Many Students Don’t Know What Scaffolding Is


First year instructors are often told to scaffold assignments. Scaffolding, loosely defined, is the process of building cumulative assignments from “low-stakes” to “high-stakes” in a syllabus. Heck, most instructors at any pedagogy conference are told to do this, so I’ve been doing it for over three years. I believe scaffolding is extremely useful as a tool for writing syllabi and grading rubrics–but it’s certainly not the only tool. The reality is nothing can adequately prepare you for some of the things you encounter in any given college classroom except experience, which is a shame because I don’t think we’re doing a good job of making good teachers.

Bethany Holmstrom has written extensively about the neglect of pedagogy training in graduate school. She said at the American Society for Theatre Research last year: “I have been told by entirely too many colleagues that they shudder to think about what went on in their classrooms the first couple of semesters when they were beginning to teach. I believe the lack of pedagogy training in most graduate school programs is damn near criminal. Until we address this deficit, we must get more teaching materials out there for people to adapt and remix for their own purposes.” One of the unique strengths of CUNY teachers, I think, is their willingness to collaborate and share, which helps to ameliorate this problem somewhat. But blog posts like this one and Holmstrom’s are meant to reach out to more than our immediate circle, and I hope sharing this experience will help future teachers.

Some Students Fail Because of Scaffolding

In my three years of teaching at CUNY, I’ve mostly been teaching “second-level comp”–the second required writing course that is meant to be an introduction to writing about literature, an advanced version of first-level composition. That means I had only ever taught students who more or less understood the difference between college-level and high school writing. Having it in my head that scaffolding was extremely important (not because I ever knew this with certainty but because others had told me), it never occurred to me that students might not necessarily understand scaffolding in a syllabus. That first assignment only worth 5% or that reading homework doesn’t always seem to matter–not until that 20% final paper or 15% participation grade comes through at the end of the semester. Also, we’re more likely to be generous graders at the beginning of a semester (or at least I am) when students have yet to learn some of the skills we plan to teach them. That makes the I-am-failing realization come too late.

In my experience last year as a first-level composition instructor, students who blew off readings and assignments in the beginning of a semester didn’t realize they were failing until catching up was almost entirely unmanageable. At no point was I shocked, but they seemed to be pretty shocked. So there was something I was doing wrong as an educator: I could see it coming, they couldn’t, and what I was doing didn’t stop it from happening. Where did I go wrong?

Do it Right

On day one, a generous colleague told me, it’s really important to explain to your students what scaffolding is and to lay out your expectations very, very clearly. A friend of mine draws a building on the board–and I’m definitely doing that this year and forever after. For first-year teachers, everything is a challenge down to figuring out what you want your students to call you (mine call me Christina because I don’t take myself too seriously). You don’t necessarily know your own expectations, and you don’t know what’s reasonable given that the student body is an unknown entity. That getting-to-know-you period is the worst. I often passed students because I figured it was my fault they were failing. With several years under my belt: I know what my expectations are, I have very clear grading rubrics (like this one, adapted from one of Bethany’s), I know the students, and I can handle their heartbreaking complaints when they fail because I know it is necessary for them to fail before they can succeed. That takes oodles of self-reflection, syllabus-tweaking, pedagogy reading, and self-validation.

But you need to know that scaffolding isn’t perfect. In fact, I’ve seen it lead students to failure. So from day one, draw that building. Tell students that if they don’t devote themselves to establishing their foundations, they won’t succeed in building anything that’ll pass your inspection by semester’s end. Maybe you’ll luck out and have some future engineers in the classroom to poke fun at your drawing and echo your sentiments. But don’t forget to teach them what scaffolding is and how to use it to their best advantage instead of letting it lead them to failure.

Do it Forwards and Backwards

“Backwards planning” was something I learned at a Purposeful Pedagogy Workshop hosted at the Graduate Center in 2014 and 2015. (It was such a great workshop I went twice.) It requires that you outline really clear and focused learning objectives for your class, and scaffold the assignments backwards from there…perhaps down to how to write a good sentence in the first week. This is where it’s good to check in with the objectives of the department and ask questions like these: “what courses will my students take after this one?” “What skills do they need to have walking out the door to be successful?” “What does my department want the take-away from this course to be?”  And, in the process, figure out what you want the take-away to be. Sometimes learning outcomes are given to you, but you can always add your own!

Then scaffold forwards to make sure students learn skills that build off each other. For instance, perhaps you work on PIE paragraphs before you get to the thesis statement. Maybe you choose a text that has a really straightforward plot to start out with and then move on to one more difficult to understand. You can, of course, dazzle them with something like Poststructuralism on the first day. I’ve done it (with success) to start weaving together a thread that I knew would become a full picture a month later. On average, it takes six weeks to learn a new skill, so maybe you factor that into things. But whatever you do, do it forwards and backwards, backwards and forwards.

Give Students Pro Tips

Remember that you’ve already gone to college and you learned a set of useful skills along the way that maybe first year college students haven’t yet. This is why I give my students “Pro Tips” for college:

  1. Your teacher knows when you haven’t done the reading.
  2. Your teacher sees you when you’re texting.
  3. Your teacher is actually Santa. Be nice.
  4. Go to office hours at least once (a good idea for every class you take).
  5. Read the comments teachers leave on your papers. We spend a lot of time on them to help you. If you skip to the back to read the grade and never look at the comments, small parts of our souls die because massive amounts of our precious time have been wasted. The tragic thing is you won’t do any better next time, either.
  6. Get sleep. All-nighters are bad for you, and your work will suffer. If you must get less sleep, make sure to get at least six hours or you won’t remember anything because your new neurons haven’t fired enough to build memory. It’s science.
  7. Always walk away from a draft, come back to it later, and edit it before you submit. Good ideas written poorly don’t earn good grades. Note: this requires doing work in advance.
  8. Write professional emails to your teachers, not something you would write to your best friend. Your teacher is not your friend, no matter how cool she seems.
  9. When you have a question, make SURE the answer is NOWHERE on the syllabus, or ask a peer from class before you email your teacher. Santa finds laziness synonymous with naughtiness.
  10. Annotate your books: underline important moments, circle key words, look up any word you don’t know, and write questions in the margins.
  11. Work hard from the beginning, because later, high-stakes assignments build on previous, low-stakes ones. This is actually the key to everything. 

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