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 classrooms. 

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 Assignments

Responding to Student Writing

Dealing with Grammar

Emphasizing Style

Using Grading Rubrics

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 discussions

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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