Part One: Low-Stakes Writing Activities

Incorporating Low-Stakes Writing in Tutorials

Even in disciplines that are not necessarily writing intensive, research has shown that incorporating writing activities into your classes can help with many learning objectives (e.g., retention of information, critical thinking, and reasoning) (Bean, 2011; Angelo and Cross, 1993). Almost all forms of assessment contain some written component, be it exams, lab reports, or literature reviews. Developing students’ communication skills through writing also has the benefit of identifying transferable skills, as employers consistently ask for strong communication competencies across all job markets. Most importantly, students who are multi-language learners benefit from practicing their writing skills. As Ferris insists, practicing writing in lowstakes situations is a fantastic way to acclimatize students to communicating in a new language (2011). Low-stakes writing activities also do not require evaluation from TAs, making them excellent additions to a teaching context with limited hours in tutorials.

How to Use These Activities

This section of the resource offers some low-stakes writing activities that you can incorporate in your tutorials. The activities are suitable to all disciplines (although some may work better than others in your teaching context) – we have offered suggestions for implementation to reflect different disciplinary teaching contexts. We have organized these in-class activities under three categories:

  • writing as reflective practice
  • writing for assignment support
  • writing for engagement.

Depending on your learning objective, you might seek an activity from one of the various areas.

In addition, activities have been selected with the knowledge that, as TAs, we have a lot of limitations on how we use our tutorial time. With so much information to get in, it can be difficult to add anything over and above what our course instructors need us to cover. These activities offer an effective way for you to engage with your students while still exploring the required content. The following low-stakes tasks are short (1-5 minutes) and designed with TAs time limitations in mind.

LOW-STAKES WRITING ACTIVITIES

1) Writing as Reflective Practice (“Write to Learn”)

Writing activities can support students’ retention of material, but more importantly, can help deepen students’ understanding of higher-order concepts (Bean, 2011). This approach to writing has been called “Write to Learn” (as opposed to “Learn to Write”) and it is a helpful, low-stakes approach to writing that can enhance student learning. This approach to writing support is not focused on the mechanics of writing, but rather encourages students to see writing as a tool that they can use to writing as a way to better understand the coursework (Anson and Dannels, 2004).

ACTIVITY: REFLECTING ON PROBLEM SOLVING

Purpose: To practice communication skills in non-traditional writing contexts.
Running the Activity: This activity works well in a lab setting or during the completion of problem sets. In addition to solving the problem, ask students to write out their steps and articulate their process in writing. If time permits, this activity can also be a pair exercise: one student can write the instructions for solving a problem, and the other student can try to follow these written instructions to complete the assignment. During the take-up, students can identify areas that were more challenging to compose and reflect on the reasons why.

ACTIVITY: APPLICATION EXAMPLES

Purpose: To explain and apply concepts for the purpose of authentic learning. Identifying real-world examples to theoretical concepts.
Running the Activity: Get students to identify and write a real-world application for a theory, concept, idea or process that you have taught. In one variation of this activity, you can distribute index cards which students use to identify 2-3 such examples and express them in a concise manner. These can then be exchanged or shared between students or posted online (in Quercus).

ACTIVITY: THE 25-WORD ABSTRACT

Purpose: To help students develop skills in identifying important information, summarizing, and revising their written work for concision.
Running the Activity: Have students write a 25-word abstract on a theme, major concept, or thesis statement of a piece of course material (a reading, excerpt, or even the previous course lecture). The 25-word limit will help students be selective in their word choice and to focus on the main point of the content. When students have finished their first drafts, have them examine their abstracts for repetition, concision, and overall clarity. As a followup activity, pair students together and have them compare their abstracts. Did they identify the same key points? Why or why not? During the take-up, ask students to offer their rationale for their summary choices.

2) Writing for Assignment Support

Often, students with a good grasp of course content perform poorly on written assessments because they do not understand the genres of writing in their discipline (Brainer, 1996). Unpacking assignment expectations – and in particular, the form a written assignment should take – can be a productive use of tutorial or office hour time. As graduate students in our programs of study, we have a much more in-depth understanding of the demands of our disciplinary writing. Offering examples of common disciplinary writing forms (methodology sections, thesis statements, results sections, introductions, etc.) can be immensely helpful to students, and can help prepare students to be more receptive to instructor feedback on more formal assessments.

ACTIVITY: SCAFFOLDING

Purpose: To help students understand how to break assignments into smaller, more manageable sections or steps; and to help students understand the component parts of writing in your discipline.
Running the Activity: Have students break down the assignment into a minimum of three separate steps (or more, depending on the assignment). See if they can identify the different parts/sections of an assignment and get a sense of how they would progress through the completion of an assignment. You can also use this activity when you are explaining assignment instructions – a common practice that many TAs are allotted class time for – or, with your students during office hours.

ACTIVITY: STUDENT SELF-ASSESSMENT

Purpose: To familiarize students with the expectations of an assignment and demystify elements of the grading process. By providing your own feedback checklist, or a rubric, you can ensure that the students do not use their own (incorrectly founded) assessment methods to evaluate their own work.
Running the Activity: Encourage students to self-assess their low-stakes and formal assignments against a predetermined, instructor-generated list of expectations. One study suggests the use of an Essay Feedback Checklist, although this can easily be adapted to other types of written assessments. Using the checklist, students can rate their own work prior to submission against the pre-set marking criteria. When providing feedback, the educator also uses the checklist. The use of a checklist is associated with higher attainment on certain future assignments (Wakefield, Adie, Pitt and Owens, 2014). While the checklist is similar to a rubric, it differs in that students are given more specific criteria and are asked to actually self-assess using the checklist, rather than simply using the rubric as a guide while completing the assignment. You can then ask students to write a brief reflection on the self-assessment process by identifying two strengths and two areas for improvement.

ACTIVITY: KEYWORDS, OR UNDERSTANDING THE ASSIGNMENT

Purpose: To direct students to the key concepts they will be addressing in an upcoming assignment, and to help students develop a vocabulary for discussing important course content.
Running the Activity: Identify a set of key terms in an upcoming assignment that students will be exploring. First, have students define the terms in their own words. Next, pair students in groups of two or three and have them share their definitions. Students can work together as a group to refine a definition of the term and then share it with the class.

3) Writing for Engagement

In-class writing activities can be useful tools to increase student engagement (Angelo and Cross, 1993). Whether you plan writing exercises in advance or use them on the fly, writing exercises can help you get your students involved with your class materials. In addition, if students are shy to participate, offering time for them to organize their thoughts and comments in writing can increase overall participation.

ACTIVITY: ONE-MINUTE PAPER

Purpose: This is a low-stakes writing activity that you can use to engage students on a difficult topic, a course reading, a lab result, or problem set.
Running the Activity: A one-minute paper is a flexible assessment that requires no advance preparation from students and can be given any time. Here are a few suggestions for prompts that you can use in your tutorials:
a) What was the clearest point of the lecture/reading?
b) What was the most difficult element of the lecture/reading? Why?
c) When introducing a new concept to students, have them write ‘everything they know’ about a topic for one minute.
d) Ask students to define a key term that is important to the course/lesson.
e) Make sure to collect, summarize and debrief student responses to these prompts in the following tutorial. Learn more about the effectiveness of one-minute papers here.

ACTIVITY: FREE-WRITING

Purpose: To activate prior learning, increase student engagement, and/or make writing a more accessible practice to students.
Running the Activity: Free writing should be unstructured and students should not second-guess themselves as they write. Ideally, students will write for the entire time you allot, uninterrupted. You can organize a free-writing activity around a key concept, brainstorming for an assignment, an important definition, or any other in-class activity. This type of writing is not evaluated by the instructor, but instead used by the student as a tool for critical thinking and reflection.

ACTIVITY: SAYS/DOES

Purpose: To help students how arguments are presented in writing. This activity can be especially useful if you are introducing students to a new genre of writing (an academic article, a book chapter, a lab report, etc). In addition, by paying attention to elements of form in writing, students can apply these skills in their own writing assignments.
Running the Activity: Have students split a sheet of paper into two columns: “says” and “does.” In the “says” column, students will write summarize in one sentence what a particular paragraph is saying in a course writing. In the “does” column, students will describe how the writer advances his/her argument (for example, how does the writer use topic sentences, keywords, or the presentation of evidence)? In the take-up, you can ask students to make connections between the “says” and “does” columns.

For a longer list of low-stakes writing activities, you can visit the TATP’s online resource on Active Learning and low-stakes writing.