University of Wisconsin–Madison

Principles for Assigning and responding to Low-Stakes Writing

Low-stakes writing activities serve a number of important roles in the classroom, whether it’s a Biology course or a Sociology course. They can serve as an important check-in for instructors and TAs to ensure that students are understanding the course concepts or staying afloat in class and beyond. Low-stakes writing can foster community between classmates and between you and your students, increasing a sense of inclusivity and belonging in your class. But perhaps most importantly, low-stakes writing gives students the opportunity to experiment, take chances, and develop ideas early on in a revision process and engage more comfortably in high-stakes writing when a paper is due. Building low-stakes writing activities into your course means that students will be better equipped to handle future assignments and tasks.

Low-stakes writing should not be an end in-itself, but should rather serve the learning goals of your class—and you should make this apparent to your students. One of the most effective ways to incorporate low-stakes writing is to use it in service of high-stakes assignments. For example, using discussion posts that ask students to develop their ideas about your course content can serve them as they head into an exam or write an essay.

Low-stakes writing assignments are meant to provide students with an avenue of discovery, exploration, and risk. When students are preoccupied by mechanics and grammar, the clarity of their thoughts can take a back seat. By responding to their ideas rather than their mechanical proficiency, you are demonstrating your concern for them as both writers with ideas to contribute as well as whole people.

Low-stakes writing assignments do not have to be labor-intensive for instructors. You might consider using a ✔-/✔/✔+ rubric, or limit yourself to only a few comments per writing task.

Low-stakes writing activities can also facilitate interaction in a student’s writing process, either between with other students or with you as their instructor. For example, you might consider asking students to brainstorm ideas for an upcoming research paper and then share that brainstorm with a partner, with specific questions that need to be answered. Or you might ask students to end each online class with one question that they still have about the course content, which you might then answer at the beginning of the following class or via email.

When instruction is online, community-building through writing is especially effective and important.


The below links offer examples of online low-stakes writing assignments and how to use them effectively.