Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Low Stakes Writing

What is Low Stakes Writing?

Low stakes writing is any writing done in or out of class that is not graded, or graded minimally. Low stakes writing is also referred to as Writing to Learn (WTL). "Whereas formal and exam-based writing is thesis-supporting, low stakes writing is often thesis-seeking" (Bean, 125).

The High Value of Low Stakes Writing

Used effectively, low stakes writing:

  •  Strengthens student learning by giving students multiple occasions to articulate their own understandings of course concepts. 
  • Enables better discussion. When students have stopped, thought, and written, they are more ready to contribute to the class conversation.
  • Promotes higher levels of student engagement with course materials by making reading a more active process.
  • Produces significantly stronger high stakes writing on midterms, finals, or larger projects by offering low risk trial runs and “scaffolds” for students to develop complex writing-based skills.
  • Invites students to bridge the gap many feel between “school learning” and their own personal experience.

Incorporating Low Stakes Writing into Your Courses

In Engaging Ideas, John Bean offers many ideas for developing exploratory writing activities. 

  • In-Class writing
  • Out-of-Class journals, thinking pieces, blogs, tweets, discussion threads
  • Tasks to Deepen Students' Responses to Course Reading
  • Change-of-Pace Creativity Exercises
  • Invention Tasks for Formal Assignments
  • Exam Practice
  • Low-stakes and guided activities to practice thesis-governed writing

Using Informal and Exploratory Writing to Support Student Learning

The following table provides some examples of low stakes writing based on John Bean's and Peter Elbow's work and others. The CTLT is happy to assist with the implementation and development of exploratory and informal writing. 
Types and Purposes Sample Tasks

In-Class writing

Writing briefly at the beginning, middle or end of class can help students:

  • launch discussion
  • refocus a lagging discussion
  • cool down a heated discussion
  • ask questions about a lecture
  • express confusion with a discussion or lecture
  • assess prior knowledge and what was learned

One-Minute Papers


Exit Slips/ Big Ideas and Burning Questions --At the end of class, hand out an index card to each student and ask them to:

Write down on one side of the index card the one “big idea” they are taking away from the class.

Turn the card over, and write one “burning question” that remains for them at the end of the class.


Chalk Talk – a silent conversation using post-it paper and different parts of the room. Students move back and forth responding to a written prompt and each other’s responses.


Journals can be highly structured or completely open-ended. They are most effective when used consistently across the term to support student thinking. Unless specified at the outset, journals should not be graded for their mechanical issues or grammatical correctness. Focusing on conventions can disrupt the broader goal of journal writing, which is to:

  • Help students relate theories and concepts to their own lives by connecting theory and experience
  • Encourage students to seek answers to questions they initiate
  • provide time to play with ideas and applications before moving on to new concepts
  • provide course continuity and foster a thinking narrative to help students retain their learning 

Journals can be adapted to fit most any discipline. The following types offer a good range of options.

Open-Ended Journals (aka Learning Logs) - Students produce a certain amount of pages each week about any aspect of the course – summarizing lectures, disagreeing with a point made in class, explaining textbook confusion, etc.

Semi-structured Journals – Students respond to open-ended prompts, such as: “How does what we have been studying recently relate to your other courses or to other parts of this course?”

Guided Journals – Students respond to content-specific questions posed by the instructor, such as: “How is a regressive tax more burdensome to low-income families?

Dialectical Notebooks - Students first reflect on course material and then reflect on their reflections. One half of the page is for lecture notes, quotes, problems, lab results, etc.; the other half is for commentary, interpretation, reflection.

Contemporary Issues Journal - Students write about how course material applies to current affairs or workforce placements.  Can generate student interest by revealing the relevance of the course to life outside of the course.

Exam Preparation Journals - The instructor gives out questions from which midterms and final exams are drawn. Students devote a section of their journals to each question, working out answers as course material builds and develops.

Reading Logs - Like an open-ended journal, a reading log requires that students write regularly about what they are reading.

Blogs and Online Forums


Similar to journals, blogs and online platforms can support student learning and reflection over the course of the term. However, unlike journals, blogs and online forums are public. If appropriate, instructors can use this public function to encourage interactive reading and writing. 

Canvas Blog – Can be configured for individual, group or course-wide blogging

Vlogs (Video Logs)- Students make video of themselves discussing specific concepts from the course.

Social Bookmarking – Students can use tools like Zotero to share and annotate relevant sources related to course materials.

Tweeting – Students can push and pull materials related to the course through tweets. Hashtags, aggregators and filters can gather student tweets.

Creative Exercises and Heuristics


Heuristics are tools and techniques that enable discovery, interpretation and analysis.

Imaginary Dialogues – Ask students to write imaginary “meeting of the mind” dialogues between people with opposing views.

Imagined Interviews with Authors.  The instructor asks the student to play devil’s advocate, arguing against the author’s views and then inventing the author’s response.  Some instructors extend this into mock panel discussions in which group members perform different roles.

Metaphor Games & Extended Analogies – Can be helpful for clarifying concepts" by asking students to look at X from the point of view of Y (Bean, 138).

Examples: Think about learning to write in relation to other kinds of learning.  Does learning to write seem more like learning math or learning gymnastics?  Explain.

The difference between the Austrian view of economics and the Keynesian view is like the difference between  ________________ and _______________.

Invention Strategies: Freewriting


As Peter Elbow points out, freewriting is beneficial for many reasons. Freewriting:


  • Helps students get started
  • Improves thinking through the cultivation of meta-discourse.
  • Contains lively writing - voice, energy, and presence.
  • Has affective qualities that help students think of themselves as writers.
As the term suggests, freewriting is a low-pressure approach to starting a writing project. Freewriting involves writing continuously for an allotted amount of time (10-15 minutes) without concerns about spelling, sentence structure, grammar, or the organization of ideas. Often, freewriting leads to discovery – the identification of promising ideas and the potential connections among them. Just as useful, freewriting can also lead to the discarding of ideas. Many successful writers include freewriting (e.g. "morning pages") as part of their compositional process.

Shaped Exercises provide more structure while retaining a low-stakes quality. Shaped exercises are especially useful for practicing and preparing for high stakes writing.

Practice Essay Exams - Good for producing models before the actual exam

Thesis Workshops - Students produce just one sentence for a workshop - the working thesis.

TemplatesProvides students with an organizational pattern that students must complete with supporting data.


Useful Sources:

Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New YOrk: Oxford, 2000.

Gottschalk, Katherine and Keith Hjortshoj. The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in all Disciplines. New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2003.

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