Using Low-Stakes Writing Assignments to Achieve Learning Goals

low-stakes writing assignment

During my time as a teaching fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the importance of student learning goals and student learning objectives to quality course design and management. Learning goals, often broad in nature, are most commonly applied at the course level. Learning objectives are statements about measurable expectations and behaviors that can contribute to the achievement of the learning goals.

An example of a learning goal that I have used in my microbiology course is “Students will be able to use concepts in microbiology to describe the spread of infectious diseases in human populations.” A learning objective that, when met, serves to help reach that goal is “be able to explain, in your own words, how a vector-borne pathogen is transmitted from an infected to an uninfected host.”

I regularly use learning objectives in my courses, all of which are grounded in the hierarchy and language of Bloom’s taxonomy. Although my students seem to appreciate the use of learning objectives in directing them to the most important ideas surrounding a given topic, I have recently found myself wondering about ways to assess their progress (or lack thereof) in mastering the objectives before the next high-stakes examination. These reflections led me on a path to formative assessment, where I eventually landed on low-stakes writing assignments.

Low-stakes writing assignments, which can come in many forms, are recognized as useful formative assessment tools (Angelo and Cross, 1993; DePaul Teaching Commons). Although they can be offered to students in a nongraded format, I have found that giving a small number of points helps ensure my students take the assignments seriously.

LOPS assignment
To promote frequent student engagement with the learning objectives, several times throughout the semester I ask my students, as individuals, to examine a set of learning objectives and from the set select the objective they find to be the most challenging. Examples of some learning objectives that I have used for this assignment in my immunology course are listed below:

  • Define innate and adaptive immunity.
  • Identify cells of innate and adaptive immunity.
  • Compare the functions of innate versus adaptive immunity.
  • In your own words, explain how the innate immune response leads to the activation of the adaptive immune response.
  • Construct an illustration showing how an innate antigen-immune cell can activate an adaptive immune cell using the terms dendritic cell, MHC II, antigen, pathogen, TCR, and helper T-cell.

Together these objectives help students work toward meeting the established learning goal that “students will be able to use their understanding of immunology to predict the response of the human immune system when exposed to a pathogen.”

After selecting their most challenging learning objective, students must imagine how it would translate to a potential essay question on an upcoming examination and write a brief explanation (one or two paragraphs) that demonstrates their understanding of the selected objective. To encourage students to pick the most challenging objective, rather than the one they can answer most easily, I tell them that I am not grading the assignment on the correctness of their paragraphs but rather on participation and effort. I also make it clear to students that these assignments, while not worth a lot of points, represent significant opportunities for them to get feedback from me on how well they are mastering the objectives and gauge their own progress in the course. I think these encouragements are the key to making these particular assignments work. I often refer to these assignments as “low-stakes learning objective paragraphs,” or simply “LOPs.” I know, not the most creative or catchy acronym.

I believe LOPs, initially introduced into my immunology course, have helped both me and my students in a number of ways. First, like many formative assessments, LOPs supply frequent opportunities for me to provide feedback to my students by pointing out areas of strength, growth, and misunderstanding. Second, they encourage my students to reflect on their own learning and help them identify concepts and topics they should prioritize when studying. Third, LOPs have been surprisingly useful in identifying learning objectives that may need some tweaks (or in a few cases, major revisions) to clarify to students what they need to know and do to demonstrate adequate objective mastery. Last, but significantly, LOPs promote regular and active engagement of learning objectives (as opposed to looking at them for the first time the night before a high-stakes examination).

Indirect measures of learning, in the form of post-course student surveys, indicate that students find LOPs of value. Among the most common student comments regarding LOPs include those indicating that the assignments helped them clear up confusion and misunderstanding about a particularly challenging topic, gave them a greater sense of confidence that they are on the right track in their learning, and helped them feel more prepared for examinations.

As I continue using LOPs, some students have requested that I modify the assignment, allowing them to select more than one learning objective to receive feedback on. In response, I have started to allow students to choose one or two challenging objectives per LOP assignment. I don’t allow more than that due to two concerns. First, I worry that students will start to view LOPs as the only way to engage in the course, ignoring other important in-class learning activities. Second, this assignment requires significant time and effort to provide comprehensive student feedback so, at least in large classes, providing such feedback on more than a couple of objectives per student is impractical. However, overall, if you do use learning objectives in your courses, I would encourage you to consider the use of LOPs as another tool in your arsenal of formative assessments.

Michael J. LaGier is an assistant professor of biology at Grand View University.

Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. 1993. Classroom assessment techniques: a handbook

for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

“Low-Stakes Assignments.” DePaul University Teaching Commons. Accessed February 03, 2017.