Strategies for Designing Assignments: Scaffolding

“Scaffolding” is an essential concept of WAC pedagogy and a good way to ensure higher quality, plagiarism-free writing from our students. Simply put, scaffolding refers to the concept of breaking up large formal assignments into multiple smaller, more manageable assignments. For example, rather than presenting students with one massive, daunting final paper, we might consider scaffolding the assignment as follows:

Week 2: Introduce the “big” assignment to students/Brainstorm topics in class
Week 3: Select a topic
Week 4: Draft a working thesis statement
Week 5: Draft a body paragraph
Week 6: Rough draft due; in-class peer review
Week 7: Revising and editing rough draft
Week 8: Final paper due

Of course, scaffolding will look different depending on the class, assignment, and instructor, but the key takeaway here is that students are building up to the final assignment via multiple smaller assignments, which allows them to work through course content and practice the skills they need to successfully complete the final project.

By scaffolding big assignments in this way, students are less intimated or discouraged by the writing process. This has the benefit not only of putting our students at ease, but of also providing them with low-stakes opportunities to practice their writing (or researching, or critical thinking, or annotating, or whatever the specific assignment may call for—scaffolding is remarkably non-discipline-specific).

Additionally, scaffolding is an especially useful strategy for deterring plagiarism: by breaking the assignment into smaller tasks, students find the work more manageable and therefore are less tempted to plagiarize. Furthermore, by the time the final formal assignment is due, students will discover that more than half of it is already written, and consequently have no need to plagiarize. As an additional safety measure, scaffolding gives the instructor the ability to more regularly monitor student progress and to familiarize themselves with students’ writing “voices,” thus making plagiarism detection easier.

Scaffolding may not be a panacea for all classroom-related troubles, but it certainly addresses issues of students’ anxiety over the writing process, confusion over course content, and tendency to plagiarize. To learn more about scaffolding and other ways to design successful assignments, attend our upcoming workshop on Effective Assignment Design on Thursday, September 19 at 1:00pm