Low-Stakes Writing Assignments

Low-stakes writing intended to help students make progress on an assignment usually represents an actual step in the writing process and also gives students practice performing essential skills. As a lead-up to an assignment in Sociology asking students to choose a theory and then apply it to a particular case, students might do an exercise in which they choose their theory and summarize it. The summaries would give students a foundation for writing the paper as well as for class discussion.

Coming up with low-stakes writing assignments is relatively straightforward: all you have to do is think about the steps a writer would take, or the skills a writer would need, to do the “high-stakes” assignment, then turn one of those steps or skills into a low-stakes assignment. An obvious way to do this is to break the writing pro- cess into stages. For example, you could ask students to write a paper proposal, which might include a statement of the problem or question to be addressed, a description of the primary sources or data to be analyzed, an overview of other sources to be used (if any), and even a preliminary structure for the paper.

But your low-stakes assignments need not be a prescribed stage in the writing process. Here are some other possibilities:

  • Freewrite in response to a text, dataset, object, or topic.
  • Describe a personal experience that bears on the topic.
  • Locate and analyze a “hotspot” from a source—a passage, pattern, or detail that seems important, striking, puzzling.
  • Have students narrate the layout of their Res College building or their usual route they take to class. 
  • Locate and define a tension, gap, or incongruity in a source. 
  • Critically summarize a text.
  • Identify and define a key term or concept.
  • Use stick figures to draw and map out their relationship to other scholars in their current project.
  • Support and then challenge a key concept.
  • Locate and define a conflict of opinion in a set of articles/book chapters.

The draft and “pre-draft” as a low-stakes assignment 

Perhaps the most important low-stakes writing of all is the draft and other discrete benchmark towards a complete draft. Because so many demands are placed on students’ time, many of them will wait until the last possible moment to produce a draft, and as a result may not have time to get feedback and revise. You can ensure that students begin the writing process well before the deadline by requiring a draft and including at least one benchmark task (a “pre-draft”). In a perfect world, you would give students individual feedback on their drafts, but class size and time constraints often make doing so impossible. In these cases, you can simply leave it up to students to get feedback and revise, or you can actively organize students into writing groups for the purpose of exchanging papers and providing feedback.. Alternatively, you can choose one or two drafts (or parts of drafts) for the entire class to read, and then run a writing workshop. Note that for either of these activities to work, the assignment must allow for multiple responses; if students are writing essentially the same papers, they’ll find it difficult to maintain the integrity of their own work.

Sample “pre-draft” assignments

Keyword Paper (1-2 pages)

Preparation: For the second class this week have students read all or part the framework text, identifying  three important keywords from the reading. For each keyword have them provide a direct quotation and citation from the text that supports a definition of the concept. Have them then paraphrase a definition in 2-3 sentences for each keyword. Have students reflect on why these keywords would seem to matter to the author, to them as readers, and to other readers they can imagine; in class have them begin to formulate a “so what” to explain the significance of each keyword. This graded assignment builds on that homework and class work.

Sample Prompt: Re-read [the text], pp. ##-##, and then continue reading pp. ##-##. Building on your homework from the last class, revise your initial impressions and then choose a revealing keyword from the article to analyze further. Write an additional paragraph in which you show how paying close attention to that keyword deepens your understanding of the author’s argument in some important way.

Literature Survey (3-4 pages)

Sample Prompt:  Read each of the three articles you identified for class on Thursday. Annotate each using the Writing Lexicon, and then draft a 1- to 2-page literature review that summarizes what’s interesting and what’s important about these articles taken together. Spotlight one or more methods that persuade you by their handling of evidence; briefly explain why, quoting or paraphrasing specific passages. The first paragraph of the literature review should introduce a big-picture question that helps us understand a thread connecting all three articles.

Research Proposal (3-4 pages)

Phase 1, Sample Prompt: You should spend at least two hours writing about three or more parts of your primary source(s) that you find especially interesting or problematic—places where you find some friction between the source material and your own thoughts, knowledge, or expectations. This exploratory writing must not offer a thesis. It should be viewed as a work in progress, and its purpose is to give you time and space to develop a motivated line of inquiry. Conclude with a how/why question that’s emerged from your thinking with the source materials. The standard for assessing the quality of the question you’ve generated is this: Do you genuinely want to answer it?

Phase 2, Sample Prompt: Revise your draft research proposal for greater specificity and attach an annotated bibliography for your five most promising scholarly sources (at least one of which must be a book or book chapter). Do not include your primary source(s) in the bibliography—i.e., the narrative you’re writing about. The annotated bibliography should review each scholarly source in a separate, short paragraph; for each source: (1) orient your readers to its author(s) and the topic; (2) summarize the source’s thesis and the evidence it uses to support that claim—abstracts and reviews can help you get an early sense of a book’s argument; (3) elaborate on why you’ve chosen this source for your project; and explain how your thinking might stand in relation to this source’s argument—use Gaipa’s “Breaking Into the Conversation” to explain.

Research Journal

As you works towards your final research paper, keep track of your progress in the following categories:

  • Your ongoing thoughts about primary and secondary sources
    • This can be quick summaries, daily reflections, fully developed Q&As. This can be done in running text or bullet points, or in a combination of the two.
  • Citations 
    • Sources read (= a running bibliography)
    • New sources to check
      • The links to those sources if electronic, OR the call numbers of they exist in the library.
  • Source contents and concepts 
    • What is this particular source about? Which page numbers are important? What are some crucial direct quotations here that I need to record? Which keywords/concepts has this author developed and how can I use them? 
  • Possible research angles developing as you read, analyze, and sort your insights 
    • E.g., “Source X argues 1, 2, 3, but Source Y says 2, 6, 1 – it might mean that Source X does not identify 6 or that that 3 falls outside the scope of Y: why? How might I fit into this conversation and what can I bring to the table?”

Plan to add to your research journal every day–even on days when you have run no library searches or read any new sources, take a moment to think about your project and put some brief thoughts down.