integrated sources. Instructors can also discuss models in class and/or to provide other samples of both successful and unsuccessful writing.
Consider using hyperlinks with your assignment sheet to provide students with access to samples that can help model the sort of tone and writing style that you’re seeking.

Adapting your writing assignments to online instruction

You have many tools at your disposal when putting your writing assignments online—you shouldn’t settle for a static PDF or Word document. Integrate the online environment of your course into your writing assignments. While the principles above apply to writing assignments universally—identifying the central task, learning goals, and genre conventions, and providing models—you should consider augmenting these principles with some of the suggestions below.
Screencast technology can be used for more than just providing feedback on student drafts. Using it to introduce a writing assignment to your students can give them a better sense of your expectations and where to put their energy. It will also establish a more personal connection between you and your students, especially when these connections are at a premium. If possible, however, keep the videos short—something to the tune of four minutes or under—to hold students’ attention. If you create a video, make sure that you include closed captions for students with hearing impairments and also for ELL (English Language Learner) students.
One of the advantages—but also a potential drawback—of hosting your writing assignments online is the ability to link to external webpages or sources. This allows you to offer additional resources for your students beyond the text in your writing assignment sheet, which can help you clarify unfamiliar language or directions or even link to examples that students can seek to emulate. Be careful though: too many hyperlinks can leave students feeling adrift and unclear of what you, specifically, are asking of them. In this case, “less is more” is an appropriate maxim.
Education scholars have long-identified that there are many ways for students to create meaning beyond traditional text on a page. And especially with the number of technologies surrounding students, adapting your traditional assignments to allow for multimodal student work can keep students engaged and making meaning without sacrificing rigor, depth, or engagement with the material. Instead of requiring a singular type of assignment delivery (a traditional research paper, for example), consider allowing your students to utilize a variety of different mediums and platforms to deliver content: audio, video, images, Twitter, etc.

Here are examples of effective high-stakes writing assignments from UW–Madison faculty: