What do we mean when we talk about scaffolding?

Scaffolding is a keyword that we are particularly fond of, because it is an essential part of our WAC pedagogy and seems to sometimes function as a cure-all. Students waiting until the last minute to write papers? Try scaffolding. Plagiarism problems? Scaffolding. Want to see polished final papers that have gone through multiple revisions? Scaffolding. You get the idea.

We’ve gone over this concept in detail in our workshops, and you can find lots of literature out there on the web that supports the effectiveness of this assignment design method. But what do we really mean when we talk about scaffolding? Is it just that we should break up a large paper into various kinds of smaller assignments that lead up to the “big one?”

One pitfall we can run into when designing a scaffolded assignment is that we will create a schedule for scaffolding a larger paper, but we might forget to elaborate on each of those steps. Unfortunately, simply breaking a paper up into smaller, cumulative tasks won’t necessarily improve our students’ writing.

Instead of just assigning that one big paper, we might create an assignment like:

  • (Week 3) Brainstorm paper topics in-class
  • (Week 4) Bring three possible topics to class, peer sharing in class
  • (Week 5) Choose a topic and create annotated bibliography
  • (Week 6) Rough Draft
  • (Week 7) In-class peer review
  • (Week 8) Final paper due

While this might be effective in making the paper-writing process seem less daunting and more manageable for students, they are still left with questions. What is “peer sharing?” What’s the point of an annotated bibliography (and more importantly, what does that even look like?). How do I choose my topic?

In particular, we’re asking the students to make a pretty big leap from having chosen a topic and some sources to suddenly writing a rough draft of a full paper without intervening steps. And we haven’t explained what these steps are along the way.

Students want to know why the tasks we’re setting them are meaningful. After all, doesn’t an annotated bibliography seem like busy work? Yet when we explain the usefulness of the annotations, the importance of understanding why we choose particular sources and how those will ultimately shape our paper’s point of view, it might start to be clear. When we explain that they will be forced to consider tough questions that may otherwise go overlooked, such as authority of the source, potential biases, place of publication, etc., the students will understand how this seemingly menial task is an important cog in the mechanics of research and paper writing.

Most importantly, we want to make sure the hallmarks of good assignment design—clarity, expectations, required steps, required formatting, and how students will be assessed—permeate all levels of our assignments. When we hand out that excellent cover page to a paper prompt, but then follow it with a one-line description of the scaffolded step, we undermine the very goal we’re trying to accomplish.

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