Writing Resources for
Departments, Teachers, & Students

Five Steps toward Interesting High Stakes Writing

If you haven't always liked what students have written for you in the past, or if you've struggled through a set of papers, or if you find yourself pulling out your hair with no idea what you might write as a comment, then consider the following steps towards creating more interesting papers, and more effective and efficient grading.

  1. Begin by thinking of how your assignment can be integrated so as to be central--not an add-on--to your course. A course-integrated assignment might ask students to articulate understandings and evaluations of key course questions, or to extend ways of thinking learned within the course to material beyond the course, or to engage in one or another course curriculum-related inquiry. Students will write best if, on one hand, they can see clearly how the assignment helps them learn your course material, and if, on the other, the work they do on a day-to-day basis in class helps them develop the conceptual and technical skills the assignments requires. As an added bonus, creating course-integrated writing assignments will also prevent plagiarism by making the assignment unique to your course.
  2. As you develop your idea of what you would like students to write, perform a "task analysis" in which you break down the project in terms of its component sub-skills. After you've performed a task analysis, scaffold students into the high-stakes paper through a short series of low stakes assignments or in-class exercises to introduce them to necessary sub-skills. Students will write better if they can have trial runs, preliminary drafts, and some form of feedback along the way. Sub-skills for a high-stakes assignment might include: doing literature searches, writing accurate summaries, learning to identify the main arguments or supporting evidence in course readings, or locating and responding to oppositional voices.
  3. Give students a clear audience and purpose. Who should students imagine as the reader of their project? What will that audience "do" with the paper you've asked them to write? Such an audience can be imagined, even playful, but it will work best if it is specific. Some examples: "Write as if to a panel of experts in the field who will need to be convinced of the viability of the research project you propose" (for a grant/proposal project); or, "Imagine you are writing to this class, all of us informed by the readings of the past quarter, though needing your help in remembering the texts to which you refer": or, "You have been hired as a consultant to J&B Plumbing to advise them on problems associated with partial upgrades of steel pipe-plumbed houses to copper pipes..." (for a paper explaining the chemistry of electrolysis).
  4. Demystify the process! Students often find that the demands made of them in different courses are in fact very different, and they can find these differing demands highly confusing. So be sure to demystify your assignment by writing and sharing with students criteria for a strong performance. Such criteria help students understand exactly what sort of thing it is they are writing (for example, a "report," "summary," or "literature review"), and both why and how you think this assignment will help them deepen their understanding of course material.
  5. Use models. Show students an example of a successful paper and an example of a good but less successful paper. Explain for each what works and what doesn't--but, especially with less successful papers, be careful to frame your work with them in a constructive way.

"Dealing with Plagiarism: Knowing it, Teaching it, Out-smarting it."