Teaching Memo 2: Using “Scaffolded Writing” Assignments to Teach Critical Skills

In a recent paper in the journal Teaching Philosophy, Cynthia D. Coe wrote about teaching via “scaffolded writing,” which she describes as follows:

Scaffolding breaks [the expectations about critical thinking and writing] into a progressive series of papers, moving from assignments that use relatively simple skills, such as summarizing small pieces of text, to much more complex skills, such as evaluating others’ positions and constructing their own judgments about an issue. … The highest level of scaffolding … is the classic argumentative essay, involving the analysis of major ideas, the comparison of various claims and the reasons [for and against] them, and the evaluation of those positions. In short, students learn to draw on philosophical sources to make an original argument. (2011, p. 34)

The method Coe describes in this article is one that I’ve implemented over the last several semesters. Here are the elements of my “scaffolded writing” instruction, broken into one major element in the first half of the term and five elements in the second half of the term (note that this schedule follows a 16-week term):

1st half of the term:

For each week in the first half of a semester, after a few class periods spent discussing argument basics (identifying theses, premises, etc.), I have the students write a response to a single claim they find in that week’s reading. I focus on a claim rather than an argument to keep things simple. I ask them to identify a claim, issue a counter-claim, and then give one or two sentences defending their counter-claim. I give them a five-step procedure to help them along in this assignment, by which many students are intimidated (at first). This is an excerpt from my Spring 2012 syllabus materials:

To identify your target clearly and respond only to that target, follow these steps: (1) identify the claim (and where it appears/by whom it is offered), (2) give a quote that represents that claim, (3) say what the quote shows (summarize/explain the quote). Then, (4) take a position about why the claim is mistaken, based on (5) your reasoning for (4).

I have found this assignment is helpful for several reasons:

(1) It gives students the opportunity to identify important claims in the larger context provided by the reading assigned that week.

(2) Students learn to separate claims/theses from premises.

(3) They learn how to generate a counter-claim that directly addresses the claim they want to target. I spend a lot of time in class or one-on-one with written/verbal feedback helping them to identify their target clearly so that they can then work on coming up with an effective counter-claim.

(4) Students learn to defend their own claims rather than arguing by simple assertion. I often teach, at this time, the problems in arguing-by-assertion, which I have an entry for in a “common writing mistakes” document I provide to every student.

They do this task every week for six to eight weeks running, and I provided detailed written feedback in response to every submission. I pitch this assignment as training for a specific skill that they’ll use in later assignments in the course (which they know about, of course, in advance). I tell students that they can and should do this assignment in 5-7 sentences, and that, if they have written a full page, they have done too much. From reports I’ve gotten over the last few years, students tend to spend as much as 30-40 minutes when they first tackle this simple (but not easy, for many) assignment, but by the sixth or seventh attempt, they report completion takes them about 15 minutes per response.

 

2nd half of the term:

At the start of the term, I give the students a reading list with four book options. Some are drawn from the history of philosophy (Mill, Locke, Rousseau) and one (Nudge, 2009) comes from ‘popular’ contemporary political thought.

Through the last 8 weeks of the term, I help them to build a coherent final paper by employing the critical thinking skills they developed over the first half of the term. There are seven steps here, five of which require submitted writing of one kind or another. This is another excerpt from my Spring 2012 syllabus materials:

Project components:

  1. Choose a book (by roughly the end of January). Let me know what book you’ve selected by Feb 15th.
  2. Read the book you choose.
  3. As you read, find a/the major argument of the book and complete Assignment 1: Argument Identification, Part 1.
  4. Find at least two (and a third would be helpful) arguments in favor of the major argument in the book. Complete Assignment 2: Argument Identification, Pt 2.
  5. Write a counter-argument for two of the arguments you identified in Argument ID, Pt 2. This is Assignment 3: Counter-Arguments.
  6. Outline a final paper project that shows how you will answer fully one of the final paper options. This is Assignment 4: Term-Paper Outline.
  7. Write and submit your final paper. This is your Final Assignment: Term Paper.

I give careful but simple-as-possible detail about each of the five assignments in an accompanying document. We spend a good deal of time in class discussing effective approaches to each project component and to outlining in particular. We do an in-class outline feedback session where students sit with other students one-on-one for 15-minute feedback sessions, which I direct with a few pointed questions that each of them consider in their analysis of one another’s work.

I pitch this stepwise progression as a way to make writing a good final paper much easier than it would be if it were saved for the last possible moment. I give detailed written feedback to each of the first three assignments and meet with students who have concerns at every step of the way. I also offer to read drafts of the final paper, provided they provide me with sufficient time to do so.

Results:

Students show what I think I can accurately describe as tremendous progresss through the term of the semester. Students who begin the term intimidated or unsure almost always demonstrate marked improvement in their ability to identify a target argument and respond carefully to that argument. They report that this approach makes paper writing manageable. They also report that the deadlines throughout the second half of the semester make procrastination much less likely.

One difficulty here is that the outside reading makes what is otherwise a light reading load significantly heavier, and students who are unable to keep a good pace tend to drop off the map, so to speak. I don’t have the data on this result, but I estimate that 10-15% of students disappear from the course. Of course, I can’t isolate the scaffolded writing assignments as the cause for their departure from the course, but students who become intimidated or fall behind are perhaps more likely to abandon ship with these deadlines in place. I don’t think that students who fall behind drop the course necessarily is a bad thing – but I’m wondering if there’s a way around it.

I’m considering revising the term-length project to engage not with outside reading, but rather to deal specifically with some reading or readings the whole class reads and discusses as a group. My reasoning here is that the pedagogical goals I have in mind could be reached without the additional reading. If I were to pursue this avenue, I’d likely increase what usually is a light reading load.

– – – –

The skill I am aiming to develop through each of these assignments is critical thinking – applied to reading, thinking, and responding to what the student has read. This goal is similar to what Coe describes as her attitude toward teaching: “… I lean towards the idea that students in general education courses are better served by learning how to read, think, and write critically than by learning any particular information about the history of philosophy” (37). She also builds on the theme that Kant discusses in his “What is Enlightenment?” essay that I have my students read and discuss most academic terms. The notion she hits on is that part of the purpose of an introductory philosophy course is to encourage students to work toward intellectual freedom, and that critical thinking, reading, and writing are part of the path to that goal (39). The scaffolded writing assignments make teaching critical skills directly observable and quantifiable. They also encourage or allow success in ways that would not be possible or probable in their absence.

As always, I’m looking for feedback. Have you utilized (or been the victim of) anything like the method I describe in this article? What were your results? Can you think of any improvements? Thanks in advance for any feedback.

——-

References:

Cynthia D. Coe, “Scaffolded Writing as a Tool for Critical Thinking: Teaching Beginning Students How to Write Arguments” in Teaching Philosophy, Vol. 34, No. 1 (March 2011): 33-50.

About Steve Capone

Interested in Domestic and Foreign Policy, Ethics, and Political Thought. One-time adjunct instructor and current full-time educator of small humans. Europhile, historophile, & bibliophile. M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007)
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