One of the biggest challenges I believe teachers face is bridging the gap between theoretical pedagogy and application. Haven’t we all heard sayings such as: “why do I need this?”, “I won’t use this ever again,” “this has nothing to do with my major,” “this is something that doesn’t happen in the ‘real world.’” As a student myself, I am not far removed from these mumblings that students whisper in the hallways. However, switching hats, so to speak, lends a newfound appreciation for the task that college professors face daily — how to convert theory into practice in an applied setting that “bridges the gap” for students. Put simply, the process of not just analyzing pedagogical theory, but the practice of dissecting its roots and integrating those roots into instruction. Let’s discuss this process!
The Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan put forth an article titled Effective Assignment Sequencing for Scaffolding Learning. To date, this has been the most beneficial article that I have read on providing concrete examples of assignments and processes that teachers and professors can implement. Studying the reasoning behind scaffolding assignments is a long way from learning how to take the conceptual theory of WHY we (professors) scaffold assignments and HOW to scaffold assignments. Interestingly enough, I am thrilled to report that as I read through the suggestions of low stakes to high stakes assignments, I found myself smiling; it was almost as though I could anticipate what was to come next. Why? Well, because I have discovered that the “theory” I am studying is something I am already MOST familiar with because my professors have and continue to use the same structure on me!!!
So, giving you a chance a catch-up, or, rather, giving myself a chance to breathe, let’s look at that last statement, again. Yes, the same suggested methods of scaffolding used in Sweetland’s article are the same methods that my instructors have used to help us (my cohort) understand, learn, absorb, and comprehend the material being presented in class. As Sweetland suggests, “each assignment practices old skills and provides new skills students will also need to finish the next assignment” (par. 3). Several key items struck me and are concepts that I plan to incorporate in the near future while designing an English 1101 coursework portfolio. These items are listed below, and comparisons are made as to how I plan to utilize them next semester.
- Simple to complex: Yes, it seems simple, but isn’t always practiced in classroom pedagogy. We have all had that “course” where we jump into a large project and frantically begin googling anything we can find on “how to.” I strongly feel this shouldn’t be the case. As professors, we should be “scaffolding” our assignments to begin with simple aspects of the overall project and working our way up to more complex elements affiliated with the project/assignment. For example, having students “. . . practice summarizing course readings before they attempt to analyze them” is a simple to complex practice mentioned in the Sweetland article (par. 2).
- Revision is key: Yes, this is a thresholds concept we studied last semester. According to Sweetland, “Built-in, low stakes revision activities also have the benefit of undermining common bad habits by positioning writing as more than the typical two-stage drafting process . . .” This is something I can most definitely attest to after working in the KSU writing center. Often times, students come into the center on their first or second draft wanting to “proofread” their papers. The process of revision seems to escape many students. I believe giving students some type of course credit for the “revising” portion of their assignment will enable them to begin bridging a gap between “I’m done” to “let’s review this again.” As I have seen in the writing center, initially, students are keener on considering revision when there are points assigned to the process.
- Practice engaging the material: Yes, I, too, have complained about discussion board postings in some of my graduate courses. Sometimes they feel like “busy work” at first glance. However, I have found that what I thought was “read this and leave some specific thoughts about it” turned into genuinely beginning to understand and work with the ideas found within those articles to build upon the next assignment. For example, an assignment in one of my courses was to read a few chapters on English dialects in various United States’ regions. Although it was interesting, the material was very dense, and I found myself losing intimate details as I left one region and began another; in other words, my retention of the content was challenging at best. But the next assignment expanded the same concept into international regions and the differences within English dialects in those areas. Without a doubt, the research I completed for different dialects of English within the U.S. helped me to understand the material I was researching for international dialects.
- Pre-Writing Assignments: Yes, many students shudder at the concept of pre-writing. “I don’t outline” is something I have heard many times while working in the writing center. For some reason, there appears to be a negative connotation with the term “outline.” I’m not sure if this is due to mandatory practices in previous courses, but I believe you could describe the same process as outlining but term it something else, such as “mapping,” and students would offer a more positive response. Sweetland suggests a project proposal design that “ . . . provide an opportunity for students to articulate what they want to accomplish with a project as well as generate feedback from you and/or from their peers” (par. 8). Structurally, the project proposal directive enables students to “brainstorm” without realizing they are “brainstorming.” It also gives students the ability to create a mental “outline” without having to produce a traditional “outline.” I would suggest it is virtually impossible to write/draft a project proposal without (at least mentally) working out the “blueprint” of what, where, how, why, and when the project will need/address.
Below is a video by Texas A & M University Writing Center that gives some very helpful tips students can use for the pre-writing process:
While I could probably go one for pages yet to come, I want to wrap this blog post up by saying the most influential takeaway from the Sweetland article, for me, is the concept of reflective writing. For years I have written whatever came to mind at the time when needed to draft an assignment or essay. It wasn’t until this past semester in graduate school that reflective writing was introduced to me. At first, I found it quite challenging to express the reasons behind the rhetorical choices I made in essay composition. Once I fumbled through the first few paragraphs, I realized that by reflecting on my writing style and the choices I made in writing enabled me to write more expressively in future draftings. Stated another way, as a writer, once I began to identify “why” I wrote “what” I wrote, I was then able to make more deliberate statements that tend to be more powerful and provide better clarity. As always, ALL writers have more to learn, and by utilizing the method of self-reflection, I hope my writing continues to improve and delivery enhanced. Sweetland breaks the reflection component down to the following three sectors (par. 12):
- Changes they’ve made to their final draft
- Why and how they made those changes
- What those changes demonstrate about their thinking/writing development
Final takeaway — the cliché Rome wasn’t built in a day applies to many facets in life, writing included! Before learning sentence structures, students must learn vocabulary. Before learning essay construction, students must learn paragraph construction. Integrating low stakes to high stakes writing in the composition classroom, known as scaffolding assignments, will provide students with a better understanding of not only WHY they are completing an assignment or project, but will also help bridge the gap between theory and practice. When a student understands why they are completing a task and reflects on the choices they made, the likelihood they are able to transfer those same skills to other facets in life is more likely.
B., Thomas, Pixabay, 2020, pixabay.com/photos/strommast-power-generation-4459235/.
“Brainstorming.” YouTube, uploaded 8 March 2016 by Tamuwritingcenter, youtube.com/watch?v=HSufG-AIQYo.
“Effective Assignment Sequencing for Scaffolding Learning.” Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Michigan, lsa.umich.edu/sweetland/instructors/teaching-resources/sequencing-and-scaffolding-assignments.html. Accessed 4 February 2020.
OpenClipart-Vectors, Pixabay, 2020, pixabay.com/vectors/colosseum-italy-romans-rome-ruin-1296587/.
Vasek, Jan, Pixabay, 2020, pixabay.com/photos/laptop-woman-education-study-young-3087585/.