As instructors, especially new instructors, it is often difficult to determine what assignments will and will not work. You may have clear and concise goals for your assignment, but even as thoughtful you might be when developing the assignment, the outcome may be confusion and lack of direction
My experiences with students in the Writing and the Writing Program have taught us that most 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. Here are a few areas in which students need help:
* New students do not know the field as they are only beginning to learn basic information about the field and do not learn what is considered common knowledge for the academic field and how one should research and writes in the field.
* New students also do not have an understanding with the structure and discourse community they are asked to produce. They do not know how particular fields structure or produce and organize their essays. They do not know what is counted as evidence or how to use the evidence they find.
* Additionally, new students know very little about their readers. Often, the only audience new students consider is their instructor. This then creates writers that assume the only readers of their text is someone who knows more than them.
* Finally, new students who are having difficulty understanding and critically engaging with ideas end up producing prose that suffers at the sentence level. Therefore, their writing becomes simplistic, unclear, and full of errors.
To help, instructors can create assignments that help with these issues by creating assignments that are based upon scaffolding.
Instead of asking students to produce complete and perfect documents in one large step, instructors can break down essays and papers into steps and shorter portions that all move toward a finalized document. Remember, make the steps move from more and more complex: for example, begin with tasks that increase critical thinking and comprehension. Next, ask students to analyze the information, and finally, apply those concepts. For example, for a research paper:
* Describe the topic and known facts / information.
* List questions based on known information.
* Summarize individual sources and texts.
* Lists similarities / differences between two or more authors’ views.
* Categorize information or authors’ positions.
* Write briefings or research summaries synthesizing several sources.
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.
Jule Wallis is a full time lecturer and Director of the Writing Center. She teaches ENG1020, 3010, and 6010. Her area of study is Rhetoric and Composition with an emphasis on Writing Center Theory, Affect Theory, and Popular Culture.