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Using Low Stakes Writing as a Learning Tool

01 Apr 2014 11:45 AM | Anonymous
By Kasey L. Powers
Teaching students to write is an increasing concern in introductory level psychology courses. Students do not magically gain writing skills in higher level writing intensive courses as these skills take time and practice to develop. One context for this development can be your introductory psychology course. However, there are several barriers to assigning a traditional paper in an introductory level course: 1) there are so many topics to cover that it is difficult to focus on a single topic for a traditional term paper; 2) many students struggle to write comprehensible papers; and 3) large class sizes make it challenging to find time to provide feedback and grade papers.
Low stakes writing addresses these three barriers because it is short and fast, as little as a paragraph. Grading is based primarily on completion and even a large class can be graded quickly. In cases of very large classes you could grade only half of the assignments for each student across the semester. Finally, it gives students a chance to practice writing and hopefully develop as writers.

Using low stakes writing as a writing to learn exercise is one way to have students practice writing and learn course content. The benefits of writing to learn assigments hold true across generic on topic writing and reflective writing (Nevid, Pastava, & McClland, 2012). Writing can also be used as a critical thinking exercise (Dunn & Smith, 2008).

To assign low-stakes writing in an Introductory Psychology course one option is to post a critical thinking question to Blackboard each week. Due to the large number of topics covered students will have to think and write on a variety of topics throughout the course. They will practice writing, thinking, and learning content in a new way.

Questions can ask for student opinion about a topic, to personal history or connection, or simply explaining a concept. Questions can be written by the instructor or taken from the textbook or test bank. Instructors have the option to write all questions at the start of a semester and automate them to post online for responses. Keeping questions in a file allows them to be used each semester changing them as new questions come up.

On the assignment page I include this note along with the rubric for students to refer to throughout the semester.
The questions posed each week are designed to get you thinking about different topics in psychology. There are no right or wrong answers. I want to know what you think.

Here are a few examples of questions I’ve used in the past (feel free to adopt them):

Social psychology:
In class this week we watched a video that showed an experiment about the bystander effect where a young boy who was “lost” asked strangers to help him find his mother. No one stopped to help him.
Do you think of yourself as a generally helpful person? Tell us about a time that you helped or didn’t help in a situation. Why did you act the way you did. Would your reaction be different if you were in that situation again?

Do you have a higher internal or external locus of control? What about for a choice like what you are you are going to eat and when?  If a psychologist said you don’t have this choice and you never have the chance to decide, would you accept that claim?

What is intelligence and can we really measure it?

An easy rubric for grading is something like this:

Post first response on time


Post on topic (answered question)


Grammar (spelling, capital letters, punctuation, etc...)




Additional points can be given based on how well students answered the question, making that worth 2 or 3 points. Or you can require that students reply to classmates to engage in online discussion and this could be an additional part of the grade.

Using a low-stakes assignment allows students to gain benefits of learning course content and writing practice without overwhelming the instructor with intensive grading. While ideal in an introductory level course, this type of assignment works well at any level.



Dunn, D. S., & Smith, R. A. (2008). Writing as critical thinking. In D. S. Dunn, J. S. Halonen, & R. A. Smith (Eds.), Teaching critical thinking in psychology: A handbook of best practices (pp 164-173). Hoboken, NY: Wiley-Blackwell


Nevid, J.S., Pastva, A., & McClelland, N. (2012) Writing-to-learn assignments in introductory psychology: Is there a learning benefit? Teaching of Psychology, 39 272-275. doi: 10.1177/0098628312456622


  • 31 Mar 2014 11:24 PM | Anonymous
    Kasey, good suggestion! Yes, low-stakes writing is a great way for students to work on their writing skills and their knowledge of subject matter. As a teacher at all levels over the last 37 years from grade school through master's level, I've found that doing the mark-up for grammar and mechanics issues is extremely time-consuming. I was a certified English teacher at one time, and for a class in social psych that I just finished teaching, I had roughly 1500 items marked on just one short assignment. Each week, there were two or three such assignments for 30 students. Yes, the writing ability of the students was not good.

    Nevertheless, unless we can meet with the students and discuss why we marked certain things, I'm afraid the students won't benefit much from what we mark up. Thus, I found that such detailed feedback was not of much use. This feedback issue is a very difficult one!
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  • 01 Apr 2014 10:42 AM | James
    I respect anyone who finds a way to incorporate writing into an introductory survey course, but I think we need to be honest about the expected outcomes. These short writing exercises may be great tools to get students thinking, but I can't see how they can improve writing ability with no feedback on writing. Students already do plenty of writing, mostly in text messages, and it generally doesn't seem to lead to any improvement in their formal writing. Perhaps if the papers are short enough, grading could include even a binary rating of the writing quality (good/needs improvement).
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