Low-stakes writing assignments offer learners another way to process information with less pressure than a formal essay.

Last week, I sang the praises of the old-fashioned essay as a tool to help educators build lasting, comprehensive subject matter mastery in their learners. However, the big, obvious downside to essay writing is that the stakes are very high. For many learners, the jump from reading material to writing their own thoughts can be too far for them to do a good job. This can cause a lot of stress and anxiety, which in turn leads many learners to procrastinate and put off their tough assignment till later—when they’re even more likely to feel stressed and anxious.

One way to address this problem is to simply lower the stakes using shorter, faster writing assignments that can be completed in a matter of minutes, rather than hours.

Low-stakes writing serves several purposes:

  • It is a more comfortable entry format for learners—especially those who are new to writing. Some learners can be intimidated by the formality of an essay, and that can make it harder for them to organize their thoughts. In the early stages of learning material, when learners are still unfamiliar with the concepts and terminology, low-stakes writing offers an easier entry point.
  • It helps prepare learners for high-stakes writing, such as essays or tests. Low-stakes writing can also lay the groundwork for longer, more comprehensive assignments. Learners can become used to writing clear headlines and organized outlines before bringing it together into a longer term paper.
  • It reinforces short-term memory by encouraging learners to rephrase the material they learned in their own thoughts. Immediate recall of freshly-learned concepts can help move information deeper into the learner’s memory. Quizzes can be a big help for this, but low-stakes assignments take it just a small step further—to great effect!
  • It encourages learners to take ownership of the material and share their own thoughts. Putting something in writing helps learners claim it as their own—their own knowledge, their own ideas, their own opinions. Even just a few sentences can help learners grow in confidence and mastery.

Those are all compelling reasons to start offering low-stakes writing assignments in your course. If you’re wondering what those assignments might look like, here are some examples.

Examples of low-stakes writing assignments.

Low-stakes writing assignments come in many forms. Here are just a few.

  • Write a one-sentences summary. After learners read an article, ask them to summarize it in 1–3 sentences. Mark them according to how well they cover all the key points of the article.
  • Write an outline of a lecture video. When you’re making a lecture series, clearly state the important material at the beginning and review it at the end. Use slides along the way to indicate topic headings. At the end, ask your learners to write an outline based on your lecture.
  • Write a headline. Headlines don’t usually cover every detail of a story, but they do summarize the most important information in a way that grabs attention. Offer your learners an article to read without a headline, and ask them to write the headline themselves.
  • List key takeaways from a lesson. Have your learners write a list that covers the most important things they learned in the lesson. Ask them to have the list include a certain number of entries.
  • Write a use-case scenario. This is particularly useful if you’re offering a training program. Ask your employees to write a scenario for when a customer might need a certain service, or have them describe how they might respond to a certain event.
  • Given an example. Have learners find an example of a concept or principle being used in real life, or ask them to give an example from personal experience.
  • Explain a concept. I naturally reach for examples whenever I try to explain a concept, but not everyone does. I also like to draw diagrams and find visual aids useful when explaining how ideas work. Offer your learners the option to draw their own diagram to aid their explanation.
  • Pose a critical thinking question to the group. Have your learners pose a question to the group, and then have your learners answer each other’s questions.
  • Write a “today I learned” summary. Have learners write about what they learned from that day’s lesson and class discussion. An immediate review of the material they covered will help them retain it for longer.

As you can see, each of these assignments is relatively simple and should take your learners no more than a few minutes to complete. However, the benefits they stand to gain from these exercises is hard to over-state.

Another bonus? Low-stakes writing engages active learning without the assessment burden of longer writing assignments. However, this means you, the instructor, have to be smart about how you mark low-stakes assignments.

One final tip: Keep your assessment of low-stakes assignments simple.

Essays require a lot of work from both learners and instructors. The effort learners put into writing a good essay can be very rewarding, but in terms of accomplishment and long-term memory retention. But low-stakes writing works best when educators can make the assignments frequent—and that means keeping grading to a minimum as well.

Grading by participation is a fine option for this kind of work. Simply making a pass/fail grade is enough to encourage learners to do the work, especially if the assignment is very short and there’s not a lot of feedback required.

Another helpful rubric is to take pass/fail a step further. For instance, you could use the following:

  • Great. Covers every aspect of the assignment.
  • Good. Sufficient, but misses one or two areas.
  • Poor. Does not fulfill the assignment criteria.

The more practice learners have with material as they grow their mastery of a subject, the more confident they will be in the long run, and the more likely they are to truly achieve their learning goals. Low-stakes writing assignments are a great means toward accomplishing those ends. If you’re not using them already, give them a try!

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About Laura Lynch

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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