If there ever was a time to create a flexible structure for student learning and success, the time is now. One of the most empowering and compassionate practices that we can integrate into our classrooms is scaffolding, an instructional strategy that provides students with a framework to guide and support their learning (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). Scaffolding can offer a weekly structure that supports student growth, creates autonomous learners who are responsible for their own learning, and gives learners more confidence in acquiring new skills.
Take The Internship Seminar, a 400-level undergraduate course offered in the music and performing arts management program at Hartt School. Scaffolding the writing process in this course has transformed the research paper assessment in more ways than one. Students take this course their senior year as a capstone project that synthesizes what they studied and learned during their undergraduate years. The course aids students as they delve deep into writing a comprehensive analysis of an arts organization. The professor meets with students weekly, one-on-one, to advance the project until students feel confident enough to write on their own.
The creation of a research paper can become a daunting and challenging task for students. Add in pressures from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the benefits of giving students structure and support through this scaffolded assessment becomes invaluable. Through this process students have more clarity because they understand exactly what they need to do.
Here are four ways to create a strong scaffolded structure for your teaching:
1. Organize a large assessment with a matrix
One aspect of the pandemic that has been challenging to educators is the physical distance between teacher and student, which primarily hampers effective communication and complicates monitoring progress. With the scaffolding technique, the assignment can be broken into various parts to help students digest large amounts of information.
A matrix can help organize this and puts the entire project into perspective for a gradual build without overwhelming the student. A well-structured matrix can cover benchmarks like goal(s), timeline, approximate page length, and due dates.
How you can use this now: If you have an assessment which has several steps or multiple due dates, a matrix keeps everyone on track. Especially now, students need to record due dates so that deadlines do not fall through the cracks. With everyone’s mental load at full capacity, the matrix is a compassionate way to support students and ensure that assignments are submitted in a timely manner.
2. Invite students to use a mind map and brainstorming tools
Many of us are visual learners, which is when brainstorming tools like concept or mind maps are very effective. These allow students to “see” the paper, first in their minds, then on paper. Mind maps can include details about the relationship between various concepts, or they can be simply linked diagrams. Either way, this exercise gets students’ creativity flowing and helps them take ownership of the process.
This is also a good time to craft a hypothesis or thesis statement, which informs the next stage in the scaffolding process, (i.e. the research organizer).
How you can use this now: Before students write a first draft, ask them to record their brainstorming process. Students can use mind maps on Canva or simply take a picture of their ideas and upload if they have used paper and pencil. Checking the beginning process of a paper allows you to offer support and feedback if students need to course correct.
3. Support the research process with an organizer
If you want to support your students through the research phase of an assignment, using a simple research organizer allows you to see if students are on the right track and to quickly notice who may have gone down a rabbit hole.
It helps tremendously to hone in on key words and concepts in order to arrive at relevant sources in the research phase. In addition to basic words, it is recommended to do a brainstorming session for synonyms, too.
In The Internship Seminar class, potential citations are presented in four groups (five citations for each is a good start):
a. Articles from Periodicals: Consumer Magazines, Trade Publications and Scholarly or Applied Journals
b. Websites & Blogs
c. Books & Chapters
d. Videos, Podcasts & Documentaries
Depending on the area of research, other citations may come into the picture like brochures, annual reports, dissertations, and theses. Finally, a list of potential people to interview can be added to this section, too.
How you can use this now: If you’d like to experiment with a research organizer in your classroom without assigning a large research paper, collect student-generated questions on various topics and then ask students to research a topic using the research organizer as a guide. Using shared documents will allow you to easily check on students’ progress, and classmates can also provide feedback on each other’s research process.
4. Offer clarity through templates, exemplars, and rubrics
Take the guesswork out of what the final product will look like. A template for a paper shows students exactly what you are looking for. You create the structure and then the students use their research skills and creativity to make the paper their own.
One document that helps students calibrate their time is the rubric. Students can see the major components of the paper, the weight of each section relative to other sections, and understand how each block flows in the sequence.
There are three rounds of submission in The Internship Seminar class, of which two are drafts and one is the final paper. Draft #1 is due week 7 and draft #2 is due week 11 in the semester. The instructor meets with the student after each round and gives detailed feedback and proposes suggestions and revisions. The final version of the paper is due week 14, the last week of the semester.
How you can use this now: Create a simple template in a shared document and ask students to collaborate as they complete the document together. Once students see the value and ease of organization that the template provides, they will be more apt to welcome templates when completing larger assignments. Rubrics also offer students a clear picture of what they need to do to be successful with a project. Start by offering students a simple checklist for an assignment instead of creating an entire rubric. A checklist, like a rubric, encourages students to stay on track.
Through the use of these scaffolding strategies, students will have the tools necessary to be successful on a sizable project like a research paper. Without scaffolding large assignments, some students become lost and have multiple questions. However, through clarifying the process with the use of scaffolding tools, these organizers act as a road map as students navigate the writing process.
Julie Sochacki, JD, is a clinical associate professor of English and director of the English secondary education program at University of Hartford. Julie is a life-long learner and has been experimenting with active, collaborative learning in the classroom for 26 years. Follow Julie on Twitter: @profjulies or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mehmet Dede is an assistant professor of music and performing arts management at the Hartt School, University of Hartford. He is also an award-winning music curator and event producer for his work with New York City music venue Drom. Follow him on LinkedIn.
Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89-100. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1976.tb00381.x