To Write or Not to Write: Incorporating Low-Stakes Writing Assignments into the Classroom

20 May 2017 12:00 PM | Anonymous

By Rita Obeid and Jeremy Sawyer, The Graduate Center and City University of New York, CUNY

For new psychology instructors, designing a writing assignment is often the last thing on our minds. We may be scrambling to prepare a syllabus for new course, mastering unfamiliar content (since psychology has multiple subfields), or organizing a series of slide-based lectures. In the mad dash of course prep, the potential learning benefits of student writing can be easily overlooked.

When our thoughts finally do turn to writing, we may wonder: Do my students really need to write? Won’t they get plenty of practice in writing-intensive courses? As a graduate student instructor, do I even have time to read and grade writing for a class of 50 or 100? In this blog, we aim to demonstrate that engaging students through writing not only helps them to learn more deeply, but is entirely manageable and beneficial to you as an instructor.

To learn, students need to actively engage in course material, whether through discussion, group projects, hands-on experience, or writing. An approach called writing-to-learn is a way of encouraging students to enhance their understanding by thinking through important course concepts using writing (Zinsser, 1988). The primary goal is not to improve students’ writing skills in general (though that may occur), but to promote critical thinking, expressive skills, and student reflection on course material (Bensley & Haynes, 1995). Having students reflect on their learning through the use of brief writing assignments (whether in class or at home) can promote this full range of skills. We will illustrate this process with some brief, low-stakes writing assignments that we used to help students grapple with new concepts in our Developmental Psychology classes.

We have found that students often do not have a clear perspective on a topic until they are required to reflect on the topic, connect it to their own experiences, and to try putting their thoughts on paper. In our Developmental Psychology courses, we wanted to avoid bombarding our students with endless PowerPoint slides that dulled their senses as they explained developmental concepts. Thus, along with five other graduate students we chose eight key concepts in Developmental Psychology (e.g., attachment, joint attention, Piaget’s stages, etc.) and created 8 lessons featuring active learning activities for use in our classes. To get students’ cognitive wheels spinning, we began each lesson with a “Question of the Day” that asked students to connect their everyday experience to the concept at hand. When teaching joint attention, for instance, our question was “Do you make eye contact with others in social situations? Do you think eye contact is important? Why or why not?” This was followed by a brief instructor-led illustration of the concept, and then a YouTube video which depicted one child engaging in joint attention, and another child who struggled with establishing joint attention. To get students observing and thinking deeply about what they saw in the video, we provided a series of brief writing prompts - known as “minute papers” - to be written on the spot (See Figure 1).

The goal of this brief writing activity was not to produce a masterpiece of writing, but rather to have students “think through writing” about what behaviors they observed, what they could infer about each child’s ability to establish joint attention, and how joint attention might help the children’s social, cognitive, and linguistic development. These brief writing assignments do not need to be graded (or even collected) by the instructor, they merely use the process of writing for the students’ own benefit. Using anecdotal feedback from students, as well as assessment data we collected in our classes, using these brief writing prompts led to higher student learning, as measured by short quizzes requiring students to demonstrate understanding and application of these developmental concepts. Below is a sample of some slides and writing prompts from a lesson module that we used in one of our courses.


In addition to brief in-class writing, we also assigned weekly written responses to a question pertaining to that week’s lesson. Below is a sample weekly writing prompt:

Assignment 1: What is Your Theory of Human Development?

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we live our daily lives using some type of “theory” of development. Try to describe your current theory (or theories) of development, answering the following questions in approximately two paragraphs.

 What causes humans to become the people that they become?

      What do you think are the most important factors that influence development?

      What causes us to change?

      What causes us to remain the same?

So how much time do we spend grading these assignments? The truth is, we have two methods: no stakes and low-stakes. In the no-stakes approach, we typically have the short writing assignments (e.g. question of the day) count as students’ attendance, after quickly skimming to make sure they made an effort. For low-stakes writing we skim the assignment for the basic ideas communicated and give the student a grade of 0, 1, or 2 depending on effort and a few simple criteria. In sum, we recommend that you start with a few brief writing prompts dispersed through each class session that will get students thinking more deeply about what you are learning that day. We promise that the minimal time spent reading and marking them will more than pay off in student learning, as well as your insight into students’ experiences and understanding of course material!

Figure 1. Sample slides from one of the modules on joint attention


Bensley, D. A., & Haynes, C. (1995). The acquisition of general purpose strategic knowledge for argumentation. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 41-45.

Zinsser, W. (1988). Writing to Learn: How to Write-and Think-Clearly about Any Subject at All. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

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