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Low-Stakes Writing – A Key Activity for Discussions

What is low-stakes writing?

Low stakes writing, writing-to-learn, brain dump or free writing, whatever name you know it by, is an activity that focuses the attention on the students ideas and thoughts about a subject, rather than their ability to spell or produce proper sentence structure. This activity gives value to student voice and ideas and is a useful tool that prepares them for more thoughtful and engaging in-class discussions.

Exceptional thoughts don’t require perfect grammar to be understood.

Low-stakes writing has the potential to enhance many aspects of student learning. During the activity students will be actively learning as they write. Their independent reflection will get them thinking about everything and anything that makes them familiar with the subject being discussed. As they write their thoughts they will be generating ideas in their own words, helping them to develop their own understanding of the topic. Their notebook becomes a tool and resource that they will find easy to understand.

The advantages of low-stakes writing is that students are actively remembering things about the subject. As they work through their own knowledge of the topic students learn what they know, and understand what they don’t. This activity prepares students for the next step, and gives them confidence to participate in sharing.

Benefits of introducing low-stakes writing into your classroom

Short activity with big impact

All a low-stakes writing activity requires is ten minutes (or less), a class full of students, a notebook and pencil.

Time is adjustable, it all depends on how much time you think your students need to get down all of their ideas. It has very little impact on class time, can be done at any point during class or at any stage of the learning process for example, during initial thoughts about a subject, during discussion, final reflections, etc.

Promotes mindfulness and critical thinking

Low-stakes writing is a quiet activity that gives students a moment to gather their thoughts and think about a topic independently. During that time they can reflect on what they remember about the subject and what they can learn about it.

This activity can help students calm down, clear their mind and also leads to improved critical thinking. As students practice low-stakes writing, it prepares them to contemplate a subject more deeply, helping them to analyze and evaluate topics that are familiar or unfamiliar.

To make the practice of low-stakes writing an even more mindful activity you can introduce it with a minute of quiet time before starting. The relaxed environment will help students to focus their thoughts and get more ideas down on the page.

Reduce the fear of mistakes

The biggest thing about low-stakes writing is that there’s no pressure put on the students ability to spell correctly, or formulate perfect sentences. In low-stakes writing these skills are not important to the process. The most important aspects are that the students are actively thinking about the subject of discussion and that they’re evaluating everything they know about the topic and everything they don’t.

Because they aren’t being marked on their spelling abilities they will feel less afraid to write their thoughts down in whatever way they want, helping them to produce more ideas. In addition to this, with more writing practice, students will be continually be improving their literacy skills.

Idea generator

Low-stakes writing or brain dump is an idea generator. It’s a moment for the student to write anything and everything they know about a topic and put it on paper. Without the confines of correct spelling or scrutiny, students can quickly write down whatever comes to their mind, making it easy to generate lots of ideas fast.

Preparation for discussions

Low-stakes writing is a great prep for having a discussion. Students who may be nervous to participate in a large group discussion have the opportunity to get all of their ideas down on paper with a brain dump. When it comes time for discussion, students will have their ideas right in front of them, in their own words, making it easier to contribute to the conversation.

Students who are given time to gather their thoughts beforehand are more prepared to participate and share their ideas.


In general, reflection is a critical step in the learning process. It’s an opportunity for students to consider their ideas, see how they changed or how they didn’t and remember what they learned.

Low-stakes writing helps to amplify the reflection process and is a great activity to introduce after discussion. Students can take the time to write about how they feel as well as look over their notes that they took during discussion. Reviewing their notes gives them an opportunity to debrief and gain a new understanding from the content discussed with their peers. It’s especially valuable for students because the content is written in their own words, giving them insight into their own thought process.

In review

There are lots of advantages to introducing low-stakes writing into you classroom:

  • improve literacy
  • reduce fear
  • increase mindfulness
  • critical thinking
  • self-reflection
  • writing-to-learn

No matter how you decide to include low-stakes writing into your classroom, it will positively affect class time and your students learning process. As E. L. Doctorow says, “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”

Try low-stakes writing, then have a fruitful discussion in Parlay. Your first class is free! 🙂

Here’s a great example of a low-stakes writing activity:

Low-Stakes Writing: Writing to Learn, Not Learning to Write


High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing – Peter Elbow, Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

Low-Stakes Writing Assignments – University of Waterloo