Vary the Stakes in Writing Assignments

Give students opportunities to write low- and middle-stakes assignments in preparation for the high-stakes assignments (McKeachie and Svinicki, 192–204). Low-stakes assignments, such as minute papers or quick think pieces in class, help students get in the habit of writing in order to sharpen their thinking. Middle-stakes writing, such as one-page homework assignments, extend the writing/thinking process and require students to refine and edit their work a bit. Middle-stakes writing assignments are also a good medium for practicing particular writing tasks, such as crafting their reading response in the form of a direct paragraph or a particular set of sentence structures. The final drafts of formal papers that instructors grade constitute the high-stakes assignments for R&C courses.

A Pedagogically Valid Sequence

Sequence the writing assignments so that early low- and middle-stakes writings help students accumulate a number of small but important skills or develop an idea by degrees before they take on larger projects. For example, you can ask students to address particular kinds of questions in their low- and middle-stakes assignments that build toward the more sophisticated thinking you want to see in the subsequent formal paper.

Be aware of the sophistication of what you are asking students to do on formal papers. Some students will experience enormous difficulty and frustration with their first paper if they have to compare two or three texts — it’s just too much material to handle right away. Instead, arrange assignments so that, for example, Assignment 1 analyzes how a single brief text produces one particular effect, Assignment 2 compares and contrasts two different moments in a larger work such as a novel, and Assignment 3 gives a synthetic argument about a question that comes up in two or more different texts.

Teach Writing as a Process

Take time to teach students how to break down the process of writing, especially of more sophisticated or demanding papers. This is developmentally important for many undergraduates. According to the 2014 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey, when asked about obstacles to their academic success, 32% of the respondents reported poor study behaviors such as waiting to the last minute; 17% reported inadequate study skills such as not knowing how to start an assignment, how to organize it, or how to find help (frequently or all the time). Forty-one percent reported that they have occasionally, rarely, or never revised a paper extensively. (The 2014 survey was the most recent in which these questions were included.)

R&C instructors can address these problems in students’ writing by teaching the steps of an assignment and providing intermediate due dates and feedback. Use homework assignments as venues for (for example) cultivating an idea, wrestling with a thesis, relating passages to the issue the thesis treats, and drafting an introduction. This also cuts down on plagiarism, since the students are showing you their work as they develop it toward a formal paper.

In devising research projects for second-semester R&C courses, lay out for students a series of steps and give them feedback on selected steps. Topic choice, a short annotated bibliography, an introduction and outline, and a first draft are points at which you might make comments and recommendations to students. If you make these steps into assignments that you grade, students will be less likely to bypass the process method in their work.


McKeachie, Wilbert and Marilla Svinicki (2006). Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (revised edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.