CSULA Department of English | Low and High Stakes Writing

In our professional
lives all of us engage in a variety of writing tasks, each
with its own purpose, intended audience, and associated
conventions, and increasingly instructors are attempting to
create a similar variety of writing tasks in their

Besides providing students with a variety
of writing tasks, instructors also hope to encourage more
writing by students without increasing the already heavy
"paper-load" instructors face, especially in lower
division classes. Everybody agrees that students should do
more writing, that more writing will lead to better writing,
and that writing is essential to learning.

But how do already overburdened instructors
balance the legitimate pedagogic need for more writing by
students with the equally legitimate claim of too much student
work and not enough time to grade it?



Focusing on
Audience, Purpose and Genre

Balancing Low
Stakes and High Stakes Assignments

Designing Effective

Responding to
Student Writing

Dealing with

Emphasizing Style

Using Grading

An important distinction that has emerged in response to this
problem is that between "low-stakes" and
"high-stakes" writing. Most instructors are already
familiar with high-stakes writing, because they probably
already require it of students. High-stakes writing is usually
formal, structured writing that is assigned a grade. The writing might be
take-home or timed, and the grade is usually a significant
part of the course grade. In general, high-stakes writing is
supposed to:

  • demonstrate what students have learned
  • follow the conventions of formal academic prose (as
    well as discipline specific conventions)
  • be error free (when written outside of class)

High-stakes writing assignments are stressful for students
and involve considerable work for the instructor.

Low-stakes writing falls under the general category of
"writing to learn" pedagogy. Low-stakes writing is
often used to assess quickly how well students understand
course material. The writing is usually

  • short and informal 
  • impromptu (in-class) or take-home
  • intended to stimulate thought, and keep students engaged
    and thinking during class
  • never corrected or graded

While the instructor might read low-stakes
writing, the instructor should not comment, correct, or grade
it. Instead of a grade, most instructors use a simple
acceptable or not-acceptable system (i.e. credit or no credit,
check or minus) or simply "handed-in" or "not handed-in."  

Listed below are some examples of
low-stakes writing assignments:

  • Journals
  • Freewriting or Quickwrites
  • Mini essays
  • Peer responses
  • One-sentence summaries
  • On-line chats, bulletin board postings, email

Low-stakes writing can also serve as pre-writing for
high-stakes writing assignments. In-class brainstorming
activities might lead to brief paper proposals which might
lead to a formal paper. In short, low-stakes writing is not a substitute for high-stakes
writing, but research seems to indicate that it improves
student performance on high-stakes writing assignments. 

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Focusing on Audience, Purpose and Genre
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Designing Effective Assignments

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