Building Up to Big Assignments and Complex Tasks: Making the Case for Assignment Scaffolding

by Jeanne Kerl and Kristina Wilson

Introduction

Do some topics or skills seem too large to approach in your course? Are your students struggling with time management? Do you want to provide students with thorough, meaningful feedback but find it difficult to keep up with all the grading? Do you want your students to learn more effectively? Assignment scaffolding could be the answer.

Metal scaffolding alongside a brick building.

Source: Pixabay

What is assignment scaffolding and why is it important?

Simply put, assignment scaffolding helps break down large ideas or tasks into smaller steps that build on each other. Consider the analogy at the root of the term. Scaffolding, like the multi-level, metal structure above, is a temporary support that helps construct a building. At the end of the project, the scaffolding is removed and the building stands on its own.

Imagine trying to create that building without the help of scaffolding. How would workers move between levels of the building? How would it be built beyond a story or two? To zoom out even further, how do workers know what the building looks like? Where are they getting materials from?

Now imagine asking students to complete a 20-page paper that is due the last day of class. You never discuss their thesis with them, read a draft, or review their resources in advance. How will they organize their work? How will they push their critical thinking skills to the next level? Furthermore, how will they decide what to write about? What research will support their argument?

In these cases, showing up empty-handed–to a vacant lot, to a blank page–doesn’t often lead to brilliant work. Both the building and the research paper should be carefully planned, with input provided throughout the process. Otherwise, the building may look nothing like what the architect envisioned or the paper may look nothing like what you intended in the prompt.

Process scaffolding and critical thinking scaffolding

Ryerson University’s Best Practices in Instructional Scaffolding explains Lev Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” as the place where what you do know intersects with what you don’t know yet. A scaffolding structure is designed to make the most of this theory, making sure there is room for development after each effort. This document goes on to differentiate between process scaffolding and critical thinking scaffolding.

Process scaffolding separates an assignment into components that build on each other. It asks the question, “How do I break down this large task into smaller, more manageable tasks?” Critical thinking scaffolding develops lower-order critical thinking skills before requiring higher-order critical thinking skills. It asks, “What skills do I need to master before the next part of the task can be completed?” A well-scaffolded course does both, as you’ll see in the examples below.

Scaffolding in a graduate public policy course

One example of scaffolding is from MPPA 409: Effective Writing & Communication, taught by Professor Meghann Pytka. Pytka is a big advocate for the use of scaffolding as a way of ensuring that students put the research writing process under the microscope.

She found that many students reached the capstone course with an inadequate understanding of some of the more nuanced aspects of academic research and writing, so she developed a course that is a deep dive into academic writing. Each week builds toward the creation of a final research paper, moving through:

  • Brainstorming a topic
  • Topic Selection
  • Refining the Topic
  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Literature Review
  • Substantive Outline
  • Background Section
  • Analysis and Policy Implementation Section
  • Introduction/Conclusion/Abstract/Title
  • Draft
  • Final version

The course is structured so that each week has a mini-assignment that builds toward the whole. In this way, students question their assumptions about the entire process of“writing a public policy research paper. Mirroring Professor Pytka’s approach, Columbia College provides a handy guide to Scaffolding Research Assignments that breaks the writing process up into six stages: selecting a topic, finding background information (“presearch”), research, source evaluation, drafting, and final drafting.

The course also uses peer review as a way to gain new perspectives on one’s work. This mirrors the best practice of having colleagues give you feedback while writing.  Each person has a peer buddy who gives them feedback on three of the mini-assignments.The feedback is highly structured–a peer fills out a worksheet and everyone works from agreed upon ground rules. These peer review assignments are low stakes, but they can provide invaluable help and the experience can build a sense of community in a course.

Scaffolding in an undergraduate organizational behavior course

This example is much smaller in scope, but just as effective. In ORG BEH 311: Conflict Resolution, Professor Patty McNally planned an assignment to help students analyze the concepts of negotiation and mediation. Students were asked to find videos that were examples of either good or bad negotiation or mediation. Students then watched each other’s video choices and answered a set of questions about them. They were asked to draw upon the readings and media within the course.

The next week, students looked over comments left on their own video selection as well as the whole experience of watching and commenting on their peers’ selections and used all of this as fodder for a reflection paper about how the experience 1) deepened their understanding of the concepts and 2) what they learned about “best practices” for negotiation and mediation.  

This assignment encourages natural interaction about content that they’ve chosen to add to the course, and we think students feel more of a sense of ownership in this assignment. It also adds variety to the course and makes the class engagement stretch beyond the normal discussion board post. Students have to show that they’ve mastered the content, but a great deal of choice is baked into the assignment. The reflection piece allows students to make their own connections between the readings and the experience of choosing, watching and commenting on the content.

Conclusion

Now that you know a little about the theory of assignment scaffolding and have examined a few case studies, it’s time to think about implementing scaffolding into your course. For example, you might be thinking, “How can I explain scaffolding to my students so that they don’t think of it as busywork?” or “How can I articulate the value of peer review?” The University of Toronto provides a useful Troubleshooting section (page 4) that can help develop a scaffolding strategy that makes the best use of your time–and students’–and the University of Colorado Denver provides an excellent chart that maps active verbs in Bloom’s Taxonomy to a critical thinking scaffolding (page 4).

You might also consider reviewing resources specific to your context. For example, are you asking students to complete a multimodal assignment such as a video recording? Scaffolding a video project may look very different from a research paper; you might have a script instead of a draft, or need to learn technology skills during the research phase. Check out the University of Michigan’s guide to Sequencing and Scaffolding Assignments (see Strategy 3: Sequencing and Scaffolding Multimodal Composition Assignments).

If you’re interested in learning more about assignment scaffolding, ask your Learning Designer for more information or e-mail distanceeducation@northwestern.edu.



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