Hitting a Homerun: How to Scaffold Writing Assignments

It’s a different ballgame, and several college-level instructors don’t know how to play.  The way students are accustomed to learning may not be the way many college professors are accustomed to teaching.  Even in the few years since I graduated from high school, the high school pedagogical environment has changed drastically, affecting how prepared students are for college.  Many high school teachers have had their hands tied, and they are now compelled to abandon whatever pedagogical practices they once held dear in deference to the test.

“Teaching to the test.”  It isn’t a popular phrase in higher education, and I would predict it isn’t exactly popular in other teaching environments, from elementary school to high school.  As college instructors, we are privileged that we don’t face the burden of teaching to a test.  But it is an unfortunate reality that many students come from a background where teachers employed what Friere refers to as “the banking concept of education” with students as empty vessels to be filled.  Their learning is often centered around a test, which has caused a decline in many of the skills we value and nurture in college, but specifically writing.  Students are so pushed to learn how to take standardized tests that writing is often neglected, and, as a result, students come to college knowing very little about the writing process.  As college faculty, we can continue to bemoan this fact and watch students fail to meet our expectations, or we can adjust the way we teach to encourage learning and success in our students.  The biggest, and probably most beneficial, adjustment we can make is to scaffold writing assignments.

I teach two introductory composition courses, primarily concerned with introducing college level writing, and these courses lend themselves particularly well to the idea of scaffolding student writing.  I approach the major assignments in units, where every small writing assignment is working toward the end product of the unit (the major paper).  The hope is that students are able to take pieces from their smaller writing assignments and blend them into the polished final product.  There are several benefits to this system, but I believe they can be categorized into three main items: students learn the writing process, they receive feedback along the way, and they begin to enjoy writing.


Where Do I Start?

Students procrastinate.  When given the choice to work on something weeks in advance or wait until 3:00 a.m. the morning before it’s due, the majority of students choose the latter.  Teachers wish it weren’t so, but it is the ugly truth.  Procrastination rarely produces quality work and totally ignores the writing process.  Fortunately, scaffolding writing assignments eliminates the option for procrastination by having due dates for chunks of the paper and emphasizes the writing process.

For every major unit, I hand out a specific prompt and rubric and discuss it in detail so students can begin to prepare immediately by approaching the next couple of small assignments with consideration for the overarching assignment.  To illustrate how I scaffold writing assignments, I will be discussing an Opposing Viewpoints Essay, where students are asked to compare and contrast the way two opposing articles make an argument.

I provide students with the first article they will be asked to analyze, along with a prompt.  Students read the article and respond to the prompt with a 300 word log, written like a freewrite.  The prompt helps students examine the article and provides an opportunity for them to get their initial thoughts and impressions down.  This is the first step in writing the final essay.  Next students read the second article and repeat the process.  At this point they have 600 words of their 2–4 page essay written, so the next step is to combine their logs and add other elements needed to complete a paper (introduction, transitions, and conclusion).  Once they do this, they have a rough draft.  They bring the first copy of their rough drafts to class for a peer review exercise.  During the peer review, students evaluate one another’s papers, following the rubrics I handed out at the beginning of the unit.  After peer review, the students revise to develop a second draft of their paper.  At this point, I meet one on one with students and review their second drafts.  They take my comments and suggestions and revise again to create a third and final draft to turn in for a grade.  It is clear that scaffolding writing assignments considers every part of the writing process, from freewriting to drafting.


But I Thought This Paper Was Awesome…

Often students receive a graded final draft with little understanding of why they received the grade they did.  The scaffolding process teaches them about their writing as the project progresses.  As students turn in smaller assignments, I thoroughly grade them with comments about their analysis, syntax, citations, etc.  I have the opportunity to go over some key mistakes and strengths with the class as a whole and then with the individual writer.  Students take my comments and suggestions and adjust their writing accordingly, creating stronger final papers.  With this process, students learn as they go, as opposed to feeling confused at the end of an assignment about the D they received.


Wait. I Can Enjoy Writing?

In the short amount of time I have been teaching, I have quickly realized that most students hate writing more than applied physics.  I have come to realize this hatred stems from a deeply held belief that writing is an impossible task that takes far too long to complete.  This belief has been born of the two problems we’ve already addressed: procrastination and the lack of feedback.  Of course students see writing as a tiring and loathsome task when they wait until the last minute to write it.  At this point, they are running on empty when they sit down to type, and what could have been approached manageably over time now becomes a daunting task that takes hours to complete.  It is also no surprise that students are hesitant to write when they are traumatized from the last D they got without knowing why.  I wouldn’t be quick to jump back into the writing saddle without knowing how to avoid the mistakes I made the last time.  Once teachers eliminate these issues by scaffolding writing, students begin to enjoy the writing process and stop dreading it so much.

Even though the face of learning is changing, we can be optimistic about what we have to offer our students.  Students may no longer be on the same page as their professors when it comes to being prepared for college-level writing, but professors have some valuable tools to get students up to speed.  The case is not hopeless!  Scaffolding writing assignments is a great way to combat the problems we regularly see as a result of the standardized test takeover.  The scaffolding process lessens the burdens students face because it helps them avoid procrastination and allows for evaluation of their work throughout the semester.  When we put this process into place in our classrooms, we facilitate learning and enjoyment.  So get out there, roll up your sleeves, and play ball; scaffolding writing assignments can help you win this new ballgame!