Dialogue on Writing: Rethinking ESL, Basic Writing, and First-Year Composition

By Geraldine Deluca; Len Fox et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 18
High Stakes and Low Stakes
in Assigning and Responding
to Writing
Peter Elbow

The following selection is from New Directions for Teaching and Learning 69, Spring 1997, John Wiley. See chapter 8 for biographical information on Peter Elbow.

As I try to understand my own experience of writing and the experience of my students and as I try to plan my teaching, nothing has been more useful to me than the simple and crude distinction between high and low stakes writing—the question of how much a piece of writing matters or counts.


ASSIGNING WRITING

The goal of low stakes assignments is not so much to produce excellent pieces of writing as to get students to think, learn, and understand more of the course material. Low stakes writing is often informal and tends to be graded informally. In a sense, we get to throw away the low stakes writing itself but keep the neural changes it produced in students' heads. High stakes assignments also produce learning, but they are more loaded because we judge the writing carefully for soundness of content and clarity of presentation.

It's obvious why we need high stakes assignments in our courses. We can't give trustworthy final grades that reflect whether students actually understand what we want them to understand unless we get them to articulate in writing what they have learned. If students take only short-answer tests or machine-graded exams, they will often appear to have learned what we are teaching when in fact they have not.

Am I saying that if students can't explain something in writing, they don't know it? Not quite. That is, I acknowledge that some students can understand something well and yet be hindered from explaining it in writ-

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