The value of low-stakes writing activities in the classroom
In his Engaging Ideas, John C. Bean provides a variety of ways to give critical thinking tasks to students using writing. Thus, to introduce his discussion on course design with critical thinking in mind, Bean succinctly expresses the link between writing and critical thinking as follows: “writing is both a process of doing critical thinking and a product that communicates the results of critical thinking.” (Bean 4) With this as my driving force, I have designed a variety of strategies to assess student learning, and to develop critical thinking amongst students, through low-stakes writing.
Benefits of in-class writing
In my capacity as an instructor for college-level Religion and Methods courses, in an effort to promote student-centered learning, I have used low-stakes writing in every course, and almost every single class period I have taught. These activities often take the form of short-answer and true-or-false questions that follow the presentation I am giving on a given theme. Students need to follow along attentively in order to find the answers to the questions as I am presenting material. Generally, this type of activity is highly rated by students who have stated that it provides an incentive for them to be present and to actively listen in class. The activity sheets also serve as guides for the material covered in a given class, as many students have also stated that they have used the sheets in the preparation for class tests. On occasion, I design the activities as crossword puzzles using an on-line platform or an application, such as Puzzle Maker.
Since our wired classrooms have yielded several possibilities for the combining of multimedia and low-stakes writing that encourages critical thinking, I have developed a variety of writing exercises related to the presentation of photography, film, music video, and social media. As explained above, some of these involve the search for answers about the material found in the media, but I have also found it useful to ask for personal reactions from the students on what they find the most thought-provoking about a piece and asking them to explain why they had these thoughts. The use of on-line class polls or surveys can also be an interesting way to engage students in this regard. Class surveys can easily be designed in Outlook and imported to other on-line platforms, like Moodle, for instance. A clear advantage to this is that instructors can ask students to complete surveys in class (anonymously, if need be), even on cell phones, and instantly view the results and project them on screen for the entire class to see. Then, professors can ask students to react to, discuss, and think critically about the findings via an informal writing piece.
In my experience, drawing and illustration, which also fall into the multimodal category, can effectively be used to integrate concepts. I bring markers to class and ask students to illustrate myths (in my case a Haudenosaunee creation myth and one from the Vedas in Hinduism), and concepts like that of ineffability (one of the marks of the mystical experience according to William James). As long as the instructor makes it clear that students will not be graded on their artistic abilities, in many cases, visual artforms can inculcate concepts that words fail to do for visual learners. Low-stakes writing figures in this type of classroom activity as a way to consolidate material, since I usually assign a written component that requires students to explain both their illustrations, as well as the links between their illustrations and the material under study.
On the spot feedback on learning
In short, the examples of low-stakes writing assignments I use in my classroom, like the ones mentioned above, have repeatedly confirmed Bean’s reference to low-stakes writing as “a seedbed for generating and growing ideas” (Bean p.7). Amongst the reasons Bean cites as to why he “cannot imagine teaching a class without an exploratory writing component” are not only that ‘thinking pieces’ (as he calls them) are enjoyable to read and allow instructors to get to know their students better in a variety of ways, but also that they provide feedback in assessing learning problems on the spot, so to speak (Bean p. 122). The low-stakes writing pieces I assign in my classes thus act as a relatively quick gauge that allows me to assess my students’ learning in terms of what concepts have been integrated, and which have been misunderstood in whole, or in part.
As long as students are engaged in writing, I have come to learn that all classroom activities need not be high tech to support student engagement and to foster critical thinking; low-tech works just as well. In one activity, I apply the think-pair-share model to the following low stakes writing activity as an introduction to the study of Protestantism:
Students get-together in pairs and take a turn sharing an instance where they have protested in some way. If they have never been involved in a protest, I ask them to articulate a cause for or against which they would be interested in protesting. Rather than students writing their own accounts, the partner has to understand the account and articulate this in writing. This exercise allows students to identify different forms of protest, as well as provides a good lead-in to learning about protest movements, in this case the inception of Protestantism. It also functions as an effective way to get students to think through and to clearly articulate their own ideas as they try to explain them to a partner, and to accurately represent another individual’s viewpoint in written form.
In sum, whether they make use of the latest developments in technology, or simply involve putting pen or marker to paper, these activities can of course be adapted in different contexts to achieve a variety of learning outcomes, including the ability to think critically, while providing a low-stakes, non-daunting framework using informal writing within which to do it.