Student Essays through Staging and Scaffolding
Jon D'Errico, Associate Director of Writing Programs and June Griffin,
English Department, Graduate Associate, TRC and Department of English
Have you ever
been excited by a particular writing assignment you've created but then
were unpleasantly surprised and disappointed by the writing your students
produced for that assignment?
Even when instructors
are very thoughtful about how they create and present writing assignments,
sometimes they are nonetheless disappointed by the writing their students
produce. Instructors might have clearly identified and laudable goals.
Their expectations might be reasonable and just. But still, they receive
essays that make them gasp or giggle-essays that make many of the instructors
we talk to shake their heads and say, "Students can't write."
with students in the Writing Center, Teaching Resource Center workshops,
and the Writing Program have taught us that most U.Va. students are able
to write certain sorts of documents, personal narratives, for example;
they just don't know how to write the kinds of texts they are asked to
produce in many of their classes. Students who are new to a field, and
especially students who are new to college, struggle with their writing
not so much because they lack skills, but because they lack knowledge:
As students focus
on understanding and mastering new information, ideas, and questions, and
when they grapple with difficult concepts and high-order critical thinking
tasks (such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation), their writing often
suffers at the sentence level. Their prose becomes contorted, unwieldy,
simplistic, or error ridden.
students don't know the field. They are only beginning to learn general
information about the field and have not yet learned what is understood
as common knowledge, what is unknown, and how information and ideas
are typically structured and presented in that field.
students have little or no acquaintance with the forms of discourse
they are asked to produce. They don't know what an academic essay in
a particular field looks or sounds like; they don't know how it is typically
organized; they don't know what counts as evidence or how to deploy
the evidence they do recognize.
students don't know much about their readers. In many cases, their instructor
is the only person they know who is interested in the questions and
problems addressed in the course. As a result, novice writers often
write for an audience that they perceive as knowing more than they do.
This is a difficult scenario even for practiced writer, and one that
is likely to change the rhetorical register of their texts.
We can design
writing assignments that alleviate these difficulties by staging assignments
and by providing scaffolding:
Assignments. Rather than ask students to produce complete, polished
documents all in one step, break down essays and research papers into
a series of shorter, discrete writing tasks that slowly build in cognitive
complexity: for example, begin with tasks that increase knowledge and
comprehension; then tasks that ask students to apply principles and theories
or to analyze information or arguments; move to tasks that have students
synthesize and then evaluate information and arguments. You, finally,
might assign some of the following tasks to stage a research paper:
the topic and known facts / information.
- List questions
based on known information.
individual sources and texts.
- Lists similarities
/ differences between two or more authors' views.
information or authors' positions.
- Write briefings
or research summaries synthesizing several sources.
for Assignments. Give students opportunities to practice the skills
you teach as you teach them. You can design assignments that target a particular
skill by giving them some of the elements they need to perform other skills:
- Write a
paragraph posing the question to be answered or problem to be solved
and explaining why this is an important question or problem.
- List reasons
supporting a claim / lists of evidence supporting a reason.
- Draft research
By staging and
scaffolding assignments, you educate your students in the forms and expectations
of writing in your academic discipline, give yourself manageable pieces
of writing to comment on and/or grade, and enable students to work toward
writing a strong final paper.
- Give students
an explicit scenario within which they are asked to write.
- Give students
a claim (or choice of claims) to make.
- Give students
a problem or question to answer.
- Give students
off-the-shelf resources to use (class readings as sources for information,
lists of relevant information).
- Have groups
of students share resources by pooling information or research summaries.