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How to Scaffold Assignments

Here's basic guidelines for scaffolding assignments:

  1. As the instructor, model tasks, processes, or tools to complete the project. This may include organizing information, finding information in the library, or completing the first assignment in the process. Select manageable tasks to match the learning outcomes for the assignment.
    1. Example: For research paper assignment, outline the requirements and contents of the final product.
  2. Work with the students or have student groups work on a similar task, process, or using a tool as a class.
    1. Example: For research paper, students produce outline to begin paper process. Instructor assesses outline using criteria from step 1.
  3. Ask individual students to complete the task, process, or use the tool to assess mastery. Think about necessary steps needed to complete the assignment given previous tasks.
    1. Student submits draft paper and reflects upon criteria from previous step. After draft feedback, student submits final draft with personal assessment of paper writing process.

Raising the stakes
Consider revising the stakes for assignments as part of scaffolding including:

  • New Ideas & First time exposure to ideas means Low to no stakes. Ex: research proposal, discussion posts on topics, etc.
  • Repeated exposure to new concepts means low to mid stakes 
  • Working toward abstract understanding, mastering and internalizing concepts, seeing relationships between new and old material means mid to high stakes. Ex: Annotated bibliographies, debates, pro/con papers, etc.
  • Using concepts to solve problems or submit deliverables means mid to high stakes. Ex: Research papers, presentations, essays, etc.

Adapted from NIU Instructional Scaffolding, Miami of Ohio Scaffolding Assignments

Resources for Scaffolding Content

Scaffolding According to the Research Process

"Stage" of Research Process

Assignment Idea

Developing A Topic, Thesis, or Research Question
  • Research proposal using certain number of library sources (1 article, 1 book)
  • Submit a topical or concept map
  • Free-writing exercise or discussion post
  • Debate: students produce 2 different hypotheses and debate them using presearch
  • Group brainstorming
  • Peer to Peer Interviews: students interview one another about project ideas and give feedback. Rotate partners at least 2 times
Finding Background Information/Presearch
  • Revise research proposal using additional library sources
  • Class presentation on basics of research topic using new findings or questions discovered
  • Write a book review of a background source (strengths, weaknesses, scope, breadth, etc.)
Finding Sources
  • Reflective diary/log on the process and strategies for finding specific source type (newspaper article, book, scholarly article, etc.)
  • Paper Slam: present on source and highlight key findings and ideas using 1 powerpoint slide
Source Evaluation
  • Annotated bibliography
  • Compare/contrast sources on the same topic using different source types (scholarly vs popular)
  • Pros/Cons of a source (critique a source)
  • Investigate a scholar/scholar biography of a source
Drafts
  • Submit an outline
  • First Draft
  • Peer review
Final Draft
  • Final draft with self-assessment or personal reflection
  • Gallery Walk: present paper as poster with students giving feedback in real-time

Adapted from Columbia College Scaffolding Guide, Modesto Junior College scaffolding guide

Troubleshooting Scaffolding (from Modesto Junior College)

Concern

Possible Solutions

“Scaffolding takes too much time.”
  • Yes, it takes time in design, but it will save time and most importantly frustration when grading, particularly large final assignments.
  • Use technology such as Canvas, to make things easier
  • Build learning communities in the class so peers can offer one another feedback
“My students don’t like a lot of small assignments. They complain it’s too much work.”
  • Be explicit about process and value of working step by step towards goals; explain that it isn't really MORE work, just organized differently
  • Students report that scaffolding reduces stress
  • Emphasize connections to course learning objectives
“It adds too much to my grading load." 
  • Not everything has to be graded or graded individually; give group feedback. 
  • Give pass/fail grades for less consequential assignments. 
  • Stagger assignments 
  • Give early feedback 
  • Have students review their peers' papers 
  • Focus feedback on learning objectives
  • Develop and use grading rubrics to facilitate the process
“I tried grading and giving feedback on early drafts and students just made the specific changes I suggested and expected better marks.”
  • Give pass/fail grades for early drafts—or take off grades if students don’t submit a draft.
  • Include global recommendations for improvements as well as specific ones.
  • Make clear criteria for actually getting a better grade (i.e. a revision rubric).
  • Define revision and discuss process and expectations explicitly; show examples of drafts of your own writing.
  • Make final step worth the bulk of the grade.
“I like the idea of peer review but I’m afraid that students won’t take it seriously.”
  • Do it in class and introduce by discussing the professional peer review process. 
  • Ask student reviewers to answer specific questions on a handout (broad questions around thesis, argument, and organization tend to be better than grammar) and give you a copy of this feedback. You can then grade the feedback.
“Scaffolding makes it too easy and will alienate the brighter students.”
  • Scaffolding does not just break down the process, it supports learning. If every stage has a learning goal, even the brightest students can push themselves further at each stage.
  • With the structure scaffolding provides, you can make assignments much harder and more interesting, which will challenge and satisfy the best students, while still making it possible for everyone to succeed.

Adapted from Skene, Allyson and Sarah Fedko. "Assignment Scaffolding." Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of Toronto Scarborough,   https://ctl.utsc.utoronto.ca/technology/sites/default/files/scaffolding.pdf. 

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