Scaffolding Writing Assignments

Scaffolding your larger, complex writing assignments allows students to break down the writing process and develop their work in smaller manageable pieces. Between the time that an assignment is announced and the time the final product is due, you can guide students through a series of activities and smaller assignments that prepare them to complete the larger, more complex assignment successfully. At the least, having multiple assignment steps keeps students from completing all of the work the night before the due date; at best, these scaffolds encourage meaningful engagement with each writing task and allow students to reflect about their learning and processes. Scaffolding also provides a chance for you and/or student peers to review the work-in-progress and provide feedback when adjustments are easier to make.

Initial Questions

Ask yourself these initial questions before designing your scaffolded assignments:

  • What overall course learning outcomes does this assignment meet?
  • What criteria will you use to evaluate the end product?
  • What skills would students need to develop to meet those criteria?
  • What steps might experts follow in completing this writing task?

Ideas for Scaffolding Assignments

In-class activities*

  • Brainstorming for topic generation
  • Freewriting about possible topic
  • Review of resources available
  • Reading a journal article together
  • Creation of project timeline
  • Practice of skills needed in assignment
  • Integrating sources workshop
  • Thesis statement workshop
  • Rubric discussion or generation
  • Review/analysis of example assignments
  • Peer review of outlines
  • Oral draft to share in small groups
  • Peer review of written draft

Short Assignments

  • Audience/stakeholder analysis
  • Research Question or Thesis
  • Proposal
  • Annotated Bibliography
  • ¾ Drafts

Instructor Personal Interaction

  • Assignment “check ins” with questions for instructor
  • One-on-one conferences with instructor
    • Review proposals
    • Provide feedback on drafts or any scaffolded assignment

*Many of these activities can also be done outside class as homework or through Canvas discussion boards and then briefly followed up on in class.

Example Scaffolded Assignments

Website Article Assignment Prompt: For this assignment, you will be writing for the website of the community farmer’s market in Oxford, OH. Your task is to synthesize current research on the benefits of a varied diet for the website visitors. By synthesizing, you are expected to integrate multiple sources (at least four) into conversation with one another. In other words, you should not summarize each source paragraph-by-paragraph.

Website Article Scaffolding: Based upon a class that has two meetings a week (ex: Tuesday and Thursday)

Class Meeting 1: Assignment introduction; students introduced to necessary resources; in class, the students do a group rhetorical analysis of the existing website, including identifying the audiences of the website (and their expectations) and familiarizing themselves with the current writing style of the site.

Class Meeting 2: Due: Annotated bibliography of five sources

Class Meeting 3: Instructor feedback given on annotated bibliographies 

Class Meeting 4: Due: ¾ rough draft of website article; peer review

Class Meeting 5: Final draft due

Class Meeting 6: Instructor feedback on final drafts given by end of week

Class Meeting 7: Due: Optional revisions; Instructor submits top three student articles to website for the editors to pick what is published

Policy Analysis and Recommendation Assignment Prompt: For this major assignment, you will research one problem facing non-western societies that we discussed in class. You will learn more about this problem through library research, finding peer-reviewed academic articles and sources that pass the CRAAP test (at least four). Your paper will have three sections. First, you will analyze the problem using the five perspectives learned in class, using specific cited examples from your sources. Next, you will identify and explain several policy options, and finally recommend a final policy to address the problem.

Policy Analysis and Recommendation Scaffolding: Based upon a class that has two meetings a week (ex: Tuesday and Thursday)

Class Meeting 1: Introduction to assignment; review of library resources and CRAAP test; students given fifteen minutes to brainstorm what problems they are interested in and do initial searches for sources

Class Meeting 2: Project proposal assigned, which requires explaining which problem they will be analyzing and providing summaries of one academic and one popular or technical source (which passes the CRAAP test); In-class, the instructor guides students through practicing analysis using the five perspectives

Class Meeting 3: Due: Project proposal; review of example policy analysis papers to understand organization, language used, tone, depth of analysis required, citations, etc.

Class Meeting 4: Instructor feedback given on proposals; thirty minutes of in-class workshop time to find sources, instructor checks in with each student

Class Meeting 5: Due: Outline of final paper; students submit their questions to instructor; students meet in groups to share their outline ideas and provide suggestions

Class Meeting 6: Due: Full draft for peer review; instructor checks for draft completeness and quality of peer feedback (substantive, follows set criteria)

Class Meeting 7: Due: Final drafts

Class Meeting 8: Nothing due

Class Meeting 9: Students receive final draft feedback from instructor

Class Meeting 10 or 11: Due: Revisions

Be strategic

Carefully consider when, how, and why you apply scaffolding activities and assignments, and weigh theCarefully consider when, how, and why you apply scaffolding activities and assignments, and weigh the grading/stakes appropriately. Refer to the following table as a guide. grading/stakes appropriately. Refer to the table below as a guide.

And remember...even low-stakes assignments need detailed instructions, explicit rationale, and credit/incentive for completion. If you don’t tell students why they’re being asked to do something, (especially low-stakes activities and assignments), they may see it as busy work. Help students see how the assignment/activity builds toward the larger goal and/or helps their learning in some way. This also helps with transfer.         

Types of writing assignments that can be assigned at various points in the learning process.
Point in the learning process Possible types of writing Stakes
First exposure to new ideas Writing to learn activities, reflection (free writing, group brainstorming, exploration) Low or no stakes
Repeated exposure to new concepts Exploratory writing, reflection on connections, synthesizing Low or mid stakes
Working toward abstract understanding, mastering and internalizing concepts, seeing relationships between new and old material

Formal academic papers, arguments, thesis-based analysis, synthesis, explanation

Mid or high stakes
Use concepts to solve problems

Position papers, case studies, lab or field research write ups, proposals for solving real-world problem

Mid or high stakes













Resources for Additional Scaffolding Ideas

  • This page of assignments from previous HCWE guest speaker Shelley Rodrigo, University of Arizona (links to presentation, scroll to page 8) 
  • John Bean’s Engaging Ideas, especially Chapters 7 & 8 (links to online book in Miami's library)