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Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. You can follow her on twitter, @HVanMouwerik, or check out her work on her website.



I have written several posts on digital literacy and pedagogy for GradHacker, many of which suggest ways to incorporate digital components into undergraduate courses. The overarching theme to all of my advice is simple: start with clearly articulated learning goals, and then find the right digital tools to achieve them. Not only does this help you focus on the learning objectives instead of being distracted by shiny new technologies, it also ensures that your students understand the value of the digital assignment and that you are not overwhelmed with troubleshooting.


So, today, I wanted to do something a little different. Instead of giving more advice along these lines, I wanted to walk you through how I approached and eventually solved a pedagogical puzzle with a digital tool. The rest of this post will walk you through how I developed a successful low-stakes online writing assignment for a beginning English Composition course, which might helpful for graduate students designing their first college course or more seasoned instructors who want to incorporate a little digital into their preexisting classes.


The Blog Project


The Problem: Undergraduates are arriving to school with little writing experience, which makes their transition into the university culture more difficult and convinces them that they are not and will never be “good” writers. The curriculum for introductory English composition courses focuses on the mechanics of formal essay writing and emphasizes imitation of scholarly style instead of developing an individual’s unique voice. This is part of the reason students find writing boring, stressful, and difficult, all understandable reasons for why they try to avoid it at all costs. Because of the significant time constraints (my university has a 10-week quarter), students leave English composition with only minor improvements in their writing. In addition, professors in other courses complain about undergraduate essays, saying they often put format (five-paragraph essays, for example) above content.


The Hypothesis: After teaching several composition courses—beginning to intermediate—I believe that students need instruction in the formalities of scholarly essay writing; however, this high-stakes writing, meaning assignments that are formal and graded with a rubric, needs to be paired with low-stakes writing—non-graded, informal, and often amusing assignments, which emphasizes experimentation and allows for failure. Over the course of the term, students are exposed to new methods of writing, new types of information, and (hopefully) new inspiration, which requires students have time and space to process. Yet, the only opportunity they have to explore these things is when they are being graded, a scary prospect for students that dampens their interest in experimentation. I propose a writing project, one that runs parallel to the formal essays, in which students are required to write almost daily in a wide array of styles. This project is considered low-stakes, because students are not graded on quality or success but on completion only. Its goal is to take away some of their writing-induced fear and help them find joy the process.


The Metrics: In designing this assignment, I decided to gauge its success or failure in two ways. First, by using an entry and exit survey, I wanted to see how many students claimed to enjoy writing and whether any students changed their minds over the course of the quarter. Second, I looked for improvement in formal essay writing scores. Although most students improve over the course of the quarter, I wondered if low-stakes writing would have an effect on the amount of improvement.


Early Failures: Once I had this model in mind, I taught English composition three quarters in a row. Unfortunately, the low-stakes writing assignments during those first two quarters were relatively unsuccessful.


In the fall, my low-stakes writing was rather old school. For each class, students typed and printed out a 250-word response to a prompt. They turned it in, and I superficially graded them (check plus/check/check minus). This proved an overwhelming amount of paper for me to evaluate each week. Also, I think, students found this to be a rather formal way of turning in an assignment meant to be informal. Overall, these writing assignments constituted only 5% of their final grade, which meant many students put little-to-no effort into them. So, based upon my rubric, this project was unsuccessful. Students only showed normal increases in formal writing scores, and the three people who reported enjoying writing at the beginning of the term fell to two by the end (a failure that still haunts me).


In the winter, I continued to require daily writing responses. This time, though, I had the students post them to blogs they set up through the university’s Blackboard system. I figured the format would be less formal and the system was private and secure, but it turned out that the Blackboard blogs were not up to the task. Not only were they fidgety when students wanted to include anything other than text, they lacked any sort of personalization—everyone’s blog looked the same, which was reflected in the uniformity of their writing. In designing the course, I upped the total weight of the assignment to 15%, which had a noticeable effect—almost all of the students submitted all of their posts. Yet, again, students only showed moderate gains in their formal writing scores, and the number of students who enjoyed writing stayed the same. In the exit survey, several students complained, because they could not see a connection between low-stakes and high-stakes writing. They felt that the daily writing interfered with the amount of time they had to focus on the graded essays.


These failures taught me three important lessons about low-stakes writing. First, low stakes does not mean low effort. Students were not benefiting from this assignment, because they saw it as being of lesser importance than the formal essays. Logically, they invested their time and energy into what mattered to them: their final grade. If low-stakes writing is to succeed, then it needs to carry substantial weight in the course’s rubric. Second, and this is where digital tools come in, I needed to find a way for students to feel more comfortable with the medium of the low-stakes writing. Preferably, they should be able to write from a variety of platforms, easily personalizing their blog and adding non-text content. Finally, I needed to be much more explicit about the connection between low- and high-stakes writing, to be clear on its pedagogical importance.


Finally, Success! In the spring quarter, I debuted a completely refurbished low-stakes writing assignment, and (spoilers!) it was successful according to every metric I had. At the beginning of the quarter, I had one student (a journalist-in-training) who enjoyed writing; at the end, I had 13. In addition, students increased their scores over the quarter more than in my first two quarters, giving me my first and second A+ paper as an English composition instructor! Although the sample size is too small to make any claims beyond the anecdotal, my metrics show significant student success.


The Project: The final iteration of the Blog Project had two components. First, each student had to set up a private Tumblr and periodically (~1-2 per week) post creative answers to the assigned prompts. Because this is a public platform, I walked them through setting up their security preferences and encouraged them to use aliases in their profile, which they shared with the class on a Google Doc. This section of the project was graded purely on whether or not the Tumblr post was completed on time.


Second, instead of a final exam or paper, the students had to write a reflective essay that evaluated their Tumblr posts in light of the readings we did in class, as if their Tumblr was written by a stranger. This metacognitive approach gave the students an opportunity to look at their work somewhat objectively, figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Although the Tumblr posts were an example of low-stakes writing, this reflective essay required the students to blend together the various formal writing structures and mechanics of the high-stakes scholarly writing we studied throughout the quarter.


Having these two components accomplished two goals. First, it allowed me to justify weighing the project heavily in their final grade for the class. With 25% of their total score at stake, students took the blog posts very seriously. Second, the reflective essay clearly articulated the connection between low- and high-stakes writing, meaning students did not feel like the low-stakes writing was a waste of time.


Conclusions: In this example, the digital tool clearly took a background position to the project’s learning objectives. Nevertheless, I don’t think that I could have met these goals without the help of Tumblr itself. First, it was easy to use, since most of my students were already familiar with the site, and responsive enough to be accessed from a variety of devices (students without computers, for example, had no problem posting from their phones). Second, posting to Tumblr is much less formal than typing, printing, and turning in an assignment. This took a lot of the pressure off of students to do the assignment ‘right,’ and instead gave them the sense of freedom that low-stakes writing thrives on. Third, Tumblr is infinitely customizable. Students invested time in their site, because they could make it their own. By adding photos and changing the colors, they curated a space in which they could feel comfortable and over which they had ownership. And finally, it allowed students to continue to experiment with low-stakes writing outside of the course. Some of my students wrote multiple posts on a single prompt, taking their responses in a variety of directions; some ended up making their Tumblrs public and, to this day, post to it regularly. All of this was necessary to get my students comfortable enough to experiment, break the rules, embrace their uniqueness, and (finally!) enjoy writing.


Have you found yourself lost in a pedagogical puzzle? How did you find an answer? Please, let us know about it in the comments!

[Image provided by Flickr user Alan Levine and used under a Creative Commons license.]